Rhythm Rules: Call-and-Response Funk Guitar
• Develop a “call-and-response” technique by combining single notes and chords.
• Learn how to combine two parts into one interlocking, syncopated rhythm.
• Create funky grooves in the style of James Brown, Fela Kuti, and Nile Rogers.
Listen to the classic recordings of Earth, Wind & Fire, Fela Kuti, Parliament Funkadelic, the Average White Band, the Bar-Kays, Michael Jackson, James Brown and countless unsung soul bands, and what do you hear guitar-wise? Driving the sound are two interlocking guitar parts, with one player assigned to rhythm duties and the other to plucked single notes (sometimes called ”tenor” guitar). Syncopated interlocking guitar parts can be an essential ingredient of funk, and having two guitarists in a band (or overdubbing two guitars) is one way to replicate that classic sound. Chords and single-note tenor lines create a call-and-response, intertwined pocket. Which do you want to play, chick-a-wah or pluckies?
Luckily, you don’t have to choose. You can emulate the “rhythm/tenor” division with a single guitar. Rather than just chanking away at some chords, or plucking on some muted D-string notes, you can combine chords and single notes to create interlocking guitar parts all by your lonesome self.
To get started, check out Fig. 1A. It’s pretty unmusical, but it is a good building block and exercise for developing separation between chords and single notes. Try using all downstrokes, but also get comfortable with other strumming combinations: up-down, down-up and up-up. Fig. 1B adds a muted 16th-note scratch to give some rhythmic bounce to the upper Am chords.
In Figs. 1C and 1D we take the basic concept in a more musical direction by adding a Bm chord and a more melodic lower line. We add slides on beats 2 and 4, while retaining the previous example’s rhythmic chordal feel. Fig. 1C is played by two guitars, while Fig. 1D merges the two parts. There are countless possibilities for this and once you get the hang of this concept—“calling” upper chords that are “answered” with a lower line—you can develop your own riffs. Who knows, you may even get a song out of it.
Fig. 2A is a bit like a quick Fela groove, played by two guitars, and Fig. 2B fuses the parts into one guitar part. Try playing using all downstrokes (except for the “a” of beat 1). You can play this rhythm using a more legato approach, as illustrated in Fig. 2B, or with a choppy attack, à la Nile Rogers.
Now check out Fig. 3A, played by two guitars, and then Figs. 3B and 3C, played by one guitar (with Fig. 3C adding a low a note).
Figs. 4A and 4B slow things down. These are in Bb Dorian and have an underlying swing-16ths feel. Boasting a wide range, these examples combine low notes, moving upper pull-offs composed of parallel fourths, and middle-string chords. Again, we start with Fig. 4A played by two guitars and then merge the rhythm and tenor parts in Fig. 4B.
Similarly, Figs. 5A and 5B also span more than two octaves and incorporate chords and tenor lines. Check out the nice Bb sus on beat 4 of the first measure.
The next group of examples are all played on one guitar, but have the vibe of two separate funk parts that have been merged. Fig. 6 employs an E7#9 “Jimi Hendrix” chord, with the call on the 1 and the response on beats 2 through 4.
Fig. 7 starts with a “Sex Machine”-inspired call, and the answer includes single notes and parallel major thirds.
Fig. 8 is very strummy, even through the single low notes, and has chords that move from F7 to Eb7 for the calls on beats 1 through 3, with a tenor line answer starting on the “and” of beat 3. At an even brisker tempo, we have Fig. 9. It’s in C minor and has a very wide range.
We slow things down for the reggae riff in A major shown in Fig. 10. Again, the tenor line and the rhythm skank are welded together as a single mighty force. Married to live happily ever after.
Tip: I find it easiest to play rhythm guitar (or rhythm guitar with single-note lines) by holding the pick with thumb, index, and middle fingers. You get a nice solid grip by doing this. The pick strikes the strings at about a 45-degree angle, similar to the angle of the 5-way switch on a Strat. Most of the movement occurs at the wrist, which is slightly arched and moves in a rotational way, with the fingers holding the pick firmly. I find this approach gives a nice, even, and firm sound to funk rhythm, almost like you have a compressor on your guitar. Furthermore, it allows for comfortable muting of notes or unwanted sympathetic vibrations on unplayed low strings.
Another Tip: Try playing some of these examples with your fingers. You’ll sound a bit like a junior Charlie Hunter. Actually, playing with your fingers opens up all kinds of doors to polyphony, but the point of this article is you can capture some serious interlocking polyphony with a pick and one 6-string guitar.
And now a word of caution: Just because you can play chords and tenor lines in one riff doesn’t mean you should—or at least that you should all the time. You don’t want to be the obnoxious over-player. If there’s a keyboard player in the band, or a busy bass player, or lots of percussion, it’s unlikely to make musical sense to play a dense guitar part. A spare part with lots of space will be much nicer and funkier.