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Improvising in a funk style

The funk style was born around the 1960’s and utilises features and sounds common to soul, jazz and R’n’B music. Funk typically reverses the trends featuring melody and harmony seen in earlier styles of music, instead placing greater emphasis on rhythmic drive and groove. Many early funk songs featured one-chord and repetitive patterns (vamps), over which there would be embellishments or vocal lines. The focus is often on the placement of notes in a rhythmically appropriate and ‘groovy’ way, rather than flourishes of notes or technically accomplished melodic lines.

As with most styles, we’ve seen development and cross-pollination with other genres to create even more types of music, such as disco or sub-genres, such as funk-rock, acid jazz and neo-soul. Even some of the styles not directly associated with funk often bear many of the features and stylistic traits pioneered by the funk movement. Pop songs often feature simple, instantly recognisable vamps or ostinatos and dance music relies heavily on a continuous drum pattern. Many of today’s hip hop and rap artists pay homage to the funk movement, regularly sampling sections from old funk records, most famously the ‘Amen Drum Break’, which is prevalent in hundreds of pop, hip hop, rap and dance tracks. This was originally performed by G. C. Coleman on The Winstones’ funk song ‘Amen, Brother’ and can be found from 1:27 to 1:34 of the YouTube video.

Improvising in the style

Funk is less about navigating chord progressions or creating winding melodies and more about the rhythmic content. This applies to any instrument or singer performing within the style. First and foremost, it’s worth getting to know some of the key artists and songs within the history to get a feel for the music and the features.

When performing and improvising in the funk style, the first thing to think about is beat placement. What is the feel of the music? Do we want to create a forward drive (potentially quite aggressive in sound), is it all incredibly precise or is the music more laid-back? If the feel is laid-back, we want to make the music sound as relaxed and ‘groovy’ as possible. Therefore, whatever you choose to play, try to sit on the ‘back’ of the beat (i.e. ‘behind’ or just after the beat, rather than ahead of it).

Simplicity is often key. If you can present an idea and make it sit ‘in the pocket’, this will sound a million times better than rushing into a complex run of notes, which bear little resemblance to the style. Funk is about groove, feeling and making people want to move, not showing off your licks! Try taking a short phrase or idea and repeating it several times. You can develop this idea by starting on different beats of the bar, or adding/subtracting parts of the phrases, or even embellishing the phrase with melismas (for vocalists), grace notes (keyboardists), hammer-ons and bends (for guitarists) or ghost notes and drags (drummers).

Watch videos with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming and session musicians Harry the Piano, Sam Edgington and Brendan Reilly:

Influential Artists

James Brown is probably the most famous of the founding fathers of funk. By the mid-1960’s hits such as ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ and ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ were storming the U.S. charts, with later iconic hits such as ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’ also achieving world-wide recognition to this day. Alongside James Brown artists such as Sly & The Family Stone and The Meters grew to fame. ‘Cissy Strut’ by The Meters has grown in funk cult status, despite only reaching no. 4 in the R’n’B charts and no. 23 in the Billboard 100 upon its release in 1969. Chaka Khan is one of leading lights for ladies in funk, with ‘Ain’t Nobody’ and ‘I’m Every Woman’ now considered funk classics.

More recent artists include Bruno Mars, producer Mark Ronson, Tower of Power and British Hammond-led band The James Taylor Quartet, whose career grew out of the heavily funk influenced acid-jazz movement in the late 1980’s/early-90’s. Many other huge acts such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers also cite funk as an important part of their style.

Examples of funk songs in the syllabus are:

Rock Steady‘ by Aretha Franklin, (drums), ‘I Say A Little Prayer‘ by Aretha Franklin (vocals), ‘Chain Of Fools‘ by Aretha Franklin (drums), ‘I Get High On You‘ by Sly And The Family Stone (bass), ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)‘ by James Brown (bass), ‘Funky Drummer‘ by James Brown (drums), ‘1 Thing‘ by Amerie (drums) and ‘Crazy In Love‘ by Beyoncé (drums and vocals).

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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