Getting into funk guitar? Congrats, you’re a drummer now! Turns out, everyone in a funk band is a drummer, no matter what instrument they play.

In this blog, we’ll explain what that means for you as a guitarist and help you figure out 16th-note rhythms, string muting, and common funk guitar chords, so you can groove like the greats.

Finding your groove

Funk music is synonymous with grooving, moving, and dancing. There’s a feel-good, energetic, and soulful vibe to this genre of joy

If you look at the origins of funk music at the beginning of the 1960s, it’s pretty clear why rhythm is the most important aspect of playing funk guitar.

  • Jazz, soul, R&B, gospel, and African rhythms all collided and the result is what we now call funk.
  • It’s characterized by its syncopated rhythms, tight groove, and emphasis on strong basslines, horns, and keyboards.

Get to know the most famous funk bands

If you want to build a repertoire of funk vocabulary, below are some listening suggestions:

  • James Brown, Ray Charles, and Sly and the Family Stone are some examples of musicians who helped birth funk music.
  • Other bands who carried the funk torch through the decades are The Meters, Kool & The Gang, Commodores, Parliament, The Isley Brothers, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruno Mars, and Cory Wong.

What to practice to get better at funk guitar

Playing funk guitar well means that you need to study and excel at three things.

  • Time feel: You want to be in control over the length of notes, on which beats you play and don’t play, as well as the ability to place a note or chord on, slightly in front of, or slightly behind the beat.
  • Dynamics: You want to be able to blend in with the band and also be able to place accents on certain beats.
  • Muting technique: You need to develop tight muted chops with both your fretting hand and strumming hand.

If that sounds daunting, don’t worry – we have some exercises to help get you started.

What does playing ‘in the pocket’ mean?

Since you’ll often hear this term used in funky circles, let’s understand exactly what playing, being, and staying ‘in the pocket’ actually means!

The term pocket is loosely interchanged with words like groove or rhythm.

  • When things are secure and in their right place, we’re free to move about and express ourselves comfortably.
  • This sheds some light on why it feels so good when the whole band is sitting in the pocket together.
  • Developing an awareness of how we feel can help with connecting to a groove.

What your mind is doing and what your body is up to will affect how you sound. Checking with yourself is key! 🧠💓🎸

16th notes and how to play them

Most music happens on some kind of rhythmic grid, and while a lot of pop and rock songs happily exist on a grid of quarter and eighth notes, playing funk requires a bit more subtlety: enter 16th notes. 🕺

In Western music, the quarter note is a very common length for one beat and the most common number of beats in one bar is four. Here’s what that looks like:

If we subdivide each of those beats into two parts, we get 8th notes. If we subdivide each of those beats into four parts, we get 16th notes.

Exercise 1: Counting in 16th notes

The metronome is your best friend. It’s always in time – the perfect drummer!

  • Count with each click and say out loud: “1”, “2”, “3”, “4”. Those are your quarter notes.
  • Then, for each click say “1 e and uh”, “2 e and uh”, “3 e and uh”, “4 e and uh”.
  • You’re dividing one beat into four – those extra syllables are your 16th notes.

Exercise 2: Strum 16th notes on your guitar

Next, we’ll apply 16ths to your guitar.

  • Keep the metronome going at 60 bpm (or even slower if needed).
  • Mute all strings with your fretting hand, we’re only playing ‘ghost notes’.
  • Strum along with the metronome in quarter notes. Use all downstrokes.
  • Strum along with the metronome in 16th notes. Alternate up- and downstrokes.

Exercise 3: Add accents to 16th notes

The point of this exercise is to get familiar with offbeats.

  • Offbeats, or weak beats are the rhythmic accents that don’t fall on the strong beats found in the bar (1, 2, 3, and 4).
  • The weak beats are: “e”, “&”, and “a”.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Put on the metronome at a slow speed and mute all six strings with your fretting hand.
  • Strum along in 16th notes and keep the dynamics the same for every strum.
  • Next, put a bit more emphasis on the “1” by stumming slightly harder on that beat –  practice this until it feels natural.
  • Now try to move the accent one 16th note over – emphasizing the “e”.
  • Move the accent again to the “&” and lastly to the “a”.

Exercise 4: 16th notes and the funky E9 chord

Let’s have some fun with those exercises and add in the E9 chord.

Below is a backing track. Get your chord shape assembled and play through the exercises again.

  • Instead of just emphasizing a beat by strumming a bit harder, this time, unmute your strings briefly to let our funky chord peak out. That’s going to be our accent.
  • See if you can come up with a groove that spans four bars.
  • Choose any 16th note to drop in your E9 accent.

Becoming a better rhythm player

The number one thing you can always improve upon is rhythmic awareness.

  • It’s a key skill that’s often overlooked.
  • The best gear, the sickest pedals, the hottest licks, and comprehensive theory knowledge won’t fix an underdeveloped time feel.
  • If it doesn’t feel good, you’re going to sound like a beginner.

