Funk Chords – The Complete Guide
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Would you like to be able to play hip-sounding funk chords on piano? With today’s Quick Tip, Funk Chords—The Complete Guide, you can! In this lesson, John Proulx breaks down the “Top 5 Funk Chords Every Pianist Must Know” to play funk and soul-infused music of artists like James Brown, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder and Bruno Mars. In addition, you’ll discover other essential characteristics of the funk sound including chord progressions, rhythms and bass lines. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Funk Chords for Piano
- Top 5 Funk Chords Every Pianist Must Know
- Essential Funk Chord Movements for Piano
- 3 Funk Chord Progressions for Piano
- Appendix: Practicing Funk Chords with Chromatic Motion
If you have the itch to play funky music, today’s lesson will definitely scratch it!
There are two important aspects to playing funk chords on piano. First, there’s what chords to play. Secondly, there’s how to play them! Today’s lesson addresses both considerations with essential performance techniques. If you’re a PWJ member, be sure to download the PDF lesson sheet and backing track which appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, you can easily transpose the lesson sheet materials to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Rootless ‘A Voicings’ and ‘B Voicings’
Harmonically speaking, funk is characterized by extended chords like those found in jazz music. These are major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th chords that include colorful added notes such as the 9th, 11th and 13th. We called these additional notes chord extensions. The most efficient and practical way to play extended chords is to master the specific voicing system called rootless voicings.
The rootless voicings used in today’s lesson are rich, 4-note voicings that include the 3rd and 7th of the chord plus two additional notes, such as the 5th, 9th, 11th or 13th. As their name implies, these voicings don’t contain the root of the chord.
Rootless voicings can be played in either hand and are typically played in the middle range or tenor register. For example, if you’re playing with a bass player, you can play rootless voicings with your left hand while your right hand is free to express melodies, solo lines and fills. However, if your performance situation requires you to play a bass line in the left hand, then you can play the same voicings in the right hand to supply the harmony.
Each chord type in our “Top 5” list is presented with two voicing formats—an ‘A voicing’ and a ‘B voicing.’ Category A voicings are built up from the 3rd of the chord while category B voicings are built up from the 7th. Having two voicing solutions allows pianists the flexibility to “re-voice” a chord to keep it from getting too high or too low.
The following “Top 5” list catalogues the most common funk chords expressed with rootless voicings in both A and B formats. The video demonstrations feature each voicing played with the right hand in the tenor register while the left hand supplies the bass note. All examples are demonstrated using a root note of C. However, we’ve also included the 4-note voicing formula so that you can build these voicings from any root.
#1: Minor 9th Chords
Minor 9th chords are the preferred minor chord sound for funk music. While both voicings formats sound great, the B voicing has a particularly arresting sound with its ½ step dissonance in the middle of the voicing between the 9th and the 3rd.
Minor 9th A Voicing: ♭3-5-♭7-9
Minor 9th B Voicing: ♭7-9-♭3-5
#2: Major 9th Chords
For major funk chords, these major 9th voicings are your go-to sound.
Major 9th A Voicing: 3-5-7-9
Major 9th B Voicing: 7-9-3-5
#3: Dominant 13th Chords
Funk grooves frequently vamp on one or two chords for an extended period of time. These Dominant 13th voicings have a classic funk sound that works great on a vamp or within a longer progression. Be sure to check out the appendix to this lesson where we also demonstrate how to slide each chord type with chromatic motion.
Dom. 13th A Voicing: 3-13-♭7-9
Dom. 13th B Voicing: ♭7-9-3-13
#4: Dominant 13(sus4) Chords
Another must-have chord for funk music is the Dominant 13th(sus4) sound. The “sus” is short for suspended, a musical term that means that the 3rd of the chord has been replaced with the 4th instead. (Note, the designation of an 11th is also used to identify 4th intervals because an 11th is simply a 4th plus and octave.) You’ll notice that these Dominant 13(sus4) voicings are identical in every way to the previous Dominant 13th voicings, except that the 3rd has been replaced with the 11th. Therefore, the A voicing is built up from the 11th.
Dom. 13th(sus4) A Voicing: 11-13-♭7-9
Dom. 13th(sus4) B Voicing: ♭7-9-11-13
#5: Dominant 7(♯9♭13) Chords
Finally, be sure to grab onto these Dominant 7(♯9♭13) chords, which are commonly used for ensemble hits and stabs in funk music.
