Learning how to play funk guitar can be a very rewarding process for musicians. It comes with original beats that are tricky, but cool and groovy.
Still, it can look challenging to follow for beginners. Here, we’ll cover the fundamentals for you to master how to play funk guitar.
What Is the Funk Guitar?
First, let’s take a look at what makes the funk guitar different from other music genres.
The funk guitar is a type of rhythm guitar. It works like a band’s drummer, adding a beat to the song and harmonizing with the lead instruments or singer.
When you learn how to play funk guitar, you’ll have to learn grooves over melodies or chords.
A groove is the overall rhythmic pattern of a song. Meanwhile, a melody is a single note sequence, and a chord is a combination of notes played together. Unlike both these concepts, groove focuses on the overarching feeling of a song more.
Your goal is to make a song that makes people want to dance to, with groovy baselines and unexpected jabs.
You don’t need a specific electric guitar to play funk. Although bass guitars can sound extra groovy, learning how to play funk guitar is more about technique than equipment.
The Origin of Funk Music
Knowing where funk music originated can give you inspiration from the masters.
James Brown was a musician and singer-songwriter who invented funk in the 1960s. He took inspiration from jazz, soul, and R&B music to create this genre. Many people consider his song, “Make it Funky,” the first funk song he ever created.
You can hear the influence of jazz music in funk. For example, Make it Funky has a trombone, saxophone, and trumpet in it. But unlike jazz, funk music puts more emphasis on offbeat baselines and syncopation. It also emphasizes the first beat, or “The One.”
Below, we’ll take a closer look at how some of these basic concepts look in funk.
Funk Guitar Theory Fundamentals
Steve Lodder is a renowned British keyboardist who toured with music icons like Harry Beckett and Paul McCartney. In his 2005 book on classic albums, he summarized some of funk’s key features:
“There’s a rule of thumb in funk music that says short sounds are better than long: thus the drier the guitar hit, the tighter the horn stab, the slappier the bass, the more clipped the clavinet, etc., the better.”
As you read these fundamentals, you’ll also pick up ghost notes, scratching, and side sliding to master the funk guitar. But first, let’s cover The One.
In jazz and blues music, musicians emphasize the 2nd and 4th beat of a four-count melody. But in funk music, you emphasize the 1st note instead.
To do the One, practice hitting your strings on the first beat. Then, pause for three counts. You can tap in between the One to pick up the rhythm at first. Then, start adding slides, progressions, or stabs in between the same One note.
In this video performance of James Brown, notice how he harmonizes with the first beat on the guitar. Every One count, he screams “hey!”
This video is an excellent example to show you how funk guitar highlights the rest of the band. It emphasizes the one but doesn’t take over the music like a lead guitar.
A stab is a high pitched note added in a count to contrast the rest of its sound.
Sometimes, a stab is a staccato note. Staccato means detached, and in music, that means you hit the note right after a rest.
Many people call it a horn stab because the saxophone, trumpet, or other horn players often hit the stab. That stands true for jazz and blues as well as funk. Though, by learning a rhythmic stab, you can better harmonize with the rest of your band.
The horn stab is usually a quick note. You hit it and then either deaden it or move it to the next, lower-pitched note. It adds a bit of drama to the music and gives listeners an unexpected beat to dance to.
Consider next: How to play blues guitar
To play ghost notes on the funk guitar, you have to deadline your strings. Deadlining is another word for muting, which you do by pressing your hand firmly down on the strings. Then, when you strum, you end up getting a ‘scratchy’ noise.
The result is a deep bass sound that you could compare to a drum. It’s a rhythmic move because you don’t hear a pitch, but you feel a vibration added to the song.
Ghost notes set funk apart from other rock music genres. Different genres let guitar notes ‘ring’ or linger for a moment after hitting the string. But in funk music, you tend to deaden a note right after playing it.
That fast playing and deadening are what keeps a funk song fast-paced, groovy, and exciting.
Syncopation means playing offbeat rhythms and accents in a groove. By offbeat, we essentially mean notes you don’t expect. Here’s what that can look like in music theory.
In many songs, you play a 1, 2, 3, 4 count. In funk songs, you’ll tend to follow a “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” pattern.
Those numbers represent your strum motions, and many songs will have you emphasize the number counts. But in funk music, you might emphasize the and instead. You can even add notes or transitions in between them, as we’ll see in the 16th note rhythms section.
Although many know Prince for pop, he has a lot of funk influences in his music. Listen to “When Doves Cry” for an example of a syncopated beat, with an emphasis between the 2nd and 3rd beats.
16th Note Rhythms
This technique is one of the most important melodies you’ll want to learn on the funk guitar. To understand a 16th note rhythm, you need to imagine four notes per beat.
