There are a number of reasons why I love funk, but to boil it down: funk is all about the groove – a highly rhythmic experience where each musician needs to think about their specific part and most importantly, how it fits within the broader context of the song. The guitarist may be doing something different from what the keyboardist and bassist is playing. The kick drum might be locked in with the bass while the overall rhythm is different from the guitar strumming. Each musician has a role – they need to find and stay in their lane or “pocket” – so that they properly fit with what the rest of the band is doing. Finally, adding a hooky melody and horn section over the rhythmic section requires a deep understanding of finding your place in a band.
Ironically, while the rhythmic interplay and the need to find the pocket make funk incredibly complex to play, funk is often just a one-chord song. The experience is about listening to what the other band members are doing as opposed to focusing on your own playing. In my early years playing in various rock bands, it seemed that the experience was often about increasingly playing louder and louder to make sure your part was “heard.” Eventually it just led to a cacophonous, head-banging, ear-splitting experience – which, can be awesome in its own right, but just different from what funk is about. When I started to focus on playing jazz, I learned the importance of actually listening instead of playing. Miles Davis always emphasized that music isn’t about the notes you play, it’s about the notes you don’t play. I was recently asked what exactly funk is and the origins of funk. Let’s turn back the clocks and learn a bit more where this great style of music began.
The core of funk is in sub-Saharan African music traditions (think chants, stomping, and spirituals). Starting in the late-1940s, New Orleans musicians borrowed these elements to create what came to be known as funk: a combination of jazz, soul, R&B, and Afro-Cuban beats. Musicians used the word “funky” to describe this jazz-like type of music – music that you could really get down to. And thus, funk was born. But what really launched funk was a musician by the name of James Joseph Brown, who in the mid-60s started prominently using and adapting New Orleans funk.
Brown, whom many agree was “The Godfather of Soul,” was known for his distinctive style, which was a stress on the first beat of every measure. His music included electric bass, syncopated guitar, and Afro-Cuban drum patterns, each contributing their own musical parts as I described earlier. What his music is most known for is his extensive use of the I-chord, as opposed to the commonly used I-IV-V chord progressions of rock. Brown put all parts on interlocking riffs playing primarily on just one chord. He would occasionally switch to a IV chord for the bridge, but then take the music right back to that I chord. His simplified chord progressions, along with the stress on the first beat of every measure, is what made Brown the Godfather of Soul–and the funk maestro–that he was.
An urban legend that many guitarists recant is of Brown interviewing auditioning guitarists:
Brown: “Can you play an E9 chord?”
Guitarist: “Yeah sure.”
Brown: “Can you play an E9 chord… all night long?!?!”
Again, the takeaway is that the guitarist, who might typically take center stage with a blazing solo, is now confined to only one-chord and challenged to make it an awesome groove.
The 70s was the initial heyday for funk. Disco, a genre rooted in funk and soul, also materialized during this era, but funk continued to reign. Musicians like Miles Davis began to experiment, combining jazz and funk. Jazz-funk replaced jazz’s double bass and acoustic piano with electric bass and electric piano in the rhythm section. As the 70s progressed towards the 80s, key instruments of funk were replaced with electric instruments and synthesizers. George Clinton’s great Parliament and Funkadelic bands led this to be dubbed the “P-Funk era.”
Other pop musicians including Rick James and Prince evolved from this era and turned P-Funk into another subdivision of funk. In particular, Prince combined the complexity of funk, the technology of P-Funk, and his emphasis on sexual themes into his own unclassifiable genre. It was a little bit of everything: funk, rock, R&B, new wave, and pop.
Funk went on to give birth to hip hop and contemporary R&B. Beginning with Sly & the Family Stone, even rock bands added a flare of funk into their music, creating new styles in the process. Modern funk, like hip hop, heavily emphasizes the bass work and rhythmic guitar riffs. And rounding things out, funk drum beats are used frequently in contemporary club dance music. Even specific geographic regions gave birth to their own versions of funk, such as the New Orleans funk style embodied by the Meters and the Rebirth Brass Band.
Funk’s roots have influenced an enormous number of musicians, including such high-profile acts as Earth, Wind, and Fire; Jimi Hendrix; David Bowie; and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I encourage you to take a look at your music collection. I guarantee at least one of your favorite artists derived their music in some way from funk. And if you haven’t really checked out funk yet, I think you may just fall in love with its unique groove.
Here are a few great funk and funk-influenced songs from the artists mentioned above – to get you started. But let me be clear, funk is ALIVE and WELL. Artists such as Bruno Mars and producers like Mark Ronson consistently inject funk into their music. And bands such as the New Mastersounds, Vulfpeck and The Greyboy Allstars are delighting audiences everywhere.
Old and new fans of funk should hopefully find much to enjoy in our special Funk 101 Mixtape.
When he’s not busy serving as CEO for Feed.fm, Jeff Yasuda can be seen around the Bay Area leading his funk-leaning band the Fuzz Collective as singer, guitarist, and songwriter.