How can we even begin to approach funk, a style that so much relies on a feeling, a mood? How can we learn through study this fabled, funky genre of music? With the benefit of hindsight we can, thankfully, more accurately categorise what made funk funky, able as we are to consider the sheer cultural phenomenon that it once was from a socio-political viewpoint that is at once far removed from it, and yet almost entirely unchanged in some respects.
Injustices still reign supreme, and the powers that the most politically active funk groups were rallying against, whether through their own lyrics or in aligning with their Black Panther brethren, are still just as powerful, if not more so, with capitalism’s ability to sidestep reproach at almost laughable levels, along with its ability to swallow and monetise every known and even remotely revolutionary opposition to its greed-swollen waddle towards what would seem to be total annihilation, from funk to punk, and beyond.
It’s strange to be approaching this style of music from so far into the future, when it has seemingly lost its inherent ability to move minds and butts, so to speak. And yet, we might say that in learning about it, from without as opposed to within the overall socio-geographical context, we are better able to appreciate it for its musicality and the way it touches us within, instead of being broached by an overriding political philosophy.
When we do consider the music itself, and meet it in the middle without an intercessor, we see that a lot of what makes funk funky, and what moves us about it, is aligned with this very context that we are so removed from.
What Makes Funk, Funk?
The central tenet of funk is groove, often hard-hitting and repetitive. It is in this centring of rhythm where its inherent danceability lies. Rhythmic and harmonic progression rely on slow, steady journeys of push and pull tensions: building, building, seemingly on the verge of exploding for minutes at a time, then when you’re least expecting it – BANG. The next section, and the tension begins anew.
These steady vehicles of rhythm are perfect beds for the philosophising of the vocalist, or simply for them to join in on the rhythm themselves, for often there will be grunts and whooping aplenty, especially in the music of James Brown, where he can be found constantly acting as conduit for the energy the whole band is producing, like an electrical transistor.
It is in this live, freewheeling way that we feel the influence of Jazz most strongly. Though it bleeds into almost all of the elements in some way – extended harmonies, syncopated rhythms, implementation of brass and woodwind instruments, having a central bandleader etc – it is in the overall energy that we feel the shadow of Jazz’s influence perched on Funk’s shoulder.
What Does This Mean for The Guitar?
As there are plenty of instruments sharing the workload of harmonic and rhythmic progression, from brass to keyboard to vocals and beyond, the guitar is expected to share in this. Syncopation is key to the feel and inherent danceability to the rhythm’s near-constant march.
With so much placed in the lap of rhythm, the guitar can often be found simply doubling up rhythms otherwise played on drums or percussion instruments, chugging and shuffling the plectrum along the strings with the picking hand while muting the strings with the fretting hand.
This is a trademark of funk guitar which, when combined with a wah-wah pedal, channels the very essence of the music. Even if the guitarist is playing ‘actual’ notes, they will usually be staccato chord stabs, or the musician will be leaning on individual notes in counterpoint with the vocalist, or others.
The song ‘Cut the Cake’ by The Average White Band, for example, features just such a harmonic and rhythmic interplay, in this instance between the guitar, drums, and horns, the vocalist matching the rhythms atop, characteristic of funk music as a whole, where the syncopation reigns supreme and commands all to do its bidding, no matter how choppy or convoluted.
And What about The Harmony?
The example above is also highly representative of funk harmonically as well. Chords remain static for extended periods of time, building tension as they do by not moving and allowing the rhythmic qualities present throughout to mount pressure, even though they themselves do little to budge. Repetition begets palpitation. This idea is taken to almost mind-numbingly literal extents by James Brown, specifically his signature track ‘Ain’t it Funky’: the band hold one chord for almost the entire length of the song, the guitar repeatedly strumming and sustaining a seventh chord while the horns and organ riff repeatedly and with little variation, all acting as a bed for the rambling half-stand-up comedy, half-bedlamite dirge, cackling and screeching catalyst of the mammoth funk monolith that he be and that his band is.
While the harmony is fond of remaining static, its roots in Jazz music breed in funk a penchant for extended chordal choices and changes, as well as the already well-worn concept of syncopation. We see both of these things here, with the use of 9th chords almost overwhelmingly stereotypical of the style, and their delivery in short, staccato punches of harmonic and rhythmic intent.
Below I have outlined the chords, without giving too much of the rhythm away, and I might suggest that you try and play along to the song with these chord shapes in mind in order to get a feel for the style, because that’s really what it’s about: so much of funk music is in the feeling, and getting that feeling right, if you can even call it that, is about feeling it yourself through practise, within and without.
