When you hear the pros playing funky with great rhythmic feel and continual variation they sound awesome. The best players seem un-phased by the complex coordination and endurance required to play this material. Since it can seem intimidating trying to fathom how to acquire these skills and start sounding as good as the pros, I’ve outlined 5 essential practice methods for getting your playing sounding awesome.
Funky piano – when we hear someone doing it well we think “Wow! I really wish I could do that.” Unfortunately its typical speed and complexity make it hard for a beginner to learn. The trick is to slow it down (half speed) whilst you learn it and also study transcriptions of funky patterns.
Whilst learning suitable funky patterns is necessary, sounding funky isn’t just about playing fast and complex. In fact if you haven’t developed a good rhythmic feel playing less busy material, you’re not going to be able to make the more complex stuff sound good!
Developing a good sense of rhythm can take a little time but the good news is, if you find yourself digging those funky styles, you definitely have it in you to play funky yourself. Early on it can seem impossible and it’s common to hear people say: “I have no sense of rhythm.” – which is almost never the case. People who enjoy rhythmic music often have the potential ability to play too.
1- Listen to the music that you want to play
This is actually incredibly important for all styles of music. Even music that is less obviously rhythmic has a unique feel that you must “get” to be able to imitate it.
When listening to funky music you can help develop your rhythmic feel by clicking your fingers, dancing, or getting a shaker and playing along.
Next try playing simple repetitive patterns on the piano like basslines, riffs or chord vamps
2- Practice with a metronome/drum track
Now this one can be a little controversial. Playing with a metronome with 4 clicks to a bar can leave everything sounding rigid and soulless. What jazz players do however is to set the metronome to half time and then play against it so the clicks land on beat 2 and 4. This really helps playing with a swing feel but even if you’re playing straight it allows you a little more freedom to develop a feel whilst still keeping you in time.
A lot of people find playing to a metronome very hard at first so start with playing simple patterns or even just tap along with it playing a regular 4 beats per bar. If you can’t do this first you won’t be able to play against 2 and 4 nor will you be able to play correctly against a drum track. The good news is that once you get over the initial hurdle of playing simple patterns against a metronome, things get easier very quickly and the benefits are definitely worth it.
3- Listen to yourself / Record yourself playing (and listen to the recording critically!)
Yes, it’s surprising how few people really listen to themselves whilst they’re playing. This can be quite tricky at first so try doing it whilst playing something that you’re already pretty solid on. By focusing on the sound you’re creating as you play something repeatedly you should be able to notice and correct minor mistakes.
Recording oneself is also a great if excruciating test. Yes it can be painful at first but please don’t let that discourage you. The very moment you start hearing all the little imperfections, you’ll already be well on the way to fixing them and as a result start sounding a lot better.
4- Play with other musicians
This is a fantastic thing to do! Playing with other people will enhance your feel, musical communication and spontaneity. You can only really learn the skills of musical interaction by playing with other people, so get out of your bedroom and find some musos!
Playing with musicians better than yourself can do wonders for your playing. One way is to go to jam sessions. If you don’t feel ready to sit in on the piano, go along and play the tambourine or a shaker.
Playing with other musicians your level is equally important however. Even if you’re a beginner, it’s going to add a whole new dimension to your playing.
Developing rhythmic feel is the most important and subtly challenging, aspect of sounding funky
5- Develop your Left Hand
People tend to shy away form it and yet it’s such an important element in funk! Here are some areas where you can improve
Scales & Arpeggios
Some technical practice playing scales and arpeggios can be very important.Basslines
Work on your left hand basslines. Track down a book of funk, jazz or blues basslines and spend some time playing through them with the left hand (always whilst practicing your feel). You will soon see the benefit and start seeing how to incorporate them.
A couple of starter tips on how to construct your own left hand bass parts is to find yourself some chord progressions (4 bars-8 bars long) and use them for practice. Learn to play the bass notes only, learn to walk in octaves (playing notes on beats 1 and 3), learn to add in the 5th as another options. Another common move is to approach the new chord by a semitone above or belowChords Shapes
Learn some typical funky patterns and chord shapes. Pianists often aim for a punchy percussive sound - by using fourths and fifths in their patterns in places where they want to add accents.
Also commonly used are 7#9 chords (e.g. C7#9 voicing, left hand is already playing the C, right hand can play E, Bb, Eb, spread out like this it sounds very punchy).
Another classic is the fourth chord. This is essentially just two fourth intervals stacked upon one and other (e.g. C,F,Bb). The use of such chords warrants a tutorial in it’s own right but these have a great punchy sound and are commonly moved around in parallel quite freely, even non diatonically. There are of course plenty more shapes that can be used but this tutorial will have to suffice with this for now.
Hopeful you have found some of this useful. Above all, make sure you’re having fun with it and don’t be disheartened when the going gets tough. These things can take time but it’s definitely worth it when you get there!