How To Bring The Funk On Guitar

There are a lot of styles of guitar playing out there today, and one of those is funk.  Funk guitar relies heavily on rhythm playing and setting up a groove that’s “in the pocket,” or fits well into the song.  Learning funk rhythm guitar is a great lesson for every guitarist.  It is such an important lesson I put together a few information sources that guitarists can use to not only master funk guitar, but use it in any style of preferred guitar playing.
I eluded to playing “in the pocket” above; it’s a style of playing that is essential in funk guitar playing.  I found a good introduction to “the pocket” here at

Many years ago, I got my first pro session call. A&R; Studio, NYC. Full band and six horn players. Some sight reading, mostly rhythm playing.

I did OK. Everyone seemed happy, and I was relieved to just survive! At the end, packing up my gear, the horn guys start talking to me, saying they dug my playing but I could use some help playing “in the pocket.”

There really was no way they could truly explain it to me except by picking up my guitar and showing me. The groove the horn player laid out was deep and authoritative. It showed command and confidence. It was like hearing an English accent after hearing a New York suburb accent your whole life. I got it.

So what is the pocket and how can you learn it? You can’t learn it without hearing and feeling it. You can’t understand it in a vacuum. It exists and shows its teeth and beauty while playing live with other musicians. Once you learn it, your life will never be the same.

Esoteric? Maybe. But still very real. Here’s another description. Ever see a pro basketball player handle a ball? The bounce is firm. With authority. Command. How about a pro quarterback? His pass is perfect. Spiral. Placed where he wants it.

The pocket is like that to me. It is an understanding of exactly what you can do on your instrument. It is perfect timing. You do not step on other players’ shoes. You know where you live, and it is good and right and groovin’.

Playing guitar means not only learning from guitarists. You MUST listen to other musicians to truly learn. With that in mind, I asked a few friends who I DEEPLY respect about their take on playing “in the pocket.”

Here’s what bassist, solo artist, producer Les July, one of the grooviest people on the planet, says about the pocket:

“Generally, the pocket is the perfect synchronicity of the bass drum and the bass guitar. When applied to an entire band, it’s about everyone playing in perfect time, with attitude.” Les has played with Nile Rodgers, Dr. Dre and The Bus Boys, to name a few. He lives the pocket.

How about drummer extraordinaire John O’Reilly? He plays with The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He’s also done time with Ritchie Blackmore, Alan Holdsworth, Zakk Wylde and Steve Morse. Here’s John’s take on “the pocket”:

“What I find very disturbing these days is that many younger drummers have no idea how to produce “The Pocket,” let alone know what it is. They tend to think of it as something they have to search for; in other words, it’s out there somewhere. When, in fact, it’s inside of their very soul, searching for a way to express itself. No, it’s not in your monitor mix, my friend. It’s not anywhere outside of you. Quick question: Have you studied the great masters of the past? Start with Hal Blaine, Al Jackson, Bernard Purdy, Panama Francis. Google these greats. Listen and learn because success will leave clues every time.”

One more buddy, guitarist George Marinelli. George has played with Bonnie Raitt for quite some time. He’s also a founding member of Bruce Hornsby and The Range. Living in Nashville, he has played on countless sessions. George gives us some advice on how to lock in to the groove:

“One way to stay locked with the groove is to keep the right hand pumping 1/8ths or 1/16ths and mute with the left hand, only un-muting for the desired notes. Works great for single-note funk parts.”

So let’s get into playing funk guitar.  Funk guitar is going to hone in on your rhythm playing and should reveal some different tricks you can use in funk and many other styles of music.  Find a solid introduction video lesson here at

For more tips on funk guitar, check out the information here at

So, ya wanna play funk guitar? Many rules of rock guitar just don’t apply to funk music. In order to play funk music well, you’ll have to un-learn some of the habits you’ve picked up over the years. This lesson should help provide you with the basic requirements needed to get your start playing funk guitar.

Basic Technique

The technical key to playing funk guitar is in your fretting hand. Although most of the chords and riffs you’ll play will be simple, you’ll need to learn to deaden strings with your fretting hand, to create a rhythmic sound. Rarely in funk music is a guitar chord allowed to ring, as it is in pop/rock music. Rather, the note or chord is struck, then almost immediately deadened, via releasing the pressure on the string(s) with the fretting hand.

Practice this technique with various chords. Of course, the picking hand is also very important. Strings should be played firmly, with great attention to rhythmic detail.

Ego Check

The role of the guitarist in funk music is quite different from pop music. The funk guitarist’s job within the band is mainly to be rhythmic, and will probably have a lower profile then he/she may be used to. Often, a funk guitarist will repeat one simple rhythmic figure for five minutes at a time, without variation. Guitarists looking for the spotlight on stage often don’t make great funk musicians. Great discipline is necessary.

Give the Drummer Some

Your role as a funk guitarist is essentially the same as the role of the drummer. It’s not about notes – it’s about how you fit in with the rest of the band rhythmically. Turn your attention to the drummer, and focus intensely on what he is doing. Concentrate on making what you are playing “groove” with what the drummer is doing. If you can lock with a drummer, you can bet you’ll be called first when other musicians are looking for funk guitarists to play with.

