Perhaps because funk guitar centers on rhythm and repetition rather than flashy technique, the genre’s greatest practitioners often get short shrift in discussions about six-string giants. With all due respect to the shredders of the world, the ten players below deserve prime spots in the pantheon of guitar legends.
Freddie Stone (Sly & the Family Stone)
As co-founder of Sly & the Family Stone--and as Sly Stone’s brother--Freddie Stone perfected a pop-funk style that helped power such classics as “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." The late jazz guitarist George Duke once pointed out that, as seen in early video clips, Stone appears to have honed his beefy rhythmic chops on a Gibson L-4 CES. Stone’s 2002 contemporary gospel solo album, Everywhere You Are, was re-released last year under the new title, Right Now.
Jimmy Nolan (James Brown)
As a key sideman for the notoriously demanding James Brown, Jimmy Nolan developed his famous “chicken scratch” style by focusing on light chops and rapid strumming, and playing near the bridge. Nolan relied primarily on either an ES-175 or an ES-5 Switchmaster to achieve his distinctive sound, heard in all its glory on tracks such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).” George Clinton, Nile Rodgers and former Earth Wind & Fire guitar great Al McKay are among the many funk guitarists who have cited Nolan as a primary influence.
Al McKay (Earth Wind & Fire)
Having kickstarted his career playing in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, left-hand guitar great Al McKay joined Earth Wind & Fire in 1973 and spent the next eight years co-writing and powering such classics as “Let’s Groove,” “September” and “Singasong.” As he once explained to Premier Guitar, “feel and groove” have always been the essential components of his stylistic arsenal. Much of McKay’s best work was done on his favorite guitar, a 1972 left-handed ES-335.
Eddie Hazel (Parliament-Funkadelic)
George Clinton’s P-Funk has boasted an array of funk-guitar greats through the years, but none has been better than Eddie Hazel. Hazel’s 10-minute solo on “Maggot Brain”--for which Clinton told him to “play like your mama just died”--remains one of funk’s seminal moments. Countless guitarists – including such rock-oriented players as J Mascis, Lenny Kravitz and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready—have cited Hazel’s explosive impact.
Tony Maiden (Rufus)
His name might be less familiar than other funk greats, but Rufus six-stringer Tony Maiden deserves prime placement among funk’s six-string elite. Songs such as “Tell Me Something Good,” “Sweet Thing” and “Once You Get Started” merely skim the surface of the artful licks he brought to the band’s music. A large chunk of his guitar parts—which, in addition to his rhythm work, included some of funk’s finest solos—were played on an ES-175, an ES-345 or a Les Paul.
Larry “Sugarfoot” Bonner (Ohio Players)
Small wonder that the funk world deeply mourned the passing of Ohio Players guitarist-frontman “Sugarfoot” Bonner when he passed away earlier this year. Bonner’s scratchy funk rhythm work and his single-note wah flourishes—along with his distinctive vocals—were the engine behind such monumental classics as “Love Rollercoaster,” “Fire” and “Skin Tight.” Bonner spoke eloquently of the origins of funk music, once saying, “Funk was born the day after the blues … to take away some of the sadness of the blues. Funk is a sort of happy blues, to me.”
Leo Nocentelli (The Meters)
As the King of New Orleans Funk, Leo Nocentelli long ago perfected a style built on a crisp tone, imaginative chord voicings and syncopated rhythms. His instrumental, “Cissy Strut,” is worthy of dissection by any student of funk guitar. Still, in a 2010 Gibson interview, Nocentelli insisted the feel for that style was a gift that simply can’t be taught. Nocentelli has long favored an ES-335 as his go-to instrument, citing the guitar for its extraordinary versatility.
Nile Rodgers (Chic)
Though he’s sometimes maligned as a purveyor of disco, Nile Rodgers is in fact a gifted player whose work with Chic, David Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan speaks for itself. Citing Wes Montgomery and James Brown’s band as primary influences, Rodgers once told Guitar Player he “tried to figure out a style that would allow [his] own voice to be heard.” “Funk was the perfect opportunity for that,” he explained, “because with funk records, when someone hums the song to you, it’s usually the guitar riff they’re singing.”
Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MGs)
The definitive recordings of “Knock on Wood,” “Soul Man” and “In the Midnight Hour” would no doubt sound radically different were it not for the funky guitar work of Steve Cropper. Cropper has often cited Bo Diddley and the under-appreciated Lowman Pauling (of Memphis’s The 5 Royales) as prime inspirations. In a 2010 interview with Gibson.com, Cropper said his gift for great licks lay in developing rhythm parts first. “My idea was to just play the rhythm until I felt a little opening in there,” he said, “and I’d stick a lick in or a fill. It’s easy to lay a track and play a rhythm, and then have somebody go sing or lay a solo over it, because the rhythm is nailed down.”
So dazzling is the six-string versatility of Prince, people sometimes neglect to consider the funkier aspects of his playing. His guitar work on “Kiss,” for instance, and on the entirety of 1980’s Dirty Mind, sports some of the funkiest rhythm sounds of the past three decades. Prince's rhythmic precision, combined with great tone, often constitute a bedrock foundation from which his monumental psychedelic blues solos can spring forth.