Making Classic Funk
The current '70s revival has shone a spotlight on a source of grooves plundered liberally over the last decade by megastars such as Prince — classic funk of the 1970s. Now Joe and Pauly Ortiz pass on some pro tips and show you how to get down and get funky...
This month we bring you a couple of funky patterns James Brown himself could be proud of. Grooves like these are appearing in one form or another on various club records at the moment and are being called one thing one minute and another the next. The fact is that there is nothing at all new about the grooves we are hearing in the clubs — they've been around for ages. It's the sounds that have changed. Take a classic drum beat — loop it, then add sequenced TR808 or 909 and there you have it. Groups like the Tower Of Power, The JBs (James Brown's backing group), and The Ohio Players have made very good funk albums over the last 10 to 20 years so we'll be giving you a list of essential listening at the end just in case you want to go further.
We're keeping to the format presented in this series over the last few months in Recording Musician and now in SOS, with the top of the grid acting as an info line and chords above the beat at which they occur. This time around, the chords we're using are most definitely jazzy in flavour — we'll keep them to four notes or less because that's all you need to make a 7/6 chord sound funky. The instrument line-up consists of Drum Kit, Tambourine, Electric Bass and Electric Guitar. The hi-hats can be thin and crispy or thick and chunky — either will suffice. Down beats on the hi-hat should be accented on the first beat of a set of eighths or sixteenths. The kick drum should be nice and tight but not over-toppy, as you don't want it to click through a track. The snare drum should be tight and crisp with just a slight ring to it — overall, a very acoustic kit, no gated sounds here. The bass sound should be like that used in reggae or latin music — round, with little or no top end, although it can be boosted slightly using EQ at around 5 or 6kHz to bring out the finger picking. The bass part is usually played (actually, more like popped) in sixteenths, in a very syncopated fashion. Dynamics also play a crucial part in both the bass and guitar phrases, so be careful not to level off the velocities in your sequencer edit pages. The guitar sound used in this pattern can be a clean strat or telecaster on the back pickup, almost tinny in quality so that it cuts through the rest of the band — and again, we prescribe some 'chicken scratchin'. If you want to add a brass section, a la James Brown, use a single tenor sax, and two trumpets,or one trumpet and one trombone. If it's a Tower of Power sound you're after, then you're talking at least two of each for trumpet, sax and trombone.
When approaching a funk track, the first thing you must do is relax — if you're feeling tight and tense, the music will reflect this. The best approach is to start by experimenting with a drum pattern and bassline. Usually, this will be a two- or four-bar cycle. Keep playing it over and over again. The bassline must be tight but, paradoxically, needs that 'loose' feel too. Remember, also, that a bassline is something you feel rather than hear — some people might say that funk has no structure; maybe it doesn't at first, because most funk tracks start with that great groove. Once you've secured that groove and it feels great, then you can start to structure a song around it. Think of a funk track as a heavy fruit cake: once you've secured the drum and bassline, it's time for the trimmings — start with chords played on piano or Rhodes. You probably won't need to play more than four chords, and some of the best funk jams have just two chords. It is the inversions that count, and the way you phrase them. Add plucky rhythm guitar, and splashes of brass. If you don't feel like dancing to your latest funk track, then don't expect anyone else to. "It ain't happened," as they say. Remember: it is the spaces in a funk track that make it happen. Less is more.
• TIP 1: This is a trick we use all the time. When playing a bassline, you'll probably be playing the bass sound with your right hand. Use your left hand to 'fill in the spaces', by hitting the top of your keyboard or your table with your left hand, to help you with the feel and rhythm. This looks and sounds a little crazy, especially to spectators. There you are with your headphones on, banging crazily on your keyboard or table — but you'll be surprised at how this method gives a completely new feel to your basslines. You can try this with percussion, brass, and rhythm guitar lines.
• TIP 2: Another little trick. When you first play something on the piano, and it has a good feel, remember you're then playing the bassline with the left hand — maybe you'll never play it the same when it's time to play the bass part with your right hand. So, if you're using a software sequencer like Cubase, Notator or similar, take your bassline from your piano part and make it your bass part. You can then delete the bassline on the piano or leave it there to thicken up that stomping bottom line. Turn your percussion or drum part into a bass part — you could find something exciting by accident this way. Funk is something that should be enjoyed; most great funk tracks start with a great jam!
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