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 funk-guitar greats, all of whom, in a better world, would be household names. Please note this is by no means a definitive list of the greats just some we dig and hope you'll find some enjoyment both listening to and trying to master their funky riff waxings
Jimmy Nolan (James Brown, The J.B.'s/Maceo and All the King's Men )
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. Nolen developed a style of picking known as "chicken scratch," in which the guitar strings are pressed lightly against the fingerboard and then quickly released just enough to get a muted “scratching” sound that is produced by rapid rhythmic strumming of the opposite hand near the bridge. This new guitar style was affected not only by Nolen’s choice of two and three note chord voicings of augmented 7th and 9th chords, but also by his strumming straight 16th note patterns, as in James Brown’s "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."
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)."
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.
Leroy “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.
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.
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.