Music Education

What the Funk is Funk?

We want the funk, gotta have that funk…  

Ok, that’s true, almost everyone loves the funk. Even if they say they don’t, just watch their foot tap and body move when it plays. But what is funk exactly? What does it take to tear the roof off the sucker?

Well like all genres, funk has some specific drumming patterns, rhythms, and chords that make it what it is. That and an underlying groove and vibe are the cornerstone of funk.

However, before we get into some rules of playing funk let’s take a look at the history, the musical pillars that put the roof on the sucker in the first place.  

The Funky Timeline  

If you Wiki or Google funk history you will see it’s a mix of soul music, jazz, rhythm and blues, and every other style popular in New Orleans at the time. If you think about it that is quite the broad answer. That’s because music genres aren’t always easy to define.

Music is all about borrowing, you hear a tune or riff you like and say, “I want to play that!” (In general, musicians don’t steal from each other, as taking what someone else has done is a sign of respect. Usually.)

In history, there was no better place to be for shared music than New Orleans in the early 20th century. Along with new technology allowing more people to have access to instruments and ways to record them, we have a time of profound creativity and a melting pot of cultures ripe for new ideas.

It’s not just funk that was starting to be developed, many of the same key historical figures had a hand in jazz, bebop, and even rock n roll!  

It All Started in New Orleans

New Orleans; The Home of soul, jazz and blues
Beautiful New Orleans

One of the big factors that influenced music in New Orleans was the use of polyrhythms. These are multiple rhythms happening at the same time, sometimes creating syncopation giving the music that danceable feel. European music focused on the beat, while Sub-Saharan African music was all about the offbeat.

Just try counting 1-2-3-4 in whole notes, it is musical but can be a little bland. Now count 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, notice how that “and” gives that groove, the offbeat is what makes you want to move and dance.

These polyrhythms (which is a topic you can get lost in) made their way from Africa to the Caribbean and finally reached New Orleans as Afro-Cuban music.

These Afro-Cuban rhythms used the clave patterns found in rumba, congo, salsa, mambo, and more. These rhythms were mixed with R&B to create the earliest roots of funk.  

Evolution of Afro-Cuban Rhythms

In reality, cultural trends and musical genres happen because of multiple factors and many people, often unsung heroes, but some big names undoubtedly paved the way for funk.

One of these early artists to start mixing Afro-Cuban rhythms with New Orleans blues was Professor Longhair. Here is one of the Professor’s 1949 songs “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” notice you can hear multiple rhythms.

One of Longhair’s drummers was a man named Charles Connor, who was not just important in funk, but rock n roll. In the mid 50’s Charles was drumming for Little Richard when he revolutionized and started rock drumming.

Here Connor explains exactly how he came up with his style for Little Richard. This method of drumming caught the attention of another musician outside of Louisiana, James Brown.

Funk Drummer - Charles Conner
Funk Drummer – Charles Conner

Later James Brown would claim that Connor was the first to put the funk into the beat. When Little Richard left rock n roll for religion many of his band members ended up in Brown’s band the Famous Flames.  

The Arrival of Funk 

Now we have reached the historical point where funk came to be, and all thanks to James Brown. Normally music was focused on the melody and chord progressions. This “new funk” was all about basslines and grooves. In jazz, moving around chord progressions is important, but with funk, we want to find the pocket, the groove, and just stay there.

James Brown feeling the Funk

The next revolutionary move was Brown changing his focus to the downbeat. The older Afro-Cuban and Sub Saharan music focused on the upbeat, but Brown had shown if we focus on the downbeat, add in syncopated bass, and rhythm with 16th notes we get a highly infectious and danceable groove. Charles Connor helped invent rock with the 8th  beat, but the 16th beat is what made funk.

The 16th is counted “1-e-and-a 2-e-and-a 3-e-and-a 4-e-and-a” and if you were to ask what makes funk funky some will say it’s the “e” and the “a” of the beat (of course it’s how all these notes play off one another). That downbeat emphasis with the other rhythms playing became the James Brown signature sound.

With funk it’s easy to sometimes misunderstand where the beat and offbeat is, people often switch them up. Even his saxophone player had trouble getting used to the change.

As for the listener though it’s easy to find the downbeat with James Brown because of that emphasis, as he said to his band at the start of a song, “on the one!” (Any fan of James Brown just read that in his voice!)  

The Iconic Funk Sound

The next name to know in funk history is Clyde Stubblefield, a mid-60’s drummer for James Brown. He is one of the most influential musicians ever and has made notable contributions to funk.

He is responsible for the rhythm pattern in “Funky Drummer” which has become one of the most sampled songs ever. This groove pulled from New Orleans cemented what funk drumming was and how it had evolved.

It was around this time that the guitar section became mostly syncopated vamps. Vamping is where you play a few chords over and over for a long time.

