Five Towns College: Bringing the Funk

THESE EXAMPLES ARE A GREAT WAY to learn some go-to funk moves or to tighten up the ones you already know. Before we discuss some options for funky chord voicings, we must address something that’s also essential: precise timing. When you hear someone describe a rhythm section as playing “in the pocket,” it means that those players are hearing and feeling each downbeat in the same place. It is crucial, especially in funk, for a guitarist to have a very solid sense of timing to lock in with the bass player and drummer and make the music feel good. My advice would be to always use a metronome, backing track, or actual CD when working on developing your sense of the groove.
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The following riffs show that, as an alternative to using a common barre chord shape, a variety of chord voicings may be used for a dominant 7th chord, which is the foundation for many funk grooves. Ex. 1 shows a Tower of Power or Prince-style treatment of a D7 chord. Keep the chords clipped, staccato, and super-tight. In Ex. 2, we see an Eb9 chord used in a James Brown style. In this rootless voicing, the pinky is free to play the 13 of the chord on the 8th fret of the high-E string. Ex. 3 represents an Earth, Wind & Fire shape for E7#9 using only two notes! The scratches in between the chords are just as important as the notes, so dig right into them. A D funk riff in the style of the Meters is shown in Ex. 4. The single-note line uses a minor third as part of its sound, and it is followed by a three-note chord shape, a D9 with no root or 3 (notice it looks like an Am triad). The last chord struck is a double-stop (often used in blues tunes), with the F functioning as the #9, and the A being the 5. Lastly, funk master Nile Rodgers sometimes used this three-note grip in Ex. 5 for a dominant 7th chord.

The following riffs show that, as an alternative to using a common barre chord shape, a variety of chord voicings may be used for a dominant 7th chord, which is the foundation for many funk grooves. Ex. 1 shows a Tower of Power or Prince-style treatment of a D7 chord. Keep the chords clipped, staccato, and super-tight. In Ex. 2, we see an Eb9 chord used in a James Brown style. In this rootless voicing, the pinky is free to play the 13 of the chord on the 8th fret of the high-E string. Ex. 3 represents an Earth, Wind & Fire shape for E7#9 using only two notes! The scratches in between the chords are just as important as the notes, so dig right into them. A D funk riff in the style of the Meters is shown in Ex. 4. The single-note line uses a minor third as part of its sound, and it is followed by a three-note chord shape, a D9 with no root or 3 (notice it looks like an Am triad). The last chord struck is a double-stop (often used in blues tunes), with the F functioning as the #9, and the A being the 5. Lastly, funk master Nile Rodgers sometimes used this three-note grip in Ex. 5 for a dominant 7th chord.

There are many things to consider when looking to improve your understanding of funk guitar playing. First and foremost, listen— often—to classic funk recordings from artists such as the Meters, Tower of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire, and James Brown. That’s the surest path into funkytown.

Steve Briody has worked with Jeff Lorber, Eric Marienthal, Dave Valentin, Bernard Purdie, and Randy Brecker. He is a guitar instructor at Five Towns College in New York. Visit his site at stevebriody. com, and the college’s website at ftc.edu.

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