By Ron Jackson
Funk guitar might be most commonly associated with the scratchy electric rhythms of a player like Jimmy Nolen, in support of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. But the acoustic guitar lends itself just as well to these cool percussive sounds, as evidenced by the guitar on the 1972 Bill Withers hit “Use Me” and more recent work by such artists as Ben Harper, India Aire, and Ed Sheeran.
So, how do you make your acoustic guitar sound raw and funky? The following figures are intended for steel-string acoustics and are best played using a medium-gauge pick, held tightly enough that it won’t fall out of your fingers, but loose enough that there’s not excessive tension. Think “sleepy wrist” as you strum through these exciting rhythms.
Breaking It Down
Begin with a rhythmic review. In 4/4 time, there are four quarter notes in each bar. And each quarter note can be divided into four 16th notes, for a total of 16 in each measure, best counted like this: “One-ee-and-uh, two-ee-and-uh, three-ee-and-uh, four-ee-and-uh,” and so on.
Sixteenth notes are abundant in funk rhythms. Ex. 1, in which a C9 chord—the same chord that will be used on all of the examples—is strummed in straight 16ths. Set your metronome to a slow speed, around 60 bpm. Strum the chord in alternating downstrokes (toward the floor) and upstrokes (toward the ceiling). And make sure that you lock in with the metronome on each beat (1, 2, 3, and 4) while evenly spacing all of the notes. If needed, try subdividing: Set the metronome to 120 bpm, and then the ticks will line up with both the beats and the “ands.”
Fret-hand muting is absolutely essential to funk guitar—it’s what makes the great scratchy sound. To articulate this technique, which is indicated with Xs in notation, release pressure on your fret-hand fingers such that the strings sound deadened when you strum them. Try some fret-hand muting, making sure that you’re getting a tight, percussive sound, and then play Ex. 2, which uses the technique on the second and fourth beats.
Fret-hand muting can occur anywhere in a measure, and skilled funk players can mix and match different rhythmic patterns without even thinking about it. Just a few common variations are shown in Ex. 3–6. When playing through each one, count carefully, again making sure to lock in tightly with the metronome at whatever speed you can accurately play the music. After you’ve tried these examples, experiment with shifting the placement of the muting on the C9 chord.
The previous figures have used straight 16th notes. Things get a little more complicated when other rhythms and syncopations are involved, like in Ex. 7 and 8, which use dotted eighth notes (the equivalent of three 16ths) as well as tied 16ths (meaning the notes on the right side of a tie aren’t sounded). In playing both of these patterns, keep that up-and-down strumming motion even when you’re not hitting the strings. For instance, on beat 1 of Ex. 7, your pick hand will be moving continuously, but you’ll only come into contact with the strings in a downstroke squarely on the beat and an upstroke on the uh.” Maintaining that constant pick-hand motion will help you accurately keep time.
Finish up with a two-bar rhythm inspired by “Use Me” (Ex. 9), bringing all of these concepts into play. To put this more involved part together, practice each beat separately, then work up each measure before stringing everything together. Remember to maintain a constant strumming motion, and, most importantly, keep a rock-steady beat, so that funk thing doesn’t fall apart.
Ron Jackson is a New York City master jazz guitarist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator who’s played with Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, Randy Weston, Ron Carter, and many others. Learn more at practicejazzguitar.com.