“We want the funk, we need the funk” was sung by Parliament and George Clinton at the end of the70s, something like that is what happened to the world of music, it witnessed a genre become the main reference to black American music from the end of the 60s to the start of the 80s, when hip-hop, built on its own base, took its place as young African Americans’ main influence. Here at Guitars Exchange we’d like to review some of the main guitarists of a genre that got the world dancing.
In March of 1970 James Brown had already won all the possible titles there were, not in vain was he the Godfather of Soul and inventor of funk, arguably the most important figure in the history of black music, but that month he would take another step up in his career and would enter his most glorious stage in the strangest of ways. He fired his legendary band that month (Maceo Parker, Jimmy Nolen, Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley…), refusing to give them a pay raise, and contracted some kids called the Pacemakers to take their place. The main pieces to the Pacemakers were the Collins brothers, Bootsy, 18 on bass, and Catfish, his big brother on guitar. With this injection of new blood, in less than a year, Brown would go on to record some of the most memorable classics in his career such as Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine, Soul Power, Super Bad and Talking Loud and Sayin’ Nothing, songs that would define what funk is forever. One of its distinctive elements was Catfish’s short licks with his Vox Ultrasonic. Together they would perform some of the best concerts of all time, before the story would repeat itself when the Collins brothers left Brown. When that happened, another important name in the genre, George Clinton, brought them into his universe with his bands Funkadelic and Parliament, out front (and later on in Bootsy’s Rubber Band) which would help him become the funk reference from the mid to late 70s, and Catfish would keep leaving his mark on such great songs as Flash Light.
Steve Cropper has already appeared in our favourite rhythm guitarists section and among our favourites with the Telecaster, and if we made a classification of our favourite players (off the top of our heads) we could not forget him. And that’s because what he did in the Strax Studios in Memphis throughout the 60s is historic. Not only did he become the guitar of soul, defining the sound of the genre forever behind giants like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett or Sam & Dave, but we can also find in his economic style the basis for funk guitar, suffice to remember gems such as Soul Man, or Sookie, Sookie by Don Covay. To find Cropper in top funky form, look no further than the record Melting Pot by his Booker T & The MGs, with such electrifying things like the title song or Fuguawi.
At the end of his life one of the thing s that worried Jimi Hendrix most was how he would be seen by his own people, it hurt him when black radio channels refused to put on his music and that Harlem considered him some sort of a sell-out to whites. So, what Eddie Hazel did was to get Hendrix’s guitar into the blackest music of the moment: funk. I think Hendrix would have appreciated it from the bottom of his heart. Hazel was the ace up George Clinton’s sleeve to turn Funkadelic into one of the strongest funk bands in history. Who says that a funk band can’t play rock? Since Hazel came along, nobody. But he did even more , he was capable of delivering one of the most shocking guitar solos in history on the incredible Maggot Brain, a song where Clinton told him to play as if someone had told him his mother had died, and later he would find out it wasn’t true. But beyond his best solo, Hazel was capable to shoot fire from his various Gibsons, (Les Pauls, Firebirds…) or from his several Stratocasters, using multiple effects he would get out of pedals such as the Maestro Fuzz FZ-1A, the Crybaby Wah, and the Echoplex Delay System. In a genre full of great rhythm guitarists, Hazel was its most outstanding soloist.
Another Hendrix disciple was the youngest of the Isley brothers, Ernie, who had the opportunity to learn straight from the master when he was a boy. Hendrix spent two years as a member of the Isley Brothers and lived in their home. It was a time when Ernie wasn’t yet in the band and his big brothers held their own onstage with hits like Shout and Twist & Shout. The impression left on him was big and Ernie was carving a place for himself in the band little by little, firstly by recording the bass on the funky It’s Your Thing, and then eventually taking up the guitar with which he would leave the world stunned on his first record as a fixed member of the band, 3 + 3, released in 1973 where his solos on That Lady, with a Stratocaster thru a fuzz box and a ‘phase shifter’ by Maestro, and Summer Breeze turned him into one of the most significant guitarists of the decade. His contributions would still mark the funkiest time for the Isley Brothers as in the seminal Fight The Power, one of his compositions, Hope You Feel Better Love, (perhaps his most brilliant moment, though not the best known), The Heat Is On or the slow Voyage to Atlantis. Fender would recognise his work by making in his honour three Zeal Stratocasters, by using his own design.
