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On The Beat (Part 6)

Article from Music Technology, January 1990

The funk is everywhere - and MT's regular drum programming column is no exception. This month Nigel Lord examines funk grooves and gives plenty of example patterns to assist your programming.


OF ALL THE styles of music responsible for drawing people away from the bar and on to the dancefloor, funk has proved itself to be one of the most effective - and certainly one of the most durable. Curiously though, it is also one of the most difficult to define, particularly in terms of its rhythmic structure. There seems to be a number of widely differing opinions of just what constitutes a good funk track.

In preparation for this month's article, for example, I asked a handful of friends to name a couple of their all-time favourite funk records. And, whilst I can't say I was surprised to hear each one name two completely different tracks, it was interesting to learn precisely what they regarded as coming under the funk label. Though there were obvious classics like 'Sex Machine' and 'Keep On Truckin', these were rubbing shoulders with much more recent tracks like 'When Doves Cry' and 'Word Up'. Often, straightahead black funk numbers such as 'Keep On Steppin' and 'One Nation Under A Groove' were mentioned in the same breath as the altogether whiter, more industrial tracks like Japan's 'The Art of Parties' and BEF's 'Fascist Groove Thang'. Other examples were culled from the promising (at the time) Brit-funk eruption of the late '70s - bands like Lynx and Light of the World - and of course there were the more commercial one-offs such as Wild Cherry's 'Play That Funky Music' and the quite wonderful 'Burlesque' by the long-defunct Family (no pun intended).

Clearly, funk, unlike the more clear-cut styles such as house or hip hop, can be all things to all men and sometimes seems best defined by what it isn't rather than what it is. Certainly, you cannot point to the moving of (say) a snare drum beat to a different position in the bar as being characteristic of funk in the way you can with reggae, for example. Though there are certain rhythmic phrases which crop up repeatedly, these are by no means universal and their inclusion (or otherwise) is no indication of a track falling into the funk category.

In fact, sitting down and listening to as many of the records mentioned as I could find, I was struck by how straightforward most of the drum parts were. In every case, they were played with great feel and (not unexpectedly) rock steady delivery, but from a rhythmic point of view, there wasn't much which could be described as being of real interest. ('The Art of Parties' was the one notable exception.)

Most, if not all of the tracks gained their funk "stripes" from the interplay between bass and drums which was often quite inspired. However, the approach of the other instrumentalists involved also demanded attention - as it does in any analysis of funk styles. Obviously, we're talking feel again here, and though rather difficult to describe, it has a lot to do with what it is that goes to make good (and recognisable) funk music.

I suppose there is a parallel to be drawn with in many of the classic soul and Motown tracks of the late '60s. Here, despite the drums being kept well down in the mix (when did you first hear a bass drum on a record?), the other musicians seemed to develop a way of implying the beat through their playing - a technique which could often extend as far as the vocal. The result, of course, was some of the most enduring music of the last 30 years, which, despite the absence of the kind of monolithic bass/snare one-twos which have become de rigeur in recent years, still has wide appeal amongst dance audiences.

Funk, perhaps as a result of its evolution from those earlier styles, has a similarly intangible rhythmic quality to it. And that is undoubtedly what each of the people I asked heard in the records they named. From our point of view, however, the relative simplicity of most funk drum tracks and the absence of any real unifying features makes it difficult to achieve any kind of distillation of funk music into a convenient half dozen patterns which could be said to typify the genre. It is, however, possible to produce patterns which have an undeniable funk feel to them whilst remaining open-ended enough to allow them to be tailored to fit specific needs.

In all cases, a sympathetic bassline is essential if a convincing funk groove is to be achieved, but of course, as with most common time (4/4) patterns, a little restructuring and a different choice of instruments can steer them off into a completely different direction, should you feel the urge to experiment. Programming the patterns as originally conceived, on the other hand, is quite straightforward, with nothing more esoteric than hand claps and side sticks to worry about. There is a cabasa line in Pattern 4, but this can be replaced by any sort of shaker, or indeed omitted altogether, if no substitute is available.