You’ll use the “1 and 2 and 3 and 4” count in many chord progressions. Some songs will have you strum down on the number (i.e., 1) and up on the ‘and.’ This technique is what we call an 8th note strumming pattern.
Now, we’re going to expand the formula a little more. We were following a ‘1 and 2 and 3 and 4’ format. For the 16th note rhythm, we turn it into ‘1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a.”
In this pattern, you want to strum up on every e and a. On every number or ‘and,’ you strum down. In total, that means you’re hitting 16 notes in one count.
To see to this in action, listen to the 1972 hit “Use Me” by Bill Withers.
When you’re side sliding on a guitar, you’re approaching a chord from a semitone below.
So you strum your first chord and move immediately to the next one without touching your strings again. This technique makes a smooth, seamless transition that underlies the groove for rhythmic funk songs.
As you do this technique, remember to keep the pressure down on the strings while you slide. If you loosen your grip, you’ll lose the noise in motion.
Listen to “Got the Love” by Average White Band for groovy side sliding. You can hear the chord transition instead of bluntly switching in this song.
Key Funk Chords & Techniques
One trend you’ll notice is that a lot of funk chords keep the root on the first, low E string. They also create unique sounds by harmonizing major and minor notes together.
We won’t cover the exact finger placement for these popular funk chords. But we will reference their origins and encourage you to use this as a starting point for your practice.
Many people have nicknamed the E9 chord the “James Brown Chord.” E9 is a major chord for both “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” by James Brown and “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry.
The root note on an E9 is a low E string like we mentioned above. If you transfer it to a D9, you get a higher-pitched version of that sound.
The E9 chord acts a bit like an E7 substitute. E7 is a very popular chord in the guitar, but E9 adds a jazzier vibe to it. It’s also easy to play from the middle of your fretboard. When you play it with an open E string, it creates a full, resonant sound.
The E9 chord is one of the most common techniques for how to play funk guitar. It produces a sound that’s groovy, cool, and deep without being somber. And that coolness makes it perfect for a dance rhythm.
Find more easy jazz guitar songs with this chord too.
E13 sus4 Chord
In a sus4 chord, you replace a 1+3+5 pattern with a 1+4+5. Together with E13 or other 13s, these produce a bright, jazzy sound.
Many guitarists use a 13th as a passing chord to reach the E9. The E13 is also a type of extended chord, meaning that it stacks up more than four tones on the 7th.
Many funk songs will create altered versions of extended chords. That could look like playing a sharp eleven or a flat thirteen and lends itself well to the syncopation method we explained.
One song that uses the E13 chord is “What is Hip” by Tower of Power. The song we recommended under the E9 Chord, “Play that Funky Music,” also uses an E13 chord.
Hendrix Chord (E7#9)
The Hendrix chord is fascinating because it combines a major third and minor third. But it doesn’t sound out of tune because the root notes balance it into a moody, hip sound.
Many guitarists use it as a turnaround chord or a chord that finishes one section to begin the next.
Jimi Hendrix used this V-shaped chord in tons of his songs. One of the most famous examples is in his 1985 hit, “Purple Rain.” You can also hear it in his song “Spanish Castle Magic” and the chorus of “Foxey Lady.”
To mimic Hendrix’s sound to the fullest, try combining it with a distorted guitar effect. The distortion makes the chord sound gritty, which goes great with the rough sound of funk scratching.
You can achieve distortion with an amp, pedal or combine them to get the best of both devices.
Single Line Notes
We went over a few significant chords on funk music. But sometimes, it’s the simple, single-line notes that work best for funk.
Since the funk guitarist’s goal is to groove with the band, they sometimes have to create space for the keyboardist or singer to lead. And in those cases, you don’t want a complex guitar progression to take over the song- Great as it can be!!
To play a single line note, you’ll want to use the deadlining method we talked about. Cover as many strings as possible with your hand to help you emphasize the single notes.
One famous song to use single line notes is “Don’t Stop Til you Get Enough” by Micheal Jackson. In the introduction with Michael’s speaking, the guitarist fingerpicks between A and B. It forms the perfect beginning groove before weaving itself into the background for the main chorus.
Final Tips for Playing Funk Guitar
Funk can look complicated for a newbie player. It involves a mix of strumming, deadlining, and new note patterns that set the style apart from standard guitar practices.
But to help you get started on the funk guitar, work from these basics first: E9, 16th notes, muting, and scratching.
With funk, sometimes less is more. You can learn a lot by practicing simple chords that add to funk songs you hear instead of writing from scratch.
With these basics down packed, you can build up your skill by playing hit funk songs. Then, you’re well on your way to learning how to play funk guitar like a master.
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.