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 their techniques.
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 mold.
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, 2004]
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]