The History of R&B and Funk Guitar

Funk Guitar

As one of the more prominent music genres of the past century, rhythm and blues (R&B) and funk music have emerged to the world’s music scene around mid-20th century in the United States. Both represent some of the most popular genres of African-American music and are based on a steady groove section.

R&B was the one to emerge the first, roughly in the 1940s, while funk originated in the mid-late 1960s as a mixture of soul and R&B itself, along with various jazz music influences. The guitar was a crucial instrument for both genres, perhaps not as critical as to rock or blues music, but quite important nevertheless. A major difference between the two genres’ playing styles was in the chords used, seeing that rhythm and blues was based on chord progressions, while funk was more about repetitive single chord structures, or vamps.

The term “rhythm and blues” was initially coined in 1948 by a Billboard magazine journalist Jerry Wexler in order to replace the old name “race music,” which was expectedly dubbed racists and offensive to the black community. Another greater style difference between the two can be found in the rhythmical approach, as funk is based on much more of an intense groove. But when stripped down to bare bones, it all comes to a relatively simple, yet still highly effective and emotional guitar strumming.

The funk and rhythm and blues guitar are fairly easy to recognize and single out among the number of other, somewhat similar styles. Some of the main characteristics of funk guitar include the following:

Great emphasis on the rhythm factor

  • Muting strings
  • Clean tone
  • Use of wah pedal to gain additional groove
  • The use of 7th and 9ty chords

The Emergence of Funk and R&B Guitar

The history of R&B guitar can be traced back to the late 1920s and early 1930s through the work of musicians such as Cab Calloway, Count Basie, T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson. As the ‘40s arrived, along came the greater use of electric guitar, which could now stand side by side with the genre’s other key instruments, such as the piano or saxophone.

As far as the funk goes, the genre was reportedly fueled by Little Richard’s R&B act during the 1950s. One of the funk founders, the “godfather of soul,” Mr. James Brown, gave Richard nothing but props for inspiring him to pursue the musical career and the similar groove, ultimately resulting with the birth of funk. This brings us to the first highly influential funk axeman – Jimmy Nolan of the James Brown band. Nolan was often described a Brown’s key sideman, developing the globally renowned “chicken scratch” technique, giving full emphasis on intense guitar strumming and light, yet fast axe chops. The guitar he used was the Gibson ES-175 hollow-body model or a classic Les Paul.

We should also single out the early days of the so-called British rhythm and blues, as the genre eventually went on to spawn such iconic rock bands as The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds or The Kinks. Guitarists were without a hint of doubt among the most prominent figures in each of the bands and included six-string legends such as Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.

Disco, Jazz Funk and Onward

With James Brown setting up the foundations of funk music and unleashing such classic funk numbers as 1965’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” or 1970’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” that are bound to get the crowd going wild and crazy like there’s no tomorrow to this very day.

The emphasis was still very much on the groove, so it comes as no surprise that the upcoming disco genre, often considered as one of funk’s most popular and successful derivative forms, was founded upon the sturdy beat and fluid bass grooves. This gave the guitar nothing short of ideal conditions for a dose of intense strumming and loads of syncopation.

Since it’s the guitar that we are focusing on, we should mention some of the genres most prominent axemen as well. The list would include, but not be limited to such masters of funk six-string as Eddie Hazel of Parliament-Funkadelic or the Sly & the Family Stone co-founder Freddie Stone. Hazel will always remain known for his astonishing 10-minute solo on “Maggot Brain” track. The moment when the band leader George Clinton told the guitarist to “play like his mama just died” remains one of the genre’s most iconic and well-known stories.

Further on in the axeman domain we would most definitely have to mention Curtis Mayfield and his revolutionizing rhythm guitar playing style and Nile Rodgers of Chic, whose immense guitar talent proved to be of use to not only the New York City disco act, but to such seminal music legends as David Bowie or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Of course, Prince shouldn’t be missed by absolutely all means, as his astonishing career and over 80 millions records sold around the globe were actually based on nothing but raw talent and amazing guitar skills. Don’t let yourself to be fooled by the flashy exterior, it’s only pure music power all the way when it come to Prince and his highly prolific career. Over the four decades of his numerous musical endeavors, he has managed to release a whopping figure of 34 studio efforts.

The genre itself is alive and well to this very day, and probably always will be, as the driving beat of funk and rhythm and blues guitar are one of the most basic, yet complex grooves out there, accessible to just about anyone willing to give them a go.

Crucial funk derivatives also include boogie, electro music, funk rock and funk metal. It may be a bit difficult to grasp the fact that so much love and music came out of those very first rhythm and blues guitar strumming, but it just goes to show how unpredictable the music can really be.

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Marko Jovanovic

Marko is a freelance music journalist from Serbia. As a tech savvy individual and a regular news and feature article writer, he contributes on a wide array of musical topics with at least a pinch of rock 'n' roll always present in his work.


  • Maggot Brain ranks up there with any of the rock solos of the 1970s, I’m glad you mentioned it. I do think that Prince & the Revolution are one of the most underrated musicians of the 1980s, Prince is one of the most talented guitarists in the world and never gets his due respect for that.