Blackbyrd McKnight (left), Rickey Rouse (middle), and Michael Hampton (right) jam out with Parliament Funkadelic at the 2015 NAMM show
in Anaheim, California. Photo by Alex Matthews

With so many guitarists—plus keyboards—playing together, how do you keep from stepping on each other’s toes?
McKnight: We just listen as well as we can. At one point we had a mixer onstage—everybody had a speaker of somebody else’s on the other side of the stage. Everybody had at least one cabinet of another guy, so we listened and if one guy was playing the parts he played on the record, you’d play something that was relatively close to what he was playing but not step on his toes, and the same with the keyboards, because you could hear everything. The thing for me was being able to hear everything so that you didn’t overdo it.

Michael, there’s a video online of “Red Hot Mama” and you’re playing a guitar that looks like a Strat but it has a reverse headstock and it’s got three humbuckers. What is it and how did you get it to sound so good?
It’s a Strat. I put the left-handed neck on and three DiMarzio Super Distortions—I just went crazy with that guitar. I had an Alembic preamp they made back in the day—that kind of blew out later. I always liked funny cars and hot rods and that’s basically as close as I’m going to get for the guitar [laughs].

“I also try to put solos in there like how a drummer does a roll. He plays a drum roll and sets it up for the melody. I’m always listening for that resolution.”—Michael Hampton

Plus, I would just crank the guitar, man. I would turn it all the way up. Most of the time everything would probably be at 10. I guess it came from the pickups itself and the actual makeup of however it resonated. I pulled the saddles all the way back, too, so I could get more flexibility and more play in the string, and it wasn’t intonated correctly. The guitar was intonated with itself—if I hit everything open and you gave me all the strings open on the keyboard, then the guitar would be kind of out. But that might have a little to do with the tone, too, because there was more play in the strings. But it’s got to be those preamps, that Alembic preamp was probably working at the time, and those Super Distortions along with it probably gave it that tone.

Not to give it all up to me, but some people actually say it’s in your fingers. And I guess there is some truth to that, but I’m just trying to stay humble on that one. I’m pretty sure we’re talking about the electronics [laughs]. And the strings probably were definitely somewhere near new. Because I used to change them every two gigs or something, keeping the strings fresh.

How does Parliament Funkadelic write songs? Does the group jam and you find a good line or do people come in with ideas?
Most of the time we start off with a good line that started as a vamp or something onstage and we make a song out of it. When we get into the studio, we come up with licks and grooves and we just take them from there. Most head sessions are done in the studio, everybody [throws in ideas], and then we put the words to it. Once in a while I have a song written beforehand and then we do the track after it. That would mean [keyboardists] Junie Morrison and Bernie [Worrell] would have to do arrangements as opposed to head sessions—they would have to figure it out prior. “Knee Deep” was one of the best of those types of songs.

Rickey Rouse has played with Stevie Wonder, Chaka Kahn, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and even Tupac. “Look at his resume, watch him onstage—the dude is one badass dangerous guitar player,” says Blackbyrd McKnight about Rouse.
Photo by High ISO Music

Can you name an example of a jam that started onstage that you turned into a song?
Clinton: “Shit, Goddamn, Get Off Your Ass and Jam.” Almost all of the songs, because like I said, there would be a lick or something and we’d go into the studio and then put something to it.

Do you rehearse new material or is it cut live in the studio?
Rouse: It’s pretty much cut live; we don’t have to rehearse. George tells you what he wants and he’ll give you the freedom to put your thing on it and that’s how we do it. The only time we really rehearse is if we’re going to do a TV show or something like that where we have to have a set list. He is a very good orchestrator in the studio as well as live. He knows how to control the audience and the band at the same time. It’s never really a set show. We have certain things that might happen, like we might end with “Atomic Dog.” He might pull some song from the first album or something like that. But he’s pretty much in control of the thing.