Even the grunts and screams were used by Brown as a percussive and rhythmic effect. James Brown and his drummers put New Orleans funk on the world stage, and there was no shortage of musicians ready to make the funk their own.  

Experimentation of Funk

It was around this time that funk became mainstream enough that it was mixed with other genres of the time. Pop and funk were handled righteously by Sly and the Family Stone, while R&B and funk brought us “It’s Your Thing” by the Isley Brothers.

One guitarist who took riffs of funk, blues, and distorted them beautifully in psychedelic rock was Jimi Hendrix, you might have heard of him! Ha! Along with Jimi mixing rock with funk, we had such diverse artists as Frank Zappa and David Bowie getting in on the groove. And of course, 60’s psychedelic rock also hooked up in a free love fest with jazz and funk to bring us George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic!

P-Funks funky, flashy, and funny bassist Bootsy Collins also was a former James Brown band member. By the 70’s Parliament and the funk genre had gone mainstream.   

Mixture of Jazz and Disco Debut

Into the 70s the funk even started to integrate back into jazz again with artists like Grover Washington Jr. A saxophonist whose name is synonymous with soul jazz and jazz funk. So far one thing very absent from our funk history is women, funk like many genres is dominated by men.

However, in walked Chaka Kahn and we found our Queen of Funk! She was the lead singer for the band Rufus, who is responsible for the funky and groovy “Tell Me Something Good.”

Funk even helped create the whole new genre of disco. Depending on the reader that may be one of the downsides of funk! No, only kidding, dance funk tunes like “Car Wash” make you want to get up and move.   

New Instruments in Funk

Synthesizers were the next big part of funk history. Well, let’s face it synths changed everything about music in the early 80s. Funk bands no longer needed a horn section, they had all sorts of vocal effects available, and they could even cut the drummer out of the equation with a drum machine.

Iconic Disco Ball
Iconic Disco Ball of the 70’s

Like disco, some people don’t have the best opinion of automated and machine-made music, but it doesn’t change the fact that many musicians have created great songs that way. Prince quickly adapted to the new tech with a mix of soul, R&B, new wave, and funk. I

f the technology was good enough for musical geniuses than I guess we shouldn’t complain. Another 80’s artist to take the funk baton was Rick James, along with his collaborator Teena Marie.  

Is Music Still Funky in Modern Times?

As time moves on it gets very difficult to trace a specific genre, by the 90’s funk had become a part of every style of music. You could list a hundred bands easily that use funk methods and techniques in their music, mixed with other genres.

It’s even possible to find funk influences in country these days. It’s difficult to label a talented artist in the modern world and if you deconstruct their songs you see a myriad of styles.

Take Victor Wooten for example, a phenomenal jazz funk bass player who also plays in a jazz bluegrass band with banjo player Bela Fleck. The funk is like the musical equivalent of some Borg hivemind that has become a part of nearly every musical host! Luckily the funk is one of the few infectious things you want to catch.

And now that we have a brief history of funk, perhaps you would like to know the basics of playing it. Let’s take a look at what musical aspects make the funk so funky.  

How to Make it Funky  

Ok, let’s say you’re a musician and you want to write a funk song. Years ago you would have needed a band but now you can honestly do it on a computer or tablet with a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).

With the samples available to the average person you could create an entire brass and wind section if you felt like it, but first, we have to start at the beginning, the rhythm.   


Drums used in Funk Music

Remember the groove and the basslines are the essential pieces of funk music. Your tempo in funk isn’t usually going to be that fast. In fact, when you get too fast it becomes disco! We need the time in the music for the 16th notes, as mentioned they ARE the funk.

The rhythm of funk is focused on the beats and offbeats, in the “1-e-and-a count”, each of these notes is stressed and accented in a certain way to give it that groove. It is a lot easier to hear this than explain it!   

You don’t even have to have a real drummer anymore to create this flow. Drum machines are very affordable, they even have great drum synth apps on smartphones.

And with modern tech, you can have multiple drum machines (like James Brown had two drummers at times) to create more syncopation and more groove. For some, it might be a lot easier to program a drum machine than learning to play the real drums!  


Bass Guitar used in Funk

Funk bass is often percussive and repetitive, a common technique on a bass guitar is slapping and popping where you hit the bass with the thumb bone and use your fingers for slaps, pops, and plucks.

The key is to get your drums and bass locked into a groove and keep it going, your bass will often be the hook of the song. It is common to use 16th notes on blues scales focusing on that offbeat.  

A great example of a funk slap bass technique is the theme to Seinfeld. However, this wasn’t done with a real bass guitar, but with a Korg M1 synth! It is very common for funk bassists to play on synths, but you still use the same scales and syncopated style. With just a drum and bass synth, you can compose an entire song of the funk genre.  


