A Primer on Playing Funk Guitar

A Primer on Basic Chords, Rhythms, and More

Playing to the adoring fans
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If you want to learn how to play funk guitar, the first thing to remember is that the rules of rock guitar don't apply to funk music. In order to play funk music well, you'll have to un-learn some of the habits you've picked up over the years. This lesson should help provide you with the basic requirements needed to get you started.

Basic Technique

The technical key to playing funk guitar is your fretting hand. Although most of the chords and riffs you'll play will be simple, you'll need to learn to deaden strings with your fretting hand in order to create a rhythmic sound. Rarely in funk music is a guitar chord allowed to ring, as it is in pop and rock music. Rather, the note or chord is struck, then almost immediately deadened, via releasing the pressure on the string(s) with the fretting hand. Practice this technique with various chords. Of course, the picking hand is also very important. Strings should be played firmly, with great attention to rhythmic detail.

Ego Check

Whereas most rock guitarists strive to be the lead instrument in the band, funk guitarists are there to supply the rhythm. Very often, this means repeating one simple rhythmic figure for several minutes at a time, without variation, which requires a lot of discipline. Guitarists looking for the spotlight on stage often don't make great funk musicians.

Give the Drummer Some Love

Your role as a funk guitarist is essentially the same as the role of the drummer. It's not about notes, it's about how you fit in with the rest of the band rhythmically. Concentrate on making what you are playing "groove" with what the drummer is doing. If you can lock with a drummer, you'll find yourself getting plenty of gigs—maybe even a permanent position with a band.

Funk Guitar Chords

If you're coming from the world of rock and roll, the chords used in funk music may be a bit foreign to you. Power chords, one of the staples of rock music, are very rarely used by funk guitarists. In fact, funk guitarists tend to focus on the upper strings of the instrument, rather than playing the lower, deeper sounding, strings. Additionally, they'll often play only partial chords—a few notes at a time—rather than full chord shapes. Although far from complete, the following represents a few of the favored chord shapes used in funk music:

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9th Chord

The 9th chord shown here is a funk guitar staple—especially the chord on the left, with the root, notated by the red dot, on the fifth string. Be careful about playing the sixth string root 9th chord on the lower frets—it can sound muddy.

The 9th chord is a 7th chord with one extra note, added for color. Try replacing 7th chords in songs you know with 9th chords. There are some situations where this substitution doesn't work, of course, so use your ear to tell you what sounds right.

It is also extremely common for funk guitarists to only play the top three strings when playing the fifth string root 9th chord. Sometimes, they'll even only play the top two strings.

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13th Chord

Played on it's own, this is a pretty "jazzy" sounding chord that might sound a little out of place in funk music. It is commonly used, however, as a "passing chord," a brief chord that moves you from one main chord to the other. Note that the above 13th chord is essentially a 9th chord, with the note on the first string being two frets higher. Many funk guitarists will play the 13th chord, then quickly resolve it to the 9th chord, by removing their pinky from the first string and playing the chord again.

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Basic Funk Chords

There seems to be a preference in funk music to use chord shapes that have the root on the first string. Since the first and sixth string are both "E" strings, learning to use these chord shapes should be easy for guitarists who have already learned their note-names on the sixth string.

The major chord above gets used reasonably often. Many times, though, funk guitarists will only play the top two notes of the chord, which makes it identical to the 5th chord displayed above.

The minor chord above is also used extensively. Note that this minor chord shape is identical to the 9th chord with root on fifth string, when the bottom two strings are not played. So, many funk guitarists would play the above chord shape on the fifth fret for both an A minor chord and a D9 chord.

The above 5th chord is extremely popular and very versatile. Since a 5th chord can be used to play either a major or minor chord, the above shape, played at the fifth fret, could be an A major or an A minor chord. It could also be the top two notes of a D9 chord. This chord shape is used to represent all of these chords—it's a popular one, so get comfortable with it.

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Funk Guitar Rhythms

The secret to playing great funk guitar is to pay attention to the rhythmic aspect of the music. Many funk songs consist of only a simple melody and a couple chords, so the groove has to be strong to maintain listener interest. It is important to acknowledge that the role of most funk music is to get people dancing. You'll have a harder time accomplishing this with intricate and flashy guitar parts. You'll need to give your ego a rest and focus on locking in a groove with your band.

Let's take some time to explore various songs, and the approach the guitarist takes in each.

Minimalist Funk

Often somewhat misleadingly referred to as "Black funk" because, initially, more African Americans took an interest in this approach to funk music, the concept here is "play what you need to play, and get out of the way." Applied to funk guitar, this means leaving a lot of space, without playing muted strums, etc. Give a listen to the following clips:

James Brown—"Sex Machine"
Notice the guitar player isn't playing any muted strums in this part. He is simply repeating a four-strum figure. Many of us, when playing a part like this, would feel a natural desire to include muted 16th note strums within the part. Avoid doing this.

