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Sometimes “ice-pick-in-the-ear” tones are the best option.
Are you obsessed with “the brown sound” so much that you no longer notice the brown stains on your teeth? Do you lie awake at night weighing the pros and cons of jail vs. the tonal properties of illegal tortoiseshell picks? Do you sell your plasma weekly and raid gas-station penny bowls to fund NOS tubes? Are there more pedalboards in your bedroom than chairs in your living room?
Some of you think I’m joking. Some of you are imagining Raphael and Donatello kicking the asses of CITES-violating jerkwads. The rest of you either are—or should be—saying, “If you only knew the depths to which I have sunk for the sake of grand tone….”
To the first, I say, “Enjoy your naïveté.” To the second, I say, “Beware of Michael Bay.” And to the rest of you I say, “Enough is enough—it’s time to funk shit up.”
Take this literally or figuratively—either way, it’s turtle-soup-for-the-soul advice: We have a propensity to be too damn un-funky. Too prone to plodding, predictable rhythms. Too addicted to the same old progressions or chord shapes. Too dismissive of “icky” guitar tones. Too apt to go for that phat-toned whole-step bend on the G string—followed by either a fifth on the high E or maybe a super-sustained B-string bend up at the 15th fret. Too stuck on isolated-in-a-laboratory definitions of cool sonics. We chase after sounds that rage in our bedrooms, but we wrinkle up our noses at sounds that, in a full-band mix, might be the difference between only guitar dudes caring and regular people actually giving a cuss.
So try this: Buy yourself James Brown’s The 50th Anniversary Collection. Put some Sly Stone in rotation. Get yourself some Kool & the Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band, Earth Wind & Fire, and Commodores. Even if you don’t become a funk fanatic, you’ll learn tons. Plus, you will become a funk fanatic.
For starters, these bands have seriously dense mixes. But check out how the guitar pops like crazy. Everybody’s got their own space, and they dial in their tones so they don’t step on the organ or the bass or the sax, let alone the vocal. And that proverbial “ice-pick” tone we always dump on? Actually, it’s pretty freakin’ useful. That sped-up, crazy-compressed guitar at the beginning of the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” would destroy small rodents by itself, but instead it gets you floating just before the nasty high-hat-and-snare grooves and the throbbing bass send you to boogie town.
But it’s not just the tones. Each of those bands is/was full of badass players, but their songs matter because the musicians could write a simple part that stuck in your cranium for, like, ever. And each of them wasn’t afraid to step completely out of the mix to let the song breathe.
Technique is also part of the equation. But it’s not about who has the nimblest wrist this side of the continental divide. And it’s not a swivel-action coordination contest between your wah foot and your picking hand. It’s about hypnosis.
There are gear considerations, too. But all of these things in isolation are worthless. It’s the combination of it all that works. And it doesn’t work for just funk. No matter what you play, see if you can’t occasionally get your rig to sound like a banshee whose reedy-as-hell shriek would make heads explode—if its ratty-ass rhythm didn’t combine with the rest of the band and channel the energy to everyone’s butts. If you can’t get your bridge or neck pickup to sound thin as a shiv, turn on your wah and leave it toe-down. Get a metal pick and work on riffs and rhythms that are exclusively spasmodic downstrokes. And those telephone-wire strings you’ve been using might make you feel like SRV, but if you want the cutting stank tone, try going down to .010s or .009s. And maybe throw a horrid-toned fuzz on top just to make sure the damage is done. Or, ignore your pedals completely and let the primeval snap of your axe and amp work their voodoo. Whatever you do, once you stumble upon a badass riff, grab on to that sucker and repeat it like a snake charmer messing with a cobra.
Just remember: Like everything else, funk can be predictable. But ain’t nobody got time for that kinda funk.