Make the exercises above a habit and you’ll see your rhythmic abilities skyrocket! 🚀

To take things further:

  • See if you can not only land exactly on the beat but you can also slightly land ahead of or behind it.
  • Record yourself playing to a click track – it’s the easiest way to fin out if have a tendency to drag or rush.
  • Try the exercise with single-note lines as well as chords.

Strumming, picking, and muting techniques for funk guitar

Strumming- and fretting-hand coordination is important no matter what you play on guitar. Funk guitar has a few unique quirks though.

Reverse how you think about strumming and fretting hands.

Think of your fretting hand as the one that’s producing the sound.

  • Usually, your strumming hand is “making the sound happen”.
  • Forget that for a moment.
  • When you play funk, your strumming hand is a timekeeper and rhythm maker.
  • Your fretting hand is the one that determines when a chord or note rings out.
  • The strumming hand just maintains a rhythm.

Fretting-hand technique when playing funk

Your fretting hand is capable of great nuance that helps get more tone from your touch.

  • Mute strings you don’t want to be heard.
  • Control the length of chords.
  • Press down at precise moments and gently rest on the strings to command what comes out of your guitar.

Below are some tips so your fretting hand can work smarter, not harder:

  • Always keep your fingers close to the strings.
  • When you fret notes, keep the pressure as light as possible.
  • This becomes especially important when you add chromaticism and slide into chords and notes.

Funk is about finding that perfect balance between being precise while also sounding laid-back.

How to mute guitar strings with your fretting hand

Muting a string means you’re touching a string so it can’t ring out but you’re not fretting a note.

You can still strum it though and it’ll give you a ghost note, which makes for a funky percussive sound.

Here are the two most common ways to mute strings:

1. Lay any fingers that you don’t need to fret notes flat on the guitar neck.

In the example below, guitarist Kelyn Crapp is only fretting notes on the top three strings. His ring and middle finger are muting the bottom strings.

2. Wrap your thumb around the neck of the guitar to mute the low E, maybe even the A string.

Below are two chord shapes to try out with these techniques:

Strumming-hand technique

There is no right or wrong when it comes to strumming. You’ll have to see what works best for you. We do have some pointers though:

  • Funk often requires you to strum at fast tempos.
  • The more relaxed you can stay in your neck, shoulders and arms, the easier it’ll be to play fast.
  • Keep your wrist loose.
  • Playing fast rhythms can lead to a tightening of the picking hand – try to avoid this gripping the pick too tight.
  • Don’t force your pick through each string. Scrape past the strings quickly, in a percussive motion and only use the tip of your pick.

How to mute guitar strings with your picking hand

Your picking hand can also help with the task of muting strings.

Here’s a quick intro to palm muting.

Rest your hand against the strings near the bridge of the guitar. This creates a dampening effect and produces a muted, percussive sound.

  • Position your picking hand: Place the edge of your palm, lightly against the strings near the bridge.
  • Experiment with hand placement: Closer to the bridge creates a tighter and more pronounced muted sound, while moving away from the bridge allows more of the natural string sound to come through.
  • Combine with picking or strumming: As you palm mute, pluck or strum the strings with your picking hand.

Funk chords and chord progressions

Many funk songs not only survive but thrive as one chord vamps. You’ll often find that the chord material is not what’s difficult to master – it’s the rhythm, the attitude, and staying in the pocket.

Here are a few chord types you’ll often encounter in the (funky) wild:

  • The ever famous dominant 9th chord.
  • The only slightly less dominant 7th chords.
  • Other extended chords.
  • Chord voicings without the root note.

Example 1: Funk chord shapes with 9ths and 13th

This is an example of how to add movement to a one chord vamp. Below are the chord voicings, tab, and a backing track for you to play over.

Example 2: Funk chord shapes without a root note

Below are some examples of lean, rootless chord voicings. We’re assuming the bass is covering the root note so no need to double up.

Practice the chord shapes and when you’re ready, try to come up with a groove. Below are tabs if you need some suggestions, as well as a backing track.

Here are some rhythmic ideas to play with:

Below is a backing track for you to jam along with:

Example 3: Funk chord shapes using triad inversions

As you’ve already seen, funk music is not really the style of music where you play full chords that take up a lot of room. Here’s a riff that outlines chords but is mostly a single note line.

Here are the triad shapes that you’ll encounter in said riff:

Below are the tabs for the riff:

Where to go from here

We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to playing funk guitar. If you want to dive deeper, we recommend that you:

  • Check out guitarists Jimmy Nolen, Leo Nocentelli, Nile Rogers, and Cory Wong.
  • Pick one to three songs and learning the guitar parts.
  • Learn more about compression and wah pedals to craft a funky tone!

You could also take the easy route and use our free 14-day membership to Pickup Music to check out the Groove Learning Pathway. It’s a 3-month program with step by step instructions and feedback on your playing.

Author: Julia Mahncke