Hip-hop, R&B, urban contemporary, rap, drum-n-bass, nu-jazz—call it what you
want, but it’s got to be funky. The term
“funk” has become a blanket description
of anything with a booty-moving bass. You
know it when you hear it, but what is it
exactly? Let’s look at some funk basics:
the must-know music, the players, and
Funk bass pioneers reigned throughout
the ’60s and ’70s on dance and pop
records. Four decades after he recorded
most of the tracks for the Motown label
in Detroit, players today still agree that
James Jamerson was the king of funky
Motown bass. Jamerson had a knack for
laying down a solid rhythmic foundation
while simultaneously inventing bass hooks
that defined top hits of the era.
Larry Graham was one of the first
funksters to bring slapping into the arsenal
of electric bass techniques. His popand-
slap style—which he calls “thumpin’
and pluckin’” (see BP, May ’07)—emulates
the drums: The thumb represents the bass
drum thud, the pop being the snare drum
crack. He contributed the defining sound
to Sly & the Family Stone from 1967–72,
and later went on to form his own group,
Graham Central Station.
William “Bootsy” Collins appeared on
the radar in 1970 playing with the “Godfather
of Soul,” James Brown. Bootsy
played with the J.B.s, as the rhythm section
was called, for only one year. He went
on to funkify groups like Parliament/
Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band,
and most recently, Prince. He is still active
and plays and produces music in the PFunk
Many bassists contributed to the James
Brown sound, including Hubert Perry,
David “Hooks” Williams, Charles
“Sweets” Sherrell, Fred Thomas, Tim
Drummond, and the inimitable Bernard
Odum. Logging over a decade of gigs with
the Godfather of Soul, Odum’s legacy of
definitive funk grooves stands out.
To funk up your playing, the key first
step is listening to the masters.
There are many ways to play funky.
There are probably even more ways to try
to play funky that miss the mark. Don’t
mess up the funk! Listen, emulate, and
work through these exercises.
Get Started, Get Funky
You can cop a feel for funk in a simple,
deep way by playing quarter-notes on beats
one and three, while leaving big rests on
beats two and four. Ex. 1 shows the basic
groove. Attack one and three precisely. The
line under the quarter-notes (called a
tenuto line) means that the notes are long—
held for the full quarter-note length. There’s
some mojo at the end: Cut off the note just
before the attack of the snare drum on
beats two and four. Great bass players pay
attention to the length of notes and exactly
where each note should stop.
Think it’s simple? See if you can play
the groove for ten minutes or so without
stopping. By that time, your dog should
be hypnotized by your unfaltering command
of the un-played backbeats on two
and four. Don’t have a dog? Play the
groove until the neighbors ring the bell
and ask if everything is okay. Repetition,
consistency, and a solid groove are essential
when playing funk.
You can make your bass line dance by
adding some syncopation—notes rhythmically
placed on the off-beats or “weak
beats.” Ex. 2 shows the fat downbeat, followed
by the third and fourth 16th-notes
of beat two. To analyze the groove and keep
your place, count out loud: one-e-and-a,
two-e-and-a, three-e-and-a, four-e-and-a.
Play this line until the dog gets back in the
zone. Don’t answer the door this time when
the neighbors show up again.
Ex. 3 offers another variation: the
first two 16th-notes of beat one, followed
by the third and fourth 16ths of two.
Make sure that you feel the rest on three
after playing the two 16th-notes. The
feeling of the empty beat three makes
the line funky.
Many funk bass lines incorporate a
pentatonic scale for melodic variation. The
five-note scale shown in Ex. 4 sits perfectly
on the bass fingerboard—it’s easy to transpose
to various chords, just asking to be
funked with! Play the basic pentatonic
melody with the same careful attention to
rhythm and groove that you used in Ex. 1.
Wanna play a game? No, not with Jig-
saw from the Saw movies—this is more of
a Sudoku for funksters, a mix-and-match
to give you some new ideas about funk
grooves. Look at the five different twobar
funk grooves in Ex. 5. You can play
the exercise as written, or take any pattern
from column A and combine it with
one from column B to create new patterns.
Ex. 6 shows a couple of the funk
patterns that you can find by mixing the
patterns from the previous example. Now
you try—play the patterns from Ex. 5 over
and over, mixing and matching to create
your own variations.
A FUNK PRIMER:
5 ESSENTIAL SIDES
1. James Jamerson with the Funk
Brothers, Standing in the Shadows of
Motown: Deluxe Edition [Hip-ORecords,
2. Bernard Odum with James Brown,
Live at the Apollo [Polydor, 1968]
3. Larry Graham with Sly & the Family
Stone, Stand! [Legacy, 1969]
4. Larry Graham with Graham Central
Station, Graham Central Station
[Warner Bros., 1974]
5. Bootsy Collins with Bootsy’s Rubber
Band, Ahh...The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!
[Warner Bros., 1977]