The Meters—"Just Kissed My Baby"
The guitar plays a single-note line, but the minimal guitar part is very disciplined in that it does not stray from the riff.

The JB's—"Pa-arty"
This song sounds "busier"—and there are two guitarists—but listen to each of them, and you'll note they're repeating the exact same parts again and again, with no variation. Another example of the need for discipline in funk music. Pay attention to all instruments here: Everyone plays their specific part, which adds to the whole.

Busy Funk

This approach is a little different, and perhaps a little less disciplined, than the above style. There is less space in this style of music, and guitar players in this style tend to play a lot more muted string strums, etc. The result is a groove that usually feels a little less laid back, and more "frantic." Have a listen to a few songs in this style:

Tower of Power—"What is Hip"
Really active bass and drums give this song its somewhat frenzied, albeit very funky, sound. The guitar player wisely stays largely out of the way, keeping muted strumming to a minimum. Remember, in funk, too many musicians being too busy at once can yield disastrous results.

Stevie Ray Vaughan—"Superstition"
Stevie Ray Vaughan is noted mostly for being a blues guitarist, but his take on the Stevie Wonder classic is a great example of this style of funk music. He fills up the space in the music with muted string strums to propel the music forward.

Graham Central Station—"The Jam"
Bassist Larry Graham leads this one, and it's another example of very robust, in-your-face funk, with little left to the imagination. Lots of busy strumming by the guitar player.

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Online Funk Rhythm Lessons

Now that you've listened to some great examples of various kinds of funk and funk guitar, you might want to practice your rhythm chops a bit. Have a look at some or all of the following sites:

Cyberfret.com: Funk Guitar 101
Designed to help you practice your 16th note funk strums. Good for "busier" funk music.

MelBooker Music: Funk Guitar Rhythms
This YouTube video features Mel describing some basic funk rhythmic patterns. This style of playing would fall under "busy funk."

Arlen Roth Funk Guitar Lesson
This video lesson demonstrates Arlen Roth's approach to playing funk guitar. Some nice licks and advice, even though his style is a little undisciplined.

Leo Nocentelli Funk Guitar Lesson
A fantastic video lesson from the legendary guitarist from the Meters. Nocentelli describes his process of creating a funk guitar part that mimics a drummer and horn players.

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Put It All Together

Now is the time to put some of the techniques we've learned into action. The following are just a few of the thousands of funk songs that feature 9th and 13th chords, muted strums, and more. Try listening to each clip, and concentrate on replicating the guitar part exactly. In almost every instance below, mimicking the notes is easy, but capturing the proper feel of the guitar part is much more difficult. Be patient but critical of your guitar-playing.

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James Brown's "Sex Machine"

"Sex Machine" MP3 clip

This is a prime example of the funk guitarist's use of a 13th chord to create an interesting part. Concentrate on deadening the strings with your fretting hand. Avoid adding muted strums to fill in the space within the guitar part. Try to make the riff groove without any extra strums.

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The Temptations' "Shakey Ground"

"Shakey Ground" MP3 clip

The notes are easy—getting the feel right is much tougher. The key is to "pop" the strings with your pick. In other words, strike them firmly, paying careful attention to rhythm. The muting should all be done via the fretting hand.

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Jeff Beck's "You Know What I Mean"

"You Know What I Mean" MP3 clip

The classic opening cut on the album "Blow by Blow," this features Beck at his funky best. Notice he avoids using any muted strumming, which you should try to reproduce. This is another example of a 13th chord moving to the 9th chord.

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Kool and the Gang's "Hollywood Swinging"

"Hollywood Swinging" MP3 clip

As is fairly typical of funk music, the bulk of this song is one chord. To create interest, the guitarist switches chord shapes from an E7 to an E9, which changes the sound slightly. Notice the subtlety in the rhythm pattern: The first three phrases start with an up-strum, but the last one begins with a down-strum.

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James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"

Listen to MP3 clip

This is a very common sort of funk guitar part, used in a lot of early funk music. The guitar is simply playing short quarter notes and it stays out of the way of the horns and other instruments. When playing the flurry of 16th note strums at the end of the part, pay careful attention to playing the rhythms accurately. Note that the song is simply a 12-bar blues, played in a funk style.

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Patrice Rushen's "The Hump"

"The Hump" MP3 clip

This is an almost-cliche guitar part that nonetheless sounds cool, and can literally be played with one finger. The trick is the rhythmic aspect of the guitar part. Lots of muted strums here, so pay careful attention to detail and try to replicate the part perfectly.