A Very Brief History of Funk Music (from a Drummer’s viewpoint)

Posted: April 27, 2014 in Livin' in the USA, Music
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Front cover of The Drummer's Bible Second Edition(Excerpted from The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, by Mick Berry and Jason Gianni. Every chapter begins with a brief history of the style covered; this is the introductory material to the Funk chapter.

Tomorrow, we’ll publish the Funk history section from The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, by Tim Boomer, which explores different aspects of the genre.)


Like Jazz, Be Bop, and Rock n’ Roll, Funk acquired its name from a slang expression with sexual connotations. In musical terms, it originally meant anything that was off the traditional path or something that was “funky.” Some of the earliest forms of Funk began in the city that gave birth to Jazz, New Orleans. Along with New Orleans native Fats Domino (whose recordings featured the grandfather of Funk drumming, Earl Palmer), one of the most influential musicians to contribute to this genre is piano player Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, popularly known as “Professor Longhair.” His style includes the sounds of early Rock n’ Roll and Blues with the Afro-Cuban clave influence of New Orleans Second Line (featuring Earl Palmer yet again).

In the 1950s, another primary precursor of Funk arose—Soul Music. It combined elements of Rock n’ Roll and Rhythm & Blues, with Ray Charles being among the first to bring this new style to prominence. Near the end of the decade, another artist appeared who would become the driving force of Soul/Funk music for the next 40 years. James Brown (“The Godfather of Soul”) created driving dance music which involved advanced musicianship utilizing the syncopated and displaced rhythms which have come to characterize Funk. In addition, in Detroit, beginning in 1960 Motown Records helped create what is now called “the Motown sound.” Prominent Motown drummers include Richard “Pistol” Allen, Uriel Jones, and Benny Benjamin. The other prominent Soul label at this time was Stax, whose recordings often featured drummer Al Jackson, Jr.

By the mid-1960s, through the influence of James Brown, Stax, and Motown records, the style had become firmly established. Syncopated rhythms, displaced snare drum notes, and percussive horn arrangements all emerged as defining sounds of Funk and remain essential to the style today. Near the end of the decade, Funk music was further enhanced by the group Sly and the Family Stone, particularly through the innovative “slap” technique of bassist Larry Graham (later of Graham Central Station).

By the early 1970s, Funk began to achieve worldwide popularity. Dr. John, the Meters, and later the Neville Brothers, helped mature the sounds of New Orleans Funk and brought it national exposure. During the rest of the decade Funk music blossomed through the success of artists/groups such as War, Tower of Power (with drummer David Garibaldi), Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton and Funkadelic, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Ohio Players, The Commodores, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, and The Average White Band.

By the 1980s, Funk’s extensive popularity began to diminish, though the grooves of the Funk rhythm section had made their way into pop music through artists such as Prince and Kool and the Gang. Even Rock bands of the past 25 years have relied on Funk concepts, Dave Matthews and The Red Hot Chili Peppers being two prominent examples. Throughout the past three decades, the sounds of Hip Hop (see Hip Hop chapter) and modern R & B have also borrowed the rhythms and grooves of traditional Funk. Today the sounds and ideas of Funk pervade all popular music to such an extent that it has become an essential style for the working drummer.

The patterns played by a Funk drummer range anywhere from the simplest Rock grooves to intricate rhythms matching those played by the rest of the band. Additionally, the feels in Funk span from relaxed and laid back (“behind the beat”) to intense and driving (“on top of the beat”).