Mayfield is one of the giants of black music, a name up there with the elite, legends like James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. But few forget that he was also an excellent and particular guitarist, whose licks on the Impressions was a source of inspiration (always recognised) for Hendrix himself. When he started his solo career in the early 70s, his Fenders, mainly a Strat (although he also used a Telecaster, like the Thinline in the remarkable Curtis Live), began to distill the essence of funk, with the prominent use of the wah, which would give a hallmark identity to this music. His special sound was dated from a long time ago, Curtis used a particular tuning all his own out of his love for the boogie-woogie piano, something which filled the musician with pride, he declared, “it doesn’t matter how good the guitarist is, when he picks up my guitar he doesn’t know how to play it”. To find the best examples of his funkiest era, don’t forget the essential Curtis, from 1970, and Superfly, from 1972.
Few places in the world are ‘funkier’ than New Orleans, a city called the cradle of jazz, but it also is among those of rock and roll and funk. So inside what is probably the most musical city in the world, a group par excellence were the Meters, sponsored by the instrumentalist/producer Allen Toussaint, with Art Neville on keyboards and the great Leo Nocentelli on guitar. Just like the best stew in town, the Meters were creole and had the best of flavours, very few essential things exist in this genre other than Cissy Strut, where Nocentelli’s Gibson ES-175 is the centerpiece. So much so that people like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones became fans of the band. Its production is emblematic of the identity of the funk style, with records like Look-Ka Py (1969) and Rejuvenation (1974), which became cornerstones, but we can neither ignore the work he did for other artists such as fellow New Orleans citizen Dr. John, Robert Palmer, Labelle, or McCartney himself, where he put his legendary Fender Starcaster to good use.
If James Brown is the inventor of funk, then we can say, with total certainty that Jimmy Nolen is the first guitarist of the style. His influence is felt in all the names that appear on this list, the 2 and 3 note chords and the percussive rhythmic approach, which define the style perfectly. His contribution on Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag , with the creation of the ‘chicken scratch’, is the clearest antecedent, but his work on anthems like Cold Sweat, There Was a Time, Give It Up or Turn It Loose, Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud and Mother Popcorn was the example to follow for a generation of funk guitarists. Despite being among musicians who, in the early 70s, had tried to get away from Brown’s bad temper and stinginess, Nolen would end up going back to the fold and record with him some of the 70s classics like The Payback and Hell. The father of funk guitar used several guitars, among them: a Gibson ES-175, an ES-5 Switchmaster and a Gibson Les Paul.
Prince Rogers Nelson is one of the biggest geniuses in the 20th century, it’s impossible to peg his enormous talent and unique style, or any activity related to music. He played dozens of instruments, he sang, composed, produced, and did basically whatever he felt like. Often overlooked, he was nonetheless one of the best guitarists in the world. Saying he was a funk guitarist is too simple because he could play any style, but when he did play funk, the world shook under his feet. Those who had the luck to see him live will know when the Minnesotan genius took his Hohner, an imitation of the Telecaster, and began to show what he learned from James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament and the Meters, he brought the house down. For a guy who can play solos like that of Purple Rain and Bambi or Let’s Go Crazy, his funk vein was what put that playful smile on his face in long jams in which he took all those influences to create something completely his own. If you weren’t that lucky (to see him onstage) and want to listen to Prince at his funkiest in the studio, look for gems like Kiss, 1999, My Name is Prince or the incredible Alphabet Street.
Perhaps the guitarist who got more people dancing than anyone in the world, Nile Rodgers and his ‘Hitmaker’ (his white Stratocaster) are behind some of the most irresistible rhythms in history either with his group Chic, in moments like Good Times and The Freak, or putting his talent to hits like We Are Family by Sister Sledge, Upside Down by Diana Ross, Let’s Dance by David Bowie, or more recently, Get Lucky by Daft Punk. His style is based on an evolution of jazz chords used like percussion elements. He came up with it while rehearsing So What by Miles Davis with his teacher, when he saw he couldn't beat him he started filling in the spaces, making the people there listening shout “That is funky!”. Rodgers is one of the most sought after producers and composers in the world, but when he begins to play his guitar, you can’t sit still.
Freddie Stone is always eclipsed by the enormous figure of his brother Sly, but the sound of his guitar is one of the keys for the group they shared, Sly & The Family Stone, to become one of the main funk formations, managing to rival James Brown in the early days. His riffs were simple yet effective, as you can hear on Sing A Simple Song or Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), where he compliments Larry Graham’s bass to perfection. His choice guitar went from a Gibson L-4 in the beginning to a Telecaster at the end, always knowing how to find the delicate balance to blend into the rhythm section or horns, making an irresistible machine better as a whole.