The Top 10 Piano Funk Licks
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Have you ever wondered what goes into playing a piano solo in the funk style? Maybe you’d like to play in a party band that covers tunes by artists such as James Brown, Kool & the Gang, Rufus & Chaka Khan, and Earth, Wind & Fire? If so, then you’ll need to have some funky piano licks up your sleeve. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May covers The Top 10 Piano Funk Licks that will get you “gig ready” for playing funk piano solos. You’ll learn:
- Types of Funk Licks for Piano
Today’s lesson accommodates a wide range of students, with skills spanning from single-note licks for entry level students to impressive piano runs for advanced players.
American funk music emerged in the mid-to-late 60’s from the tradition of soul music in the 1950s and ’60s. In fact, the early pioneer of the funk sound was James Brown (1933–2006), who also earned the nicknames “Soul Brother Number One” and “The Godfather of Soul.”¹ However, the new funk sound was more up-tempo and energetic than earlier soul music and was characterized by an infectious rhythmic groove. James Brown’s 1965 hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is often cited as the first funk recording.² Other popular early funk tunes include “Dance to the Music” (1967) by Sly and the Family Stone and “It’s Your Thing” (1969) by The Isley Brothers.
At the same time that funk was developing out of soul music, a similar type of groove-based jazz was emerging in the 60s and 70s, which became known as the sub-genres of jazz funk and jazz fusion. For instance, Miles Davis’ 1972 jazz funk album On the Corner was influenced by James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone. On the other hand, jazz fusion blends a broader spectrum of musical influences—especially rock, but also funk and rhythm and blues. Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album Head Hunters is often categorized as either jazz-fusion or jazz-funk. Hence, the distinction is sometimes vague. However, fusion often contains complex time signatures, extended musical forms and more intricate harmonies.³
In preparation for Jonny’s Top 10 Piano Funk Licks, the next section will zero in on what we mean when we speak of a “lick” in music.
In popular styles of music, the term lick describes a short melodic phrase that is often catchy or easily imitated. Sometimes, certain licks maybe associated with a player’s “musical signature.” However, as ethnomusicologist Hannah Judd explains, “licks are generally not owned…they function as a grey area between inspiration and infringement…they can be exchanged between musicians freely.⁴ Developing improvisors frequently imitate the licks of other players on their journey to acquiring their own vocabulary.
The following representative funk piano solos contain many of the characteristic techniques that are also featured in Jonny’s Top 10 Piano Funk Licks. The first example is James Brown’s “Get Up” from 1970. In fact, the memorable piano licks on this tune are played by James Brown himself. The second example features Herbie Hancock’s electric piano solo on “Come On, Come Over” (1976) by Jaco Pastorius. Finally, the third example, “On the Radio” (1995), features a funky, jazz-fusion piano solo by Ramsey Lewis with the all-star group Urban Knights, produced by Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire.
“Get Up” (1970)
“Come On, Come Over” (1976)
“On the Radio” (1995)
Alright, now let’s to dive into the musical material from today’s lesson sheet. First, we’ll explore the chord progression and left-hand patterns that will serve as the foundation for our funk piano licks.
A common characteristic of funk music is that it often features grooves based on just one or two chords. The funk progression in today’s lesson aligns with this attribute, vacillating between Cm7 and F7. These chords form a Im7→IV7 progression in C minor.
Funk Progression in C Minor
If you are not familiar with minor 7th chords and dominant 7th chords, the following PWJ courses will bring you up to speed:
Next, we’ll learn how to create 3 different left-hand accompaniment grooves over this progression. These examples come from today’s downloadable lesson sheet. You can download the complete lesson sheet PDF and 3 corresponding backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your PWJ membership. PWJ members can also easily change the key of the lesson sheet using our Smart Sheet Music.
The Level 1 pattern we’ll explore first is the simplest one to play. However, it is perfectly adequate for ensemble situations. In fact, this pattern only requires you to move one finger to alternate between Cm7 to F7.
If you are playing by yourself, then you may want to include the roots of both chords in your left hand. In that case, the Level 2 patter below is just what you need. In addition, this pattern contains beautiful rootless voicings.
If you’re a more experienced player, then you may want to play a more animated left-hand groove. This Level 3 pattern is great for solo funk piano playing situations for intermediate and advanced players.
Now that you have a solid left-hand funk accompaniment, let’s transition to the right hand.
All 10 of the piano funk licks that you’ll learn in today’s lesson are derived from 2 common piano scales. These are (1) the C Minor Blues Scale, and (2) the C Dorian Scale. In this section, we’ll briefly examine each scale one-at-a-time for students who may be new to these improv scales. If you already know these scales, feel free to skip to the next section.
We construct a minor blues scale by modifying a major scale according to the formula 1–♭3–4–♯4–5–♭7. Therefore, the C minor blues scale is a 6-note scale containing the notes C–E♭–F–F♯–G–B♭. Let’s play this scale with the right hand.
C Minor Blues Scale
To learn more about blues scales, check out the Quick Tip Essential Blues Piano Scales: Major & Minor Blues Scale (Beg–