A group shot of the early Funkadelic ensemble circa 1970. Standing, left to right: Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Lucius “Tawl” Ross, Bernie Worrell, Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood, Grady Thomas, George Clinton, Calvin Simon, Ray Davis.
Seated: Eddie Hazel and Billy “Bass” Nelson (supine).
It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Parliament Funkadelic. They helped shape the sound of the ’70s, and, along with James Brown, pioneered funk and became the foundation of hip-hop. Literally. Their grooves have been sampled, looped, and rapped over ad infinitum. The band is still touring, releasing new albums, and George Clinton—P-Funk’s ringleader and mastermind—was recently nominated for a Grammy for his role on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 release, To Pimp a Butterfly. (Be sure to check out our sidebar that celebrates the eight main guitar players who paved the funky way.)
Of importance to 6-stringers, the guitar is central to P-Funk’s sound. On the heels of their first hit, 1967’s “(I Wanna) Testify,” the doo-wop group the Parliaments morphed into the psychedelic Funkadelic. Built around Eddie Hazel’s fuzz-drenched leads and Tawl Ross’ steady rhythmic chunk—and inspired by artists like the MC5, Vanilla Fudge, and Jimi Hendrix—Funkadelic redefined R&B. They were loud, audacious, outrageous, and infinitely groovy. In the 1970s—and with the reintroduction of the name Parliament—the band grew into a collective of about 50 musicians and perfected their infectious brand of funk. By decade’s end, they were selling out stadiums, selling millions of albums, and charting hit after hit.
It’s no surprise P-Funk attracted top guitar talent. In addition to Hazel and Ross, their roster included Garry Shider, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson, Michael Hampton (aka Kidd Funkadelic), Ron Bykowski, Glenn Goins, Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins, DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight, Ricky Rouse, and many others. “All of them played guitars except for me,” Clinton says. “I was good for humming lines for guitars. But I don’t have dexterity for shit.”
We wanted to find out about the history, tones, tricks, gear, and great guitarists—both past and present—of Parliament Funkadelic, so we went straight to the sources. We spoke with Clinton, Hampton, McKnight, and Rouse and crafted this roundtable of sorts. Sit back, prepare yourself, and get ready to learn some of funk’s deepest guitar history.
The way you used guitar really distinguished P-Funk from other funk groups, especially on the early Funkadelic stuff. What was your initial inspiration for that?
George Clinton: Well, for that, of course, it was going to be Jimi Hendrix. Right when we did “(I Wanna) Testify,” it was changing from the Motown era to rock ’n’ roll—European style. Rock ’n’ roll was coming back into the States all amped up. A friend of mine, her name was Nancy Lewis, was friends with Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix. We did a compilation record [Backtrack, Vol. 6] with them—“Testify” was on the record—on a thing called Track Records over in Europe, which became the Northern Soul Company. I saw those amps up at the girl’s house and we also played on Vanilla Fudge’s equipment one time. We saw that big sound—how it was created—and we just started buying up amps. I got Eddie Hazel two Marshalls—the one-piece Marshall [8x12 cabinet], not the half-stacks like they got today. It was one tall piece. That was the beginning of our psychedelic era—him and Billy Bass [Nelson]. When I got them started, they were just starting to play an instrument. Guitar became part of our changeover from the doo-wop time—from singing with vocals only, to a real loud guitar. Eddie Hazel learned very well. He had a Gretsch, a big-body guitar, at first.
Guitarist Gary Shider gets down during the P-Funk's Woodstock ’99 set. Photo by Frank White
A big-body Gretsch? I didn’t expect that.
Clinton: Then we got him a Strat. It didn’t matter to him. It could be a Kay or anything—he could make it sound the same. He learned so good—the Jimi sound and techniques. We were able to jump out ahead of most people from the R&B side. When we did “I Bet You” from the first Funkadelic album [1970’s Funkadelic], and then Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow, we deliberately went off to be really psychedelic. We knew we wanted to set a foundation so that we’d never have to worry about making a commercial record again. We went so far out there with the guitar on purpose on Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow that it became our signature—that loud, nasty guitar.
Back in the early days when you were first using all those big amps, was Eddie using pedals as well? How did that progress over time?
Clinton: Eddie started right out learning the pedals—the wah wah, the Big Muff, and phasers and shit. We bought all the gadgets in the world, [especially] once Bootsy got with us.
Blackbyrd McKnight: When I first got there, I had a Fender Stratocaster. I think EMG pickups had just come out in the early ’80s and I quickly gravitated to them. Other than that and a little preamp I used in my guitar, we were using Music Man amplifiers. I recall having an MXR Distortion +. I used a compressor—it probably was the Roland compressor at the time. I think I had a chorus pedal, but I can’t remember what brand it was. And I think that was about it because the Music Man amps were killer. I was told they were owned by Aerosmith. They were beefed up and they sounded absolutely great. I was a pedal guy and I loved playing with all kinds of pedals, but with traveling and carrying cords and pedals—this was before pedalboards and all of that stuff, for me anyway—I took a couple of things out. But the amps were more than enough to get that tone.
Michael Hampton: At that time, I think they had Aerosmith’s old Music Mans—their old backline. They had a Crown power amp, too. So they had the Music Man and then they had them running through the Crown to the speakers. The guys working as techs back then knew how to modify all that stuff. They could go in and modify whatever was happening with that amp. And they probably made that amp hotter. If it had anything to do with the tubes, whatever they knew how to do, it was probably responsible for that tone.