Jimi Hendrix Playing Funk Guitar
UNITED KINGDOM – FEBRUARY 24: ROYAL ALBERT HALL Photo of Jimi HENDRIX, performing live onstage, playing white Fender Stratocaster guitar (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

The guitar is another common instrument in funk, however unlike rock, it rarely has solos and is not featured, it is simply meant to help with more rhythm and syncopation. Often at least two guitars are needed, playing 16th notes one after the other (mimicking call and response music).

The notes played are extended chords common in jazz and bebop. Rock n Roll is often made up of 7ths, like the blues, while in funk you will find 9ths, minor 7ths, 13ths, and similar minor and extended chords.

Playing guitar in a funk band isn’t glamorous and can get boring. You will be playing a chord over and over in a “chicken scratch” type style. This is a very brief and percussive strum that is best shown here. When James Brown wanted to hire a guitar player, he would make sure they knew E9 and that they could play it over and over without losing the rhythm.   


Keyboards used in Funk Music

Parliament Funkadelic and a few other bands are known for using a variety of keyboards, organs, and electric pianos. More often though synths are used for basslines and low sound effects.

Sometimes keyboards are used like guitars for vamping and syncopation (with extended chords) and other times they are there to add to the percussive effects and rhythm. If you are interested in keys and funk than Bernie Worrell of P-Funk is the man to listen to as he used a wide variety of keyboards and synthesizers.  


The Queen of Soul - Aretha Franklin
The Queen of Soul – Aretha Franklin

As with everything in funk the main aspect of vocals in this genre is for a percussive effect. Funk was influenced by the blues and gospel so there is plenty of shouts, yells, grunts, moans, and other sounds to add to the rhythm.

You aren’t telling a sprawling story; you have quick and energetic phrases of laments or excitement. Often call and response are used between the lead singer and the band.  

As far as lyrical content that can be quite different. The origins of funk go hand in hand with the Civil Rights movement and like the blues lyrical content reflects struggles and hardships.

Another common lyrical theme is simply talking about funk and dancing, after all, that is the whole point. Some lyrics are just out of this world, like P-Funk. Listen to Parliament and it is obvious they came about in the psychedelic age with their incredible lyrics.  

Brass and Woodwinds  

The horn section of a funk band is made up of different saxes, trombones, and trumpets. You want a good mix of highs and lows with your brass and woodwinds.

The biggest part for the horn section is often in the intro to the song, afterward they are like the other instruments providing accents, emphasis, and syncopation.

Normally you will hear a vocal lyric and then followed by a brief blast of the horns. Just like the other instruments, it is common to make the entire horn section on a synthesizer.

Not only can you use samplers to lift from funk tunes you can also use the sampler to play any real instrument on your synth or computer.   


Just about every section of a funk band uses effects, except for guitars, we want the “chicken scratch” to be clean with no distortion.

The bass, vocals, synths, and keyboards all have a variety of effects pedals used. Jimi Hendrix popularized some of these like fuzz, distortion, and the Octavia pedal.

That pedal plays the note with an octave below and above creating a layered and fat sound. There is also a wah-wah pedal which does exactly what it says giving more percussive effects with your foot as you play the guitar or synth.

Other pedals are envelope filters, flangers, and chorus. Anything that can fatten up the sound and add rhythm or syncopation is a welcome effect in funk. A great song example to hear a lot of funk effects is the Rufus song mentioned above called “Tell Me Something Good.”  

The Groove  

This is the one thing we have neglected to mention, the rhythm and bass can’t just be played straight. Just because you are playing 16th notes doesn’t mean you are being funky. It is not easy for a beginner to play in a groove or a swing, it’s harder than it sounds.

The musical definition of swing is shortening some notes, lengthening others, and adding accents to certain notes. There are varying levels of swing too, the genre of music usually defines the amount note lengths will change.  

Depending on the genre of music there are specific ways to get the groove or swing going, and a good teacher could show you the basic concepts of how to do it.

However, it isn’t something easy to teach. It is really difficult to show a person how to be groovy. Some people believe you are born with it or not, but it is likely something you can learn.

The best way is to listen to a lot of funk and swing and focus on the rhythm and beats, if you keep up the practice you should get it.

And if you ever figure out how to easily teach the vibe of the groove, well then you will make a lot of money. Once you do find the groove, the pocket, you’ll know it and you won’t let it go!  

Conclusion: Let’s get Funky!

So there you have it, now you know a little bit of the history of funk, and when you listen to it next time you can pick out every part if need be. It is a fascinating genre of music that will likely be influential for many years to come.

Anytime you feel like dancing or you need to move, funk will always have your back. And in case you want a little more history, there is one aspect we forgot to mention, but we will let Old Gregg explain. Remember, the most important thing you have to do… is make it funk. 

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One Comment

  1. A discussion came up in our big band tonight about whether or not the horns should swing sixteenth notes in funk. It’s clear that there is a sixteenth shuffle in the rhythm section. I can’t find any solid reference at this point. What do you say?

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