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On Bass: What the Funk?

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What if Flea had played David Hungate’s “Lowdown” bass line? Would it be as funky? Photo by Clare Cridland.

When I read descriptions of gear or EQ settings, the word funk comes up an awful lot, especially when it comes to bass. But we seem to be all over the map musically when it comes to defining funk. This month, I hope to shed some light on the funk, dispel a myth or two, and not make too many enemies in the process.

Funk is both a musical style and a musical movement. It started down a path with nice suits and slick hair, ran into bell-bottoms and drum machines, and eventually leaked into every genre of music. You’ll find funky licks showing up in jazz, country, new age, and even classical music if you listen hard enough. But when someone mentions bass and funk in the same sentence, we instantly channel into a certain EQ setting paired with some type of envelope filter or wah pedal.

If I asked you to name a funk-bass player, what’s the first name that comes to mind? I’ll almost guarantee none of you thought of James Kirkland. Kirkland was an upright player who started touring in the ’50s with Ricky Nelson, and was one of the first rockabilly players to slap the upright—a precursor to what electric players are doing today. One could argue that this isn’t really funk, but as much as Larry Graham was compensating for the lack of a drummer when he “invented” slap electric, Kirkland was doing just that as well.

After Kirkland came a personal favorite of mine: James Lee Jamerson and his ’62 Fender P “Funk Machine” with horribly dead flatwounds. He’s arguably one of the most influential bassists of all time, but he had nothing fancy up his sleeve to get his Motown funk together—just the one finger and a groove.

Before too long, other monumental and funk-tastically important players came along. Bootsy, Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Doug Wimbish, and the aforementioned Larry Graham shaped the ’70s into a ridiculously funky era. Their tones started getting brighter and they ventured into using effect pedals. Soon the lines grayed between keyboard and bass, and the two instruments were emulating the other. As funk progressed, so did the splintering of the genre and the tone. A young Michael Balzary (you know him as Flea) entered the scene with his band Red Hot Chili Peppers and influenced a whole new generation of funk bassists.

If players from different eras played the exact same notes on these records, would they be any more (or less) funky?

So back to the discussion of tone: What is the funk tone? Is Flea’s tone funkier than Jamerson’s? (Remember that we’re talking tone, not playing.) Flea’s tone is certainly brighter, and because of modern recording techniques, congruently a bit more pointed. Flea also uses wah, overdrive, and envelope filters, whereas Jamerson did not. Is his tone better than Jamerson’s? Some would say yes, others no.

To muddy the waters even more, let’s talk time travel within music. What if Flea (and his current tone) played David Hungate’s bass line on “Lowdown” by Boz Scaggs? Or what if Marcus Miller played on “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” by Kiss? If players from different eras played the exact same notes on these records, would they be any more (or less) funky?

Naturally, the records would differ tonally. But in my humble opinion, the funk is from within. I love, love, love that Flea has inspired thousands of people to play bass. I also hope that those same kids realize that funk is not about a mid-scoop EQ or a product with the name “funk” in it. Just like there are no wrong notes in jazz, there are no wrong tones in funk. You of course want what’s right for the track, but the fingers are key. So if you want to be a funk player, why would you buy anything labeled “funk”?

Trying to sell the funk in a funk pedal or amp is simply marketing. In amp-modeling software presets you see rock, country, funk, and so on for days on end. Does that mean you have to play rock licks with the rock setting? Of course not. These days, you are probably playing country licks with those settings! And the same holds true for funk. It’s merely a jumping-off point that someone has programmed for you. You don’t have to use someone else’s preset.

At its core, the funk tone is the tone that you want it to be. If you think it’s funky, then it is. Music has no boundaries or presets. Let your ears guide you and your fingers be the translator for your funky soul.

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