Listening along with the song, you ought to be able to hear where the chords and riffs go with regards to the structure, all of which are relatively simple. Again, it’s in the feeling that the key to this music lies, and the only way to lock in and align yourself with it is to rid yourself of inhibitions, roll your sleeves up, and get stuck in.
If you’re finding the changing between chords difficult to the pace of the actual track, why not try simply switching between the chords themselves without the song as backing track. Return to the song once you feel totally comfortable switching between chord shapes.
One of the key aspects of funk guitar that, once mastered, will have you spearheading funk ventures in no time is the idea of spreading the harmony around the band. As previously mentioned, there are a number of instruments sharing the harmonic and rhythmic responsibilities within the band, the guitar’s role often sparing and relating with the keyboard instruments, piano and organ usually. For this reason, the root note is more often than not elided in favour of more sparse chordal inversions in the upper registers.
Owing to its close connection to the other harmonic instruments in the band, usually keyboard-based, there will often be call and response rhythmic conversations between these two instrumental forces within the band, comprised as they are of sharp, staccato stabs of harmonic intent. Try alternating between playing the chords themselves and playing them muted, in the manner utterly epitomised by funk. Becoming more familiar and comfortable with this aspect is a sure fire way to feel more aligned and in tune with the all rhythmic ideology of funk on a musical level.
This song in particular makes plentiful use of sliding between chords, both up and down in pitch, which adds some harmonic variation to what would otherwise be entirely static sequences of music. See if you can spot where the guitar uses this technique, sliding the chord shape from the fret above or below into the correct chord of the song at that given moment, and then see if you can mimic this technique yourself, implementing it into your own improvised funk flavourings, or your own compositional ventures.
As with many other exercises on the guitar, I would suggest that you look closely at the building blocks, in this instance focusing your attention on those of which these chords and rhythms are comprised. Sparing some time to understand with your mind harmonically what your fingers and muscle memory will eventually take for granted, if they haven’t already, will save you innumerable hours in future. Laying the groundwork is key for almost all things, and nowhere is this more prevalent than the arts, and in no other art more so than music. Building foundationally, from the ground up, will allow you to perform more spontaneously and on the fly when the time comes.
As you can see in the example of ‘Cut the Cake’, one can take some relatively simple musical building blocks and assemble them into a whole cohesive and, dare I say, exciting piece of music. There are at most three or four chords throughout the song, the excitement and tension coming from the dense, intense interplay of rhythms thrown to and from each member of the band, the horns vamping on a melody in counterpoint with the vocalist, whose vocals are mixed in a way as to make them sound not dissimilar from the horns themselves; amidst all of this, the drums and guitars and bass converse in a bubbling orgy of popping chocolate rivers. All of this fuelled by the coals of three or four chords.
With its connections to Jazz and Blues, the harmonic and rhythmic similarities ought to be fairly obvious, so much so that we even see the twelve bar blues appear frequently in funk chord progressions. It’s been wryly suggested before that whole funk albums could be founded on a conveyor belt of three chords, and I am inclined to agree, for the the harmonic destination isn’t nearly so important as the journey it takes along the way, littered as it is with tight, dense, interwoven instrumental relationships, alive with the innumerable hectares of tectonic energy that this panoply of artists, musicians, and guitarists from all walks of life seem to be channelling from elsewhere entirely.
Capable of such visceral descriptions now, it’s no wonder that it was such a cultural phenomenon at the time. Spreading virally as it did throughout the Western hemisphere, it acted as a conduit for the dreams, ambitions, and political savvy of numerous artists who rightly saw that this music could allow them a forum through which to address their nation and people on subjects far-reaching and variegated, that it could speak directly to those on the street with their ears spread in the right direction, enabling the everyday person, particularly those of African-American descent, to feel heard and have their worries acknowledged, and to see someone like themselves achieving, besting the system, doing something they love.
FAQs on Funk Chords Progressions:
A whole manner of chords, as many as any other kind of music, find a home in funk. However, owing to its debt to jazz and blues, these chords tend to be extended to some extent, usually by the 9th and 7th degrees of the chord. Furthermore, because of the distribution of harmonic and rhythmic responsibilities between all members of the rhythm section, the guitar tends to gravitate towards higher pitches, often eschewing the root note entirely.
Quite literally, this is a chord found in a funk song. More often than not, this will orbit around three or four chords, even more frequently hovering on one chord for an indeterminate length of time, building tension through other elements – melody, rhythm, and timbre – all of which in some subtle way influence the way over time anyhow. The 1st, 4th and 5th degrees of the key are mainstays in funk music chord