Monday, June 24, 2013

Let's Get Funky! (Uh...But What Is Funk Anyway?)

Musicians who play with soul often use a technique called "funk."  But what is funk?  According to
Funk is a very distinct style of music based on R&B that reached its height in popularity from the late 1960s to late 1970s. Its name originated in the 1950s, when "funk" and "funky" were used increasingly as adjectives in the context of soul music -- the meaning being transformed from the original one of a pungent odor to a re-defined meaning of a strong, distinctive groove [the "groove" being the rhythm laid down by the drums and bass].

One of the most distinctive features of funk music is the role played by bass guitar. Before soul music, bass was rarely prominent in popular music. Players like the legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson brought bass to the forefront, and Funk built on that foundation, with melodic basslines often being the centerpiece of songs. Other noteworthy funk bassists include Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone. Graham is often credited with inventing the percussive "slap bass technique," which was further developed by later bassists and became a distictive element of funk.

The stong bassline is primarily what separates Funk from R&B, soul and other forms of music, melodic basslines often being the centerpiece of songs. Also, compared to the soul music of 1960s, funk typically uses more complex rhythms, while song structures are usually simpler. Often, the structure of a funk song consists of just one or two riffs. The soul dance music of its day, the basic idea of funk was to create as intense a groove as possible [emphasis added].

The Funk genre has lost most of its popularity since the 1970s, but saw a mini-revival in the early 1990s due to the sampling of Funk songs by hip-hop artists.

Examples of popular contemporary funk artists include Soulive and funk pioneer George Clinton, who's still recording new music after more than three decades. Also, many rock bands use a stong funk element in their music, including Primus and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
My major problem with this piece is its definition of funk as a separate genre of music.  Funk was and is a style or technique, not a different genre.  It was mostly applied to Rhythm and Blues or Soul music, but may be applied to other genres as well.  Elements of it can be found in any face-paced music genre, like Latin (think Santana) And jazz.  Vince Guaraldi, the famous jazz pianist, was known as "Dr. Funk" to his fans and fellow musicians.

Funk is a staccato bassline with triplets and eighth notes, many of which are played on the upbeat.  That's why it is so hard to play -- our natural tendency as bass players is to play on the downbeat.  In addition to playing in a staccato style, the bassist also relies on slap and pop techniques to emphasize certain chords, and hand muting techniques to make individual notes more distinct.  Beyond all this technical verbiage, funk just sounds good!  An otherwise bland song can be given pep, the way a bland soup wakes up to spices.

A great example of a song played "funky" is the classic R&B tune "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."  Marvin Gaye's 1968 version is the most popular, though it wasn't funky when first released.  Gaye added funk to later live renditions, as we shall see.  Here are some facts about this famous song:
The Gaye recording has since become acclaimed a soul classic, and in 2004, it was placed on the Rolling Stone list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. On the commemorative 50th Anniversary of the Billboard Hot 100 issue of Billboard magazine in June 2008, Marvin Gaye's "Grapevine" was ranked 65th. It was also inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame for "historical, artistic and significant" value.
Now let's consider different Versions of "Grapevine," funky and the not-so-funky:

1. Gladys Knight and the Pips released their version in 1967, before that of Marvin Gaye, and it went to number two on Billboard.  Gladys Knight's version is undoubtedly the funkiest version.  See her sing it live at this link, and be sure you can hear the bass (use headphones if you don't have capable speakers).

2. Marvin Gaye's original version was not funky but he added funk in later performances.  Hear his original 1968 recording here (no funk) and his live performance in Montreux here (funk added).

3.  Finally, there is Creedence Clearwater's version of the song -- no funk at all.  Hear it here.

In my opinion, the funk adds a great deal of color, class and enjoyment to the song.  Funk may not be absolutely necessary, but it surely separates the elite performers from the also-rans.  Therefore, if you are a bass player, it would behoove you to learn at least some basic elements of funk style.

There's a series of lessons on YouTube called "Rock School," produced by mostly British performers, explaining various aspects of rock music.  Volume 3 of Rock School covers "Funk."  There are eight videos covering in Vol 3, but only the first three deal with funk.  They are worth your time if you want to get funky.  See links below.

When learning to play funky, start slow and add more over time.  Be patient.  

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