New Orleans Funk

The primary components of a New Orleans Funk pattern are the repetitive accents derived from the “3” side of a Son clave rhythm (One and Two and Three and Four and) mixed with the march-style characteristics of a Second Line groove. The distinguishing feature of this style is the cyclical rhythm defined by the drums and augmented by the other instruments. Notable drummers include Earl Palmer (who incorporated street parade drumming into Funk), Idris Muhammad, James Black, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, Willie Green, John Boudreaux, Johnny Vidacovich, Herlin Riley, Ricky Sebastian, Stanton Moore, Raymond Weber (of Dumpstafunk), Herman Ernest, Chris Lacinak and Joey Peeble, drummer for the newest New Orleans legend, Troy ‘Trombone’ Shorty. Though easily interpreted in double time, the feel tends to be laid back and relaxed (with the eighth notes often played “in the crack”) The tempo range is quarter note = 152–208 bpm.

Displaced Funk

“Displaced” refers to playing primary snare drum notes on counts other than the customary strong 2 & 4 back beats. Though creative and sometimes unusual, “displaced” patterns usually retain the repetitive feature of most drumming grooves. An innovative and complimentary pattern may not only be appropriate to a particular song, but can stand as a defining element of the song itself. Songs such as “Cold Sweat” (by James Brown), “People Say” (by the Meters), and “Chameleon” and “Actual Proof” (both by Herbie Hancock and Headhunters) are good examples of arrangements containing memorable Displaced Funk drumming grooves. Drummers of the classic James Brown era, such as Clayton Fillyau, Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks, the Meters’ Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeleste, Bernard Purdie, Harvey Mason, Mike Clark (especially on Herbie Hancock’s “Thrust” album) and drummers from the Neville Brothers, Stevie Wonder, and the Average White Band all explored the use of “displaced” rhythms. There is no standard Displaced Funk groove. The example and variations below are simply a practical approach to the style. Endless Displaced Funk variations are possible. However, it’s good to play at least one snare drum note on a standard back beat (2 or 4) so as not to lose the beat. Whereas New Orleans Funk is usually felt and counted in double time, the patterns in Displaced Funk are felt in 4/4. The tempo is medium at quarter note = 100–138 bpm.

Linear Funk

“Linear” describes notes that occur one after another in a “line,” with no notes being played simultaneously (that is, no limbs striking at the same time). This creates a lighter sound than the layered approach of Displaced Funk. The Linear approach tends to be quite busy, usually featuring 16th notes throughout an entire measure. Though these patterns can be found in standard Funk (e.g., early Meters recordings featuring Zigaboo Modeleste), they tend to be more prominent in the Fusion genre. Prominent Linear drummers include Billy Cobham, Alphonse Mouzon, Rod Morgenstein, Tony Williams, Mike Clark, and Dennis Chambers. As with Displaced Funk, there is no standard Linear Funk groove. The practical tempo range for Linear Funk is similar to that of Displaced Funk with quarter note = 100–138 bpm.

Ghost Note Funk

“Ghost Note” refers to any note that is played very lightly, usually on the snare drum, and is indicated by parentheses surrounding a note. The desired effect is that the ghost notes be heard under the main sound of the groove. This produces a subtle 16th-note feel around a strong back beat or certain accents. As opposed to Linear Funk, the notes of these patterns fall in sync with one another to create a “layered” effect. Prominent Ghost Note drummers include Harvey Mason, Mike Clark, Bernard Purdie, Steve Gadd, and most notably David Garibaldi of Tower of Power. As with the previous styles, there is no standard Ghost Note Funk groove, though the patterns below are common. Ghost Note Funk patterns are more practical at a slightly slower tempo than those of the above Funk styles with quarter note = 92–126 bpm.

Funk Rock

Though not technically an established style, the term “Funk Rock” describes music that can be classified as Rock incorporating elements from Funk, such as syncopated rhythms and percussive horn lines. Bands and artists such as Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores, Michael Jackson, and Sly and the Family Stone could all be included in both the Funk and Rock genres. As opposed to the above Funk styles, Funk Rock usually has fewer ghost notes, a steady back beat, and an emphasis on bass drum displacement (syncopated bass drum, displaced from the standard strikes on 1 & 3). The practical tempo range for Funk Rock is similar to Ghost Note Funk at quarter note = 92–126 bpm.



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