Dom. 7(#9♭13) A Voicing: 3-♭13-♭7-♯9
Dom. 7(#9♭13) B Voicing: ♭7-♯9-3-♭13
Alternate 3-Note Rootless Voicings
As an alternative to 4-note rootless voicings, some pianists play 3-note versions instead. The 3-note versions have a more “open” sound while the 4-note versions have a “denser” sound. To convert any 4-note voicing in this section to a 3-note voicing, simply omit the 3rd note from the top. However, keep in mind that omitting a note usually changes the chord symbol because a particular extension or alteration is no longer included. You can feel free to mix and match 3-note and 4-note voicings at will. For example, some players may prefer a denser sound on major and minor chords but a more open sound on dominant chords.
Now that you have learned what chords to play for funk music, you also must learn how to play them. There are specific voice leading principles that govern the movement from one chord to another so that they connect smoothly. For example, in the context of a chord progression, how do you know whether to use an A voicing or a B voicing? In general, the distance of the root movement is your cue regarding whether you should switch voicing categories (from A-to-B, or B-to-A) or keep the same voicing category (A-to-A, or B-to-B).
Connecting Chords with Rootless Voicings
- Root Movement by 4th or 5th Interval: Switch voicing category
- Root Movement by Step: Keep same voicing category
- Root Movement by 3rd Interval: Keep or Switch voicing category
Next, let’s examine how to apply these voice leading principles to some common chord movements in funk music.
The first chord movement we’ll explore is a 2-5-1 progression. In a 2-5-1 progression, the root movement is down a perfect 5th, or up a perfect 4th. This type of movement requires that you alternate between A and B voicings to connect your chords smoothly. The examples below demonstrate 2-5-1 progressions in C major using both the A-B-A format and the B-A-B format.
2-5-1 Progression: A-B-A Voicing Format
2-5-1 Progression: B-A-B Voicing Format
If you are still unclear why it is necessary to alternate voicings, just try to play a 2-5-1 progression using exclusively one voicing type. You’ll find that all of the notes move by leaps when you change chords. This is an undesirable sound.
Let’s examine another common chord movement found in funk music—a 2-5-1 progression using tritone substitution. In this progression, the V7 chord is replaced by a dominant chord that is a tritone interval away. In other words, we can substitute a D♭7 voicing for a G7 voicing because the note D♭ is a tritone away from G. Therefore, we’ll play Dm9→D♭7(♯9♭13)→C▵9. In our analysis, we’ll designate this as a Ⅱ–subV–Ⅰ progression.
Tritone substitution works because dominant chords that are a tritone apart share the same guide tones—the 3rd and 7th. For example, the 3rd and 7th of G7 are the notes B and F. Similarly, the 3rd and 7th of D♭7 are the notes F and C♭. Since B and C♭ are enharmonically equivalent, we see that the guide tones are the same pitches.
When it comes to voicing a tritone substitution, one of the most common options is to use the dominant 7(♯9♭13) sound. Therefore, let’s build an A voicing for D♭7(♯9♭13). The voicing formula is 3-♭13-♭7-♯9, so our A voicing uses the notes F–B𝄫–C♭–E♮. If we clean this up by enharmonically re-writing the notes in the simplest manner, we get F–A–B–E. Surprisingly, we discover that an A voicing for D♭7(♯9♭13) is equivalent to a B voicing (7–9–3–13) for G7 (F–A–B–E). In fact, the only difference is the bass note!
Finally, let’s examine this tritone substitution progression from the perspective of root movement. As we move from Dm9→D♭7alt→C▵9, the root movement is stepwise motion. Therefore, we’ll keep the same voicing category as we move from chord-to-chord, either A-A-A or B-B-B.
2→Sub5→1 Progression: A-A-A Voicing Format
2→Sub5→1 Progression: B-B-B Voicing Format
For a deep dive on tritone substitution, check out our Quick Tip on Tritone Substitution—The Complete Guide.
Another common harmonic technique that occurs in funk music is chromatic passing chords. Other names for this technique include sidestepping, parallel chords, or chromatic drops. This technique takes any given voicing and slides it up or down chromatically by one or more ½ steps using parallel motion. A common application for chromatic passing chords is to connect chords that are a whole step apart. For example, if you have harmonic movement from Em9 to Dm9, you can create a cool effect by passing through E♭m9 to connect these chords chromatically. Since Em9→E♭m9→Dm9 features stepwise root movement, we’ll keep the same voicing category to ensure good voice leading.
