Perhaps because funk guitar centers on rhythm and repetition rather than flashiness, the genre’s greatest practitioners often receive short shrift in guitar circles. That is a crime that needs rectified. And so, we’re pleased to profile the following 10 funk-guitar greats, all of whom, in a better world, would be household names.
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 often used an ES-175 hollowbody or a Les Paul to achieve his distinctive sound, heard in all its glory on tracks like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
Freddie Stone (Sly & the Family Stone)
As co-founder of Sly & the Family Stone (and as Sly’s brother), Freddie Stone perfected a pop-funk style that helped shape classics such as “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." Fellow guitarist George Duke has pointed out that, as seen on vintage ‘60s video clips, Stone appears to have honed his beefy rhythmic cops on a Gibson L-4 CES.
Eddie Hazel (Parliament-Funkadelic)
George Clinton’s P-Funk has boasted an array of funk-guitar greats through the years, but none have 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 music’s seminal moments.
Utilizing a self-devised tuning based on the black keys of the piano (F#-A#-C#-F#-A#-F#), Curtis Mayfield forged a choppy, muted style that revolutionized rhythm playing. His landmark Superfly soundtrack album sounds as fresh today as it did upon its initial release in 1972.
Larry “Sugarfoot” Bonner (Ohio Players)
Ohio Players classics such as “Love Rollercoaster,” “Fire” and “Skin Tight” owe a heavy debt to the scratchy funk rhythms and single-note wah sounds of Sugarfoot Bonner. Bonner has spoken eloquently of the origins of funk music, 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.”
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. It’s a small wonder, then, that Chic’s “Good Times” and “Le Freak” are among the most sampled songs of all time.
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. Nocentelli has often favored an ES-335 as his go-to funk instrument.
Charles Smith (Kool & the Gang)
As co-writer of such classics as “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging,” Charles Smith made sure his funk-guitar playing was a central component in the Kool & the Gang sound. A guitar lover to the core, Smith often expressed a desire to go into the business of building and marketing his own brand of instruments.
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 rhythm work of Steve Cropper. Cropper has often cited Bo Diddley and the under-appreciated Lowman Pauling (of Memphis’s The Five Royales) as prime inspirations.
So dazzling is the six-string versatility of Prince, people sometimes forget just how funky his playing can be. His guitar-work on “Kiss,” and on the entirety of his Dirty Mind album, sports some of the funkiest rhythm sounds of the past three decades.