Funk Basics

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018

Funk drumming is all about two things: groove and syncopation. Groove is universal, syncopation is where the funk starts.

Grooving goes without saying. Every single thing you play needs to groove. Every fill, every ghost note, every accent needs to be in the pocket. That’s not just for funk. That’s for everything. Syncopation is where funk starts to distinguish itself from other beats. I’ll discuss the subject more in depth in just a little bit, but syncopated accents are what make a groove feel “funky”. It’s really not much more complicated than that.

To learn about funk drumming, we must go to the source. Listen to the great drummers who pioneered funk music to the world. I’m talking about drummers like Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks with James Brown, Tower Of Power (feat. David Garibaldi on drums), George Clinton's Parliament and Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone (Greg Errico on drums, then a list of others), Zigaboo Modeliste of the Meters, and Mike Clarke with Herbie Hancock just to name a few. These were the people who created and pushed funk music, and they are who you should start to listen to if you’re not familiar.

The article isin 3 parts…

  • Basic Breakdown of Syncopation and Funk
  • The “One”
  • James Brown’s “The Funky Drummer

Breakdown: Basic Syncopation and Funk Grooves

Syncopation is when accents are played on weak beats. It can happen at any rhythmic level: sixteenths, triplets, swung sixteenth notes, 8th notes, even quarters and a half notes can be syncopated.

Generally, when we’re thinking about funk drumming, syncopation happens at the 16th note, swung 16th, or eighth note level. Accents are generally placed on weak beats like “e” and “a” (1e+a 2e+a 3e+a 4e+a… etc.), or the “and” between eight notes if we’re syncopating at the 8th note level.

Basic Funky Groove

A simple 1-bar funky beat might go like this…

A funk beat where only the bass drum is syncopated.

Notice how the snare drum stays on 2 and 4 in this example. The bass drum is the only thing making it syncopated and funky.

However, you can also syncopate the snare. Here’s a 2-bar funky pattern in which the snare is displaced and syncopated.

A 2-bar funk pattern where the snare and kick drum are syncopated.

You can play it as is, or try swinging the 16th notes to give it a different flavor. Play it with a metronome to make sure all the subdivisions are being played accurately and in the pocket. I really can’t stress this enough. Do it!

The One

James Brown, one of the most important people in the world of funk, was a stickler for the “one”. The “one” refers to beat 1 of the phrase. He wanted everyone to hit the one with authority and accuracy.

The one is a very key, sometimes overlooked part of funk drumming. The one tells you where everything else should be played. Even if there are syncopated accents and punches happening around (but not on) the one, the one needs to be very clearly felt and stated by the drummer in most funk music.

Notice how I’m saying the first beat of the “Phrase” and not the bar. Some phrases are several bars long and don’t call for beat one to be marked in every bar.

Here’s Bootsie Collins (bass player), and Jabo Starks (drummer) explaining the “one”. Notice how in the pocket Bootsie’s “ungh” is.

James Brown’s Funky Drummer

A huge piece of funk drumming is this one particular groove that Clyde Stubblefield played on a James Brown cut called “The Funky Drummer”. The whole tune is great, but there’s a part where Clyde plays a couple bars of a solo drum break that essentially spawned hip-hop as we know it.

Those short couple of bars are some of the funkiest drumming ever played, and it’s probably the most famous funk drum beat ever. It’s been sampled on a vast number of other recordings, in plenty of genres.

It’s a one bar pattern that goes like this…

Clyde Stubblefield’s Break on “The Funky Drummer”. The most sampled piece of drumming ever.

Here’s a loop of the break, courtesy of YouTube…