One of the most important facets of any funk track is the creative use of space. This can exist as space within the pattern as a whole, or simply between instruments. In either case, it should be made full use of by whatever bass instrument has been pressed into service alongside the drums. In terms of space between instruments, many classic funk tracks make use of gaps left between bass and snare drum figures to slot in fast, accented hi-hat beats - frequently using the open hi-hat - and this has been reflected in a number of the patterns included here.

Dynamics are also of paramount importance, and though (once again) I've restricted programming to low, medium and high accent levels (represented by open, dotted and solid diamonds or rhombs), those with more sophisticated machines would be well advised to extend the dynamic range by programming instruments at levels between these three rather arbitrary values. As regards tempo, though not carved in stone (so to speak), the indicators do act as a fairly accurate guide to the sort of speeds you should be aiming towards, at least at the outset. But once again, use your own discretion.

To get things moving, Pattern 1 is fairly conventional, and is given much greater rhythmic interest by a well chosen hi-hat line, a nicely complementary side stick part and a few snare flams...

As I mentioned last month, the snare flams (in Bars 2, 4, 6 and 8) may be programmed as 64th notes if your machine has no specific flam function available. If, on the other hand, your machine is incapable of resolving down to that kind of level, you'll simply have to try dropping the volume of the other snare beats in the pattern, so that you're left with accented beats in place of flams. It is also worth spending a little time programming the hi-hat part - its dynamics and the opening figure at the start of every other bar are crucial to the feel of the pattern.

Though quite different in structure, much of what I've said about Pattern 1 could equally apply to Pattern 2. It's a much faster rhythm, and relies more heavily on the bass drum to fill the gaps, and employs a ride cymbal part to provide a rhythmic offset to the hi-hat.

The small letter "O" in the bass drum note in Bar 7 is intended to indicate it being optional, but if you decide you like it, you could also try inserting it at the corresponding position in Bar 3.

Pattern 3 is one of those rhythms it's better to run through a couple of times before deciding whether you like it or not. The bass/snare drum construction at the opening of every other bar gives the pattern a rather unconventional feel, but it's one which, with the right accompanying bass part, could provide the basis for a number of successful funk tracks.

Of particular interest is the interplay between the bass drum and the open/closed hi-hat in Bar 8 which provides an almost perfect cadence for funk music, and if nothing else could be extricated from its current setting and grafted into other patterns where this is possible. Keep an eye on the dynamics in the fast hi-hat figures at the end of each bar, these are essential if it is to sound like the instrument has actually been played with a pair of sticks - which for a number of reasons is more important with the hi-hat than other instruments.

I suppose Pattern 4 would be best described as Latin funk. With its syncopated cabasa line and quite elaborate open/closed hi-hat and ride cymbal parts, it has an undeniable Latin tinge to it, yet should prove adaptable enough to allow it to be used within a variety of different settings.

Having struggled to overcome my prejudice against handclaps since the days of those appalling segued disco records of the early 80s, I have included a handclaps line here. As you will see, however, it's some way from the role of ersatz snare drum it was cast in during its Stars On... period, and in this setting complements the pattern quite nicely. You could, of course, replace it with another instrument if you too have an aversion to the sound - a cowbell or ever timbales might prove interesting, particularly ir view of the Latin flavour of the pattern.

Finally this month, we have what can only be described as a classic funk rhythm in Pattern 5. I make no excuses for lifting the hi-hat line from Pattern 1: despite the different feel of the two examples, it fits just as well here and fills the somewhat sparse arrangement perfectly - I say sparse but as you can see, the bass drum is given plenty to do and will certainly have a strong influence on the structure of the accompanying bass guitar part (or whatever bass instrument is used). At 80-100bpm it ticks along at quite moderate pace, yet is still perfectly suited to dance tracks and offers plenty of opportunity for further development.

Series - "On The Beat"

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All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 (Viewing) | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35

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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Jan 1990

Feature by Nigel Lord

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