Chromatic Passing Chords: A-A-A Voicing Format
Chromatic Passing Chords: B-B-B Voicing Format
So far, you’ve learned essential funk chord movements using rootless voicings with good voice leading. In the next section, you’ll integrate characteristic funk rhythms over longer progressions.
In this section, we’ll apply the “Top 5 Funk Chords Every Pianist Must Know” to representative funk grooves from actual songs. In doing so, we’ll introduce two more important characteristics of funk music—bass lines and syncopation.
Our first funk groove uses just two chords—Cm9 to F13. The key is C Dorian (C–D–E♭–F–G–A–B♭), which is like C minor, except with a major 6th scale tone. Our chord progression moves from the minor 1-chord to the dominant 4-chord. This chord progression is featured in popular funk tunes including “Use Me” by Bill Withers, “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock and “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars.
“Use Me” (1972)
Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars
“Uptown Funk” (2014)
The following example from today’s lesson sheet presents this chord progression with characteristic funk syncopation over a simple bass line. Since funk grooves are typically based on 16th-note subdivisions, keyboard riffs like the example below often play syncopated rhythmic patterns that latch on to the “e” and the “a” of the 16th-note subdivision, which is counted “1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, 3-e-and-a, 4-e-and-a.”
Funk Progression #1 for Piano
Our next funk progression comes from the tune “Strasbourg / St. Denis” by jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove (1969–2018). The two-time Grammy Award winner is known for his genre crossing explorations with hip-hop artists including D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Common. Although “Strasbourg / St. Denis” was composed relatively recently (2008), it quickly became regarded as a jazz standard. The tune is named after a Paris metro stop and the surrounding vicinity, which is home to some of the city’s finest dining and live music venues.¹
“Strasbourgh / St. Denis” (2008)
Hargrove’s original recording, which features Gerald Clayton on piano, is in the key of A♭ major. However, we’ve transposed the following excerpt to B♭ major. The tune begins on the 2-chord and features a walk-up progression to the 4-chord in the following manner: Ⅱm9→Ⅲm9→Ⅳ▵7. Afterward, the progression returns to the 3-chord and then the stepwise ascend is repeated: Ⅱm9→Ⅲm9→Ⅳ▵7. However, after the second walk-up, we get a slightly different passing chord. The G13(sus4) is the “V of II”—a secondary dominant which takes us back to the 2-chord. Keep in mind, G13(sus4) is really a slash chord that is formed by playing Dm9/G. Therefore, the only difference is actually the bass note.
Funk Progression #2 for Piano
Our final progression comes from the soul jazz standard “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb (1938–2010). This beautiful composition, which Hebb wrote after the tragic loss of his brother Harold, is filled with duality that is symbolic of both hurt and healing. Set in a minor key, the song opens with a reference that the narrator’s “life was filled with rain.” Yet, at the same time, the narrator sings of Sunny’s smile that “eased [his] pain.” As the tune continues, it modulates up through 3 successive key changes as the narrator wells up with love and gratitude for Sunny, all the while in a somber minor tonality.
BMI ranks “Sunny” at #25 on their list of the Top 100 songs of the [20th] Century.² The tune has been recorded over 400 times by artists including Georgie Fame, Cher, James Brown, Marvin Gay, and Papik featuring Wendy D. Lewis. Bobby Hebb’s original 1966 recording begins in the key of E minor and ends in G minor. However, for our context, we’ll examine the essential chord progression in the key of C minor, similar to our previous examples. Notice John Proulx’s arrangement includes funk chord techniques covered earlier in this lesson such as sidestepping and tritone substitution.
Funk Progression #3 for Piano
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s Quick Tip on Funk Chords—The Complete Guide. Hopefully, you feel much more confident about playing funk piano after reviewing the exercises and examples in today’s lesson.
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Visit this Quick Tip on YouTube
Early in today’s featured Quick Tip video, John Proulx explains and demonstrates the concept of chromatic passing chords, a common device in funk music. This section provides supplemental notation for practicing each chord type in John’s Funk Chord Index with chromatic movement.
#1: Minor 9th Chromatic Passing Chords Exercise
#2: Major 9th Chromatic Passing Chords Exercise
#3: Dominant 13th Chromatic Passing Chords Exercise
#4: Dominant 13(sus4) Chromatic Passing Chords Exercise
#5: Dominant 7(♯9♭13) Chromatic Passing Chords Exercise
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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