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Funk and R&B Guitar

Gettin’ Down on Guitar

Welcome to the word of Funk and R&B guitar. What is R&B, and how did funk spring from it? What separates these genres from other forms of music, and what are the characteristics of this type of guitar playing? Who are some artists you should listen to as examples? We will cover all of that in this article.

Rhythm and blues

Rhythm and blues, often abbreviated as R&B, is an African-American genre of music that arose in the 1940s. The term was originally used by record companies to describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban African Americans, at a time when "urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat" was becoming more popular. In the early years of rhythm and blues music (1950s-1970s, the bands usually consisted of piano, one or two guitars, bass, drums, saxophone, and sometimes background vocalists. R&B lyrical themes often encapsulate the African-American experience of pain and the quest for freedom and joy. Lyrics focus heavily on the themes of triumphs and failures in terms of relationships, freedom, economics, aspirations, and sex.

In the modern era, the term R&B has become a blanket term for disco, funk, hip hop and other forms of dance music.

Funk

The funk genre sprang out of the R&B of the late 60s. Funk de-emphasizes melody and harmony and brings a strong rhythmic groove of electric bass and drums to the foreground. Funk songs are often based on an extended vamp on a single chord, distinguishing them from R&B and soul songs, which are built on chord progressions. Funk uses the same extended chords found in bebop jazz.

R&B guitar

Classic R&B (think of the Stax and Motown recordings of the mid to late 60s as an example) contains extremely soulful guitar work, largely made up of arpeggios and “decorated” with slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs. Some of the masters of this style of guitar work include Steve Cropper (a mainstay at Stax and Atlantic during that era), Bobby Womack, and Cornell Dupree. More modern R&B uses elements of disco and funk music.

Funk guitar

What sets funk guitar apart from other types of playing is its de-emphasis of melody, and increased use as a true rhythm instrument. Rarely in funk music are guitar chords allowed to ring as they are in pop/rock music. Rather, the note or chord is struck, and then almost immediately deadened, via releasing the pressure on the string(s) with the fretting hand.

While Funk often uses 9th and 13th chords as well as other unusual chords, at the same time a “minimalist” approach is used a lot of the time, as the guitar is a support instrument rather than a “lead player.” Once again, it is common for a funk song to have minimal chord progressions, so that the emphasis can be placed on horns, keyboards, and vocals.

Get down with it

For a good start, listen to R&B and Funk collections, such as the excellent STAX 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION and HITSVILLE USA: THE MOTOWN SINGLES COLLECTION 1959-1971 and 1972-1992.

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