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Interview: Cory Wong

The most potent version

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Cory Wong is a guitar hero whose fortress of solitude is in a neighborhood several zip codes shy of all that six-string royalty you might think of when somebody utters the words "guitar hero." His approach to the guitar is melodic and gentle, more like a conversation between an audience's ears and his Strat. But when required, the man can knuckle down and play some serious funk. Hey, it worked for Andy Summers.

Wong is embraced by jammers, but he's quick to point out that he's in control of the chaos and jams. And it all manifests in a splendid splash of groove and color. Whether you catch him in Vulfpeck or Fearless Flyers, as a solo artist, or as a sideman spanning the globe, Wong is a fantastic guitarist who is fun to dig and get snagged on his hooks.

In a recent interview, Wong had answers to questions about the classic Stratocaster twang, staying on script, and being big in Peru. An edited transcript follows.

CITY: You have a feather-light touch to funk, yet the resulting groove is way deep. Is that on purpose?

Wong: Yes, there are certain times when I really want to lay in because the sound needs to be a little heavier. But the feel is a little more at home for me with a lighter touch. So yes, it is intentional and on purpose; it's always the sound and the feel that I'm chasing. I don't think about it unless it's the sound and what it feels like.

You opt for that classic Stratocaster boing and twang. How important is that to your overall sound?

It's big to me because it's where I feel most at home. Of course there's that thing - "The sound and the tone and the feel is all in your hands" - and that's 100 percent true. That being said, when I play in that fourth pickup position, it is the most potent version of me. When I play there, it just feels and sounds like me.

How close do you stay to the script?

That's a great question. I have compositions with certain parts that need to be played a specific way. And there are certain spots that are jumping points. I like to feel things arranged and worked out. But I love the exploration and the experimentation of live music.

Even in the studio, I build in these jumping points where there's some freedom. So I like things that are scripted because that's what makes the song the song. In instrumental music, I like to stay a little closer to home, kind of spoon feed it that "This is the song."

How do you name a song with no lyrics?

Well, Frank, that's the hardest part of my job. I can write music all day long, but the place I get hung up is naming something. I've gotten a little better, whether it's a catchphrase or something funny. I've got a song on my upcoming album called "Airplane Mode." That phrase didn't exist five years ago. Or sometimes I'll ask people, "What does this song remind you of?"

Somebody said to me that you're big in Peru. Please explain.

My guitar teacher and mentor in college was Andreas Prado. He's a Peruvian legend, a superstar in Peru. He taught me how to play traditional Peruvian music. He invited me down to Lima to explore the music scene. So I went down and produced a few records that did really well, did a couple of tours that were awesome; we heard ourselves on the radio.

Talk a little about your work in television.

For a while I was doing some charting and arranging for "The Voice." I never met anyone on the show, though. It was all done via e-mail.

Who are your influences?

They come from the realm of Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Michael Jackson. I grew up in Minneapolis. Prince was everywhere, and being a funk guitar player, that was a good thing. I'm a huge Béla Fleck and the Flecktones fan - still the best concert I've ever seen. And of course, Scofield, Frisell, and Metheny.

What first got you into music?

My dad. He was listening to Weather Report, Zeppelin, Keith Jarrett all around the house when I was a kid. It's what got me into deep music. And of course, pop. I'm a 90's alt-rock kid - stuff I just love like Weezer, Foo Fighters. I love so much of that music.

Of all the bands you are currently in, your solo work, and playing as a sideman, which one really scratches your itch?

Fearless Flyers scratches the Olympic funk itch, playing to the outer limits of what we can do. But it's all music centered around the guitar, whoever I'm playing with.

What's something you always do?

I always laugh and smile.

What's something you'll never do?

I'll never give up on my calling in life. I'll never give up on what I was put on this earth to do.