It’s more than you might imagine…
Like much of African-inspired music, funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments such as electric guitar, electric bass, Hammond organ, and drums playing interlocking rhythms. Funk bands sometimes have a horn section of several saxophones, trumpets, and in some cases, a trombone, which plays rhythmic “hits”.
Influential African American funk performers include James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, The Meters, The Funk Brothers, Bootsy Collins, Rick James, and Prince. Notable 1970s funk bands included Rufus feat. Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind & Fire, Eric Burdon & War, Tower of Power,Average White Band, The Ohio Players, The Commodores, Kool & the Gang and Cameo, though many of these most famous bands in the genre also played disco and soul extensively. Funk music was a major influence on the development of 1970s disco music, and funk samples were present in most styles of house music and early hip hop music. It is also the main influence of go-go. Funk also has left its mark on new wave, and its pulse is evident in post punk as well.
Funk creates an intense groove by using strong bass guitar riffs and bass lines. Like Motown recordings, funk songs used bass lines as the centerpiece of songs. Notable funk bassists include Bootsy Collins, Kenny Franklin,Bernard Edwards, George Porter, Jr., Louis Johnson, Francis “Rocco” Prestia of Tower of Power and Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone. Graham is generally credited with inventing the percussive “slap bass technique.” Slap bass’ mixture of thumb-slapped low notes and finger “popped” high notes allowed the bass to have a drum-like rhythmic role, which became a distinctive element of funk. Some of the best known and most skillful soloists in funk have jazz backgrounds. Trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker are among the most notable musicians in the funk music genre, with both of them working with James Brown, George Clinton and Prince. Sometimes 1970s funk bands are divided to “hardcore funk” and “sophisticated funk”, the former concept referring to earthy sound in the vein of James Brown or Funkadelic, while “sophisticated funk” refers to artists such as Tower Of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Blackbyrds or The Brothers Johnson, who use softer sounds and usually incorporate soul ballads into their material.
Funk utilized the same extended chords found in bebop jazz, such as minor chords with added sevenths and elevenths, or dominant seventh chords with altered ninths. However, unlike bebop jazz, with its complex, rapid-fire chord changes, funk virtually abandoned chord changes, creating static single chord vamps with little harmonic movement, but with a complex and driving rhythmic feel.
The chords used in funk songs typically imply a dorian or mixolydian mode, as opposed to the major or natural minor tonalities of most popular music. Melodic content was derived by mixing these modes with the blues scale. In the 1970s, jazz music drew upon funk to create a new sub-genre of jazz-funk, which can be heard in 1970s recordings by Miles Davis (On The Corner) and Herbie Hancock (Head Hunters).
In funk bands, guitarists typically play in a percussive style, often using the wah-wah sound effect and muting the notes in their riffs to create a percussive sound. Guitarist Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers and Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic were notably influenced by Jimi Hendrix’s improvised solos. Eddie Hazel, who worked with George Clinton, is one of the most notable guitar soloists in funk. Ernie Isley was tutored at an early age by Jimi Hendrix himself, when he was a part of The Isley Brothers backing band and lived in the attic temporarily at the Isleys’ household. Jimmy Nolen and Phelps Collins are famous funk rhythm guitarists who both worked with James Brown.