Funk Guitar Chords: 9th Chords
Ninth Chords

If you’re coming from the world of rock and roll, the chords used in funk music may be a bit foreign to you. Power chords, one of the staples of rock music, are very rarely used by funk guitarists. In fact, funk guitarists tend to focus on the upper strings of the instrument, rather than playing the lower (deeper sounding) strings. Additionally, they’ll often play only partial chords – a few notes at a time, rather than full chord shapes. Although far from complete, the following represents a few of the favored chord shapes used in funk music.

Funk guitar chords

The 9th Chord

The 9th chord (shown above) is a funk guitar staple used constantly by funk guitarists. Especially the chord on the left, with the root (notated by the red dot) on the fifth string.

Be careful about playing the sixth string root 9th chord on the lower frets – it can sound very muddy.

The 9th chord is a 7th chord with one extra note, added for color. Try replacing 7th chords in songs you know with 9th chords. There are some situations where this substitution doesn’t work – use your ear to tell you what sounds right.

It is also EXTREMELY common for funk guitarists to only play the top three strings when playing the fifth string root 9th chord. Sometimes, they’ll even only play the top two strings.

Funk Guitar Chords: 13th Chords





Played on it’s own, this is a pretty “jazzy” sounding chord that might sound a little out of place in funk music. It is commonly used, however, as a “passing chord”. Note that the above 13th chord is essentially a 9th chord, with the note on the first string being two frets higher. Many funk guitarists will play the 13th chord, then quickly resolve it to the 9th chord, by removing their pinky from the first string, and playing the chord again. Give it a try.

Funk Guitar Chords: Basic Funk Chords
There seems to be a preference in funk music to use chord shapes that have the root on the first string. Since the first and sixth string are both “E” strings, learning to use these chord shapes should be easy for guitarists who have already learned their note-names on the sixth string.
The major chord above gets used reasonably often, although many times, funk guitarists will only play the top two notes of the chord, which makes it identical to the 5th chord displayed above.
The minor chord above is also used extensively. Note that this minor chord shape is identical to the 9th chord with root on fifth string, when the bottom two strings are not played. So, many funk guitarists would play the above chord shape on the fifth fret for both an A minor chord and a D9 chord.
The above 5th chord is extremely popular. This two note chord is VERY versatile, and can be used for many things. Since a 5th chord can be used to play either a major or minor chord, the above shape, played at the fifth fret, could be an A major or an A minor chord.
It could ALSO be the top two notes of a D9 chord. This chord shape is used to represent all of these chords – it’s a popular one – so get comfortable with it.

Playing funk guitar

Just like any other style of guitar playing, it’s important to know and research who innovated funk guitar.  I found a great article highlighting a few of the top funk guitar players in music history.  Learn about them here at—Best-Funk-Guitarists-of-All-Time&id;=5282723.

Compared to other music genres, funk perhaps downplays their guitarists the most, as the distinct sound of funk focuses more on rhythm and repetition rather than long, drawn-out solos. But that does not in any way undermine the importance of the funk guitar to define funk music. Rather, it simply means that funk bands play as just that–a band, instead of a group of soloists.The following paragraphs feature a few of the greatest funk guitarists of all time; names that any funk fan would be familiar with and artists that have influenced, not only funk music, but many other genres as well.

Jimmy Nolen. There is no other guitarist more deserving of this top spot than Jimmy Nolen, the guitar player for one of the pioneers of the genre, James Brown. It is said that it is he who redefined the role of the guitar for real funk music.

His most distinguished legacy is that of the “chicken scratch” sound, which is a notable style of picking where the guitar strings are pressed lightly against the fingerboard and then quickly released–just enough to get a muted scratching sound. This guitar style greatly influenced a large number of guitarists and other funk groups, including Tower of Power, George Clinton, and Chic.

Eddie Hazel. Lead guitarist for Parliament-Funkadelic, Eddie Hazel can be considered a legend for the way he handled and played his funk guitar. He is actually an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was even ranked 43rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list. His most celebrated claim to fame is his rare ten-minute guitar solo in the song “Maggot Brain”, which was released as the lead single of Funkadelic’s third album of the same name. This solo has been greatly lauded by fans, music critics, and fellow artists.

Curtis Mayfield. A true pioneer of funk music, Curtis Mayfield is highly deserving of praise, not only for his guitar prowess but also for bringing about social awareness through his music. As a guitarist, he created his own unique style of tuning his guitar against the black keys of a piano, which generated a choppy, muted style that revolutionized rhythm playing in the funk genre. But as an artist and social activist, he created some of the most influential albums in history that openly criticized the state of affairs of African-Americans and their rights during his time.

There can be no funk music without the guitarists that provide the strong riffs and extended chords that characterize the genre so well. The artists mentioned above really transformed funk and the music industry with their skillful playing of the funk guitar.

Practicing funk rhythm guitar will help your guitar playing all around.  It’s a style deeply rooted in the soul and the most famous guitarists find a way to express their souls through the guitar in any style of music.

As always, find answers to all your guitar questions here at Mike’s Guitar Talk.  Any and all feedback is appreciated.

Have fun and stay tuned!


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