Rhythm Workshop: Sixteenth-Note Funk

TRY THIS: PUT ON YOUR HOODIE, ZIP IT up halfway, hold the pull tab like you would a pick, and then quickly and evenly within the space of a few inches, zip down and up two times.
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 Nile Rodgers

TRY THIS: PUT ON YOUR HOODIE, ZIP IT up halfway, hold the pull tab like you would a pick, and then quickly and evenly within the space of a few inches, zip down and up two times. Feel that? (Warning: Do not attempt this with your fly.) Those, my friends, are sixteenth-notes, which divide each quarter-note beat into four equally spaced events. These puppies, plus their endless combinations and permutations, provide rhythmic propulsion for all types of music, but are especially essential for funk.


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The zipper analogy confirms that in terms of picking, what goes down must come up, and vice versa. Whenever we down-pick two consecutive eighth-notes, we always have the option of including or excluding the two sixteenth-note upbeats in between. Ex. 1 shows a single beat of the basic “zipper” move, which translates to the guitar as four sixteenth-notes picked “down-up-down-up.” The idea is to “play” the rest on beat two by following through with the same wrist and picking motion, but without contacting the strings. This silent picking action— notated throughout in parentheses—allows you to keep the rhythm steady while playing any combination of sixteenth-notes. This and all of the following examples can be played using any voicing from Ex. 1a of this month’s Under Investigation. You can also convert each 2/4 measure to 4/4 by adding two additional beats or rests.


In order to own the funk, you must be absolutely certain where each sixteenth-note lives and how to summon it on demand. Examples 2a through 2d show the four possible locations a single sixteenth-note can occupy within a single beat. Grab your chord of choice, set a tempo, and get to know them intimately. Follow the picking notation for each hit, and then inject a full beat of silent sixteenths to “play” the rest on beat two (as shown in Ex. 1). Expanding each example to 4/4 gives you the option of playing all of the same hits on beats two, three, and four. (Tip: You’re on the right track when you can nail any sixteenth on any beat while walking in tempo.)


By staging two events per beat, we get the six possible permutations illustrated in Examples 3a through 3f. Follow the same drill as above until you’ve got all of them down cold. Convert to 4/4 and transfer each example to beats two, three, and four.


Following suit, Examples 4a through 4d reveal the four possibilities for three events per beat. You know what to do. ’Nuff said.


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Ex. 5a isolates a full-valued (dotted-eighth-plus- sixteenth) version of Ex. 3, and then rhythmically displaces it one sixteenth-note at a time over the course of Examples 5b through 5d. This is an extremely valuable device that illustrates how any motif can be displaced to produce many rhythmic variations.


Now the fun(k) really begins. You can combine, displace, or permute any of the previous rhythmic motifs to produce a plethora of funk rhythms ideally suited to the kind of static I-chord or IV-chord vamps that James Brown’s guitarists would often lock into for ten minutes or more. Ex. 6a combines Ex. 2a (played twice) with Ex. 5a, while Ex. 6b fills out the same figure with a couple of Eb root notes. (Tip: Try replacing the dotted-eighth-to-sixteenth rhythm on beat three in both examples with its displaced version from Ex. 5b.) The busier IV-chord rhythm figure notated in Ex. 7 (which goes well with Ex. 6a or Ex. 6b) is the result of merging Examples 3a, 4c, and 3e with Ab13, Ab9, and a pair of chromatic passing chords (Gb9 and G9). Finally, Ex. 8 extends the lineage across the pond to ca. 1975 England by echoing Jeff Beck’s intro to “You Know What I Mean”—further proof that the funk is universal.

You can’t fake the funk, so practice all of the above rhythms away from the guitar (while walking, for instance), and learn to recognize them in the sounds of nature and the city, or just around the house. (My washing machine does killer sixteenths!) Now get up off of that thing and head over to this month’s Under Investigation to see and hear how these essential rhythms connect to the real-world funk apps of Mr. James Brown. Huh!!