Learn the fundamentals of funk guitar playing.
Since first emerging in the ’50s as a natural evolution of R&B, funk and soul tends to revolve around a less-is-more ethos, with the guitar playing secondary to the groove in most examples. This approach was solidified in the ’60s through the increasing popularity of acts like James Brown and the roster of artists on Motown and Stax, including Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Issac Hayes.
At this time, funk/soul guitar still played a primarily percussive role, with guitarists opting for ‘chicken scratch’ sixteenth rhythms and palm-muted 7th and 9th chords to add dynamic to what was happening behind the bass, drums, horns and vocals.
However, this approach to playing began to evolve in the late ’60s and early ’70s with the emergence of players like Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone’s Freddie Stone, and Eddie Hazel and Michael Hampton of the legendary collective Parliament-Funkadelic. Inspired by the awe-inspiring playing of their rock and blues contemporaries, these players began to adopt more fluid, melodic passages in their playing, dabbling with searing guitar solos and effects pedals to bring funk to electrifying new heights.
Nowadays, modern genres like neo-soul, jazz-fusion, nu-disco, contemporary R&B and hip-hop have seen these tones and techniques evolve again and again, yet the fundamentals of funk guitar have more-or-less remained the same. Today, we’re going to take a look at how to achieve some of these tones, and dive into the gear that makes it all happen.
1. Groove is everything
I think this is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth discussing anyway. Given that a lot of funk and soul guitar tends to take up a rhythmic role within the context of an ensemble, it’s crucial that your feel is on point at all times.
As Bootsy Collins once said, funk is all about ‘The One’, with the bass and drums placing emphasis on the downbeat to create a steady, danceable groove. As a guitarist, you should be complementing that by playing a syncopated groove within a sixteenth note rhythmic grid, using dead strums, simple single note runs and suspended/augmented chord voicings to emphasise the odd line or two. If in doubt, revisit any James Brown recording for immediate inspiration.
It’s almost best to think of yourself as a form of auxiliary percussion – try practicing this by strumming a simple syncopated rhythm, and keep your strings deadened for muted, percussive feel. I always find it useful to mouth out a strumming pattern (eg. ‘CHIK-it-a-CHIK-it-a-CHIK-it-a-CHIK-it-a-CHIK’) while tapping my foot on the downbeat to catch a vibe – and yes, you do need to practice to a pulse of some kind.
If you hate using a metronome, just download a drum loop or program a beat into your DAW to jam to, and maybe even try recording yourself along with the loop so you can listen back to yourself and work on developing your feel.
This approach can also translate well to single note passages, where syncopation and feel reign supreme over flashy runs and slick slides, bends and pull-offs. Experiment with how things sound when played with alternating dynamics, and make sure your left-hand fret dampening and right-hand palm-muting is up to speed with whatever you’re attempting to play to make it sound really good. There’s tonnes of fantastic playing in this vein all over Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which acts as a great modern touchpoint for any aspiring funk player.
2. Keep your tone simple
This cannot be overstated. As a general rule of thumb, funk isn’t about the guitar – in fact, the guitar might be one of the least important factors in the majority of standout funk/soul releases. To be a great funk guitarist, you’ve got to know how your role within the ensemble and keep things simple to allow for as much breathing room for as possible.
For your main tone, you’ll want to opt for something clean, dry and easily malleable, and try to avoid guitar tones that could be described as warm or saturated. A Stratocaster or Telecaster style guitar with single coil pickups tends to be the weapon of choice for most funk players, although it’s not uncommon to see a hollowbody ES-335 type guitar floating around the traps.
Guitars like these will handle brittle picking and percussive midrange strummed tones with ease, while a hollowbody ES-335 will give a slightly sweeter tone that will work best for more jazzy leanings. Try use the out-of-phase voicings on a Stratocaster (that’s second and fourth pickup selector switch positions) for a slightly scooped tone that really cuts through the mix if you’re struggling to find something that suits your style.
Generally, most funk guitar that you hear is recorded DI to maintain the cleanest tone possible, with some Motown guitarists making use of overdriven preamps for grittier tones when needed. However, this won’t really work in a live setting unless you’re using a modelling rig with a crispy DI sound, which means you’ll need to opt for an amplifier capable of crystal clear tones for any onstage work.
A Silverface Fender Twin Reverb usually tends to do the trick for most players, but something like a Peavey Classic 50 or maybe even a Roland Jazz Chorus should also provide a useful basis for live funk guitar. Try keep your amplifier as clean as possible as well, with a slight emphasis on the treble and midrange frequencies to get that quacky rhythm tone – and please, no reverb.
3. Choose your pedals wisely
If you want to add some effects pedals in to spice up your sound, try aim for a small handful of useful, quality pedals rather than a board full of obscene delay effects and bleep-bloop boxes that require a degree in electroacoustics to get them working.
Wah-wah pedals were frequented by many ‘60s and ‘70s funk guitarists to aid with that choppy percussive sound, although there’s definitely been a shift away from that sound in recent years. Nevertheless, it’s probably a good idea to have one handy if you’re going to be rocking a funk gig anytime soon; for a treadle-less alternative, try checking out an envelope filter or something similar.
When used sporadically, analogue delays can sound killer in some of the more psychedelic offshoots of funk – look to Eddie Hazel’s work on early Funkadelic records for inspiration here – and subtle phasers and chorus pedals can sound great when applied strategically on choppy strummed passages or single note syncopated lines.
Same goes with drive, fuzz and distortion: unless you’re going down the Funkadelic or Chili Peppers route, there’ll be few opportunities for distortion in a funk gig, so it’s best to keep things complementary as much as possible.
You probably will have seen the rampant debates on forum boards advocating for or protesting against the use of compressor pedals for funk. Some players consider them an essential effect for funk due to their clean, squashy tones – think Vulfpeck’s Cory Wong or even Nile Rodgers of Chic – while other players scowl at them due to their tendency to make things sound too clinical and strip out any tonal nuances.
At the end of the day, it comes down to a case-by-case basis, but I reckon a simple compressor is an asset to any genre when used effectively: you can’t go wrong with a simple Boss CS-3 or an MXR DynaComp for a subtle squash, but you definitely don’t want anything that’ll suck the dynamic out of what your right hand is doing.
At the end of the day, mastering the fundamentals of funk will be incredibly beneficial to whatever you do as a guitarist. It’s a great lesson in less-is-more fretboard methodology, and by taking a backseat role, you’ll understand just how important it is to let things breathe while playing in an ensemble. Working on your feel and syncopation will help you navigate some of the more choppy licks you’ll undoubtedly want to conquer at some stage, and becoming confident with your clean tone and playing steady grooves will work wonders for your overall understanding of rhythm and time-keeping.
If all else fails, go listen to James Brown and try it all over again – sooner or later, the funk will come your way.
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