Blues You Can Use: Funkin' It Up

THIS MONTH I’D LIKE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE one-year anniversary of this column.

THIS MONTH I’D LIKE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE one-year anniversary of this column. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already—time flies when you’re in the groove! For the most part, I’ve been talking about lines, skills, and attitudes that will serve you well in a traditional blues con- text. But, while there are many neo-traditionalist bands on the scene trying to recapture the vibe of the classic post- war blues genre, the blues as an art form has not remained frozen in time. Just as the blues has influenced all forms of popular music over the last 50 years, it has also expanded and absorbed elements of other styles, too. One important cross-pollination happened when the blues hooked up with funk. Funk music itself has a direct connection to the melodic motifs, lyrical con- tent, and song forms of the blues, but when blues players started incorporating funk rhythms into their setlists, they discovered a way to reach younger audiences—and pack the dance floor.

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The term “funk” can be used to describe everything from James Brown to Chuck Brown, but when you say the F-word to a bass player, what usually comes to mind is thumb slappin’ and finger poppin’. While the bright, snappy tone of slap bass is the last thing a “Blues Nazi” wants to hear in the rhythm section, legendary blues artist Albert “The Iceman” Collins toured and recorded for 14 years with bassist Johnny B. Gayden, a funk-slappin’ mofo that put his stamp on some of Collins’ best work. He also recorded with Johnny Winter, B.B. King, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Bernard Allison, James Cotton, and Junior Wells. With a resumé like that, it’s kind of hard to generalize that slapping has no place in the blues. The key is understanding when to do it.

Example 1 is similar to the line Gayden plays on the track “Put the Shoe on the Other Foot” from Albert Collins’ 1991 Iceman CD. Th e tune has a catchy, swinging New Orleans funk vibe, comparable to the Neville Brothers’ version of “Hey Pocky Way.” It’s a half-time swing-funk take on the classic “Bo Diddley groove” that always gets people on their feet. Th e example is written for 5-string bass, as Gayden—in addition to slapping his way through a blues gig—played it on a 5 (another violation for the “Blues police”). If you don’t have a low B string, you can still work this out with your E string detuned a whole-step to D, but the fingering will obviously need adjustment.

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If you are not familiar with this feel, give a listen to the aforementioned tracks, as the written rhythms tell you only part of the story. In this groove, the swing 16th-notes have a loose, triplet undercurrent that can’t be forced. Like many great groove anchors, this line is based on a repetitive figure that moves through the changes. The pattern is fairly active, but much of the rhythmic drive comes from the use of dead notes—both slapped and popped. The two-bar rhythm stays mostly consistent through the 12-bar blues form, with a slight variation in bar 10, and a cool chromatic walkup for the turnaround figure in bar 12. Experiment with different degrees of “deadness” for the percussive notes. Sometimes it’s nice to let some of the actual note’s pitch come through.

As Johnny B. has shown us, slapping some funk on your blues gig is perfectly cool. You just need to know when to lay down the fat stuff , and when to grease up the funk machine. Disclaimer: If you show up to a blues gig to find the entire band wearing zoot suits, two-tone shoes, fedoras, and playing through 1950s vintage gear—you may not want to get slap- happy. At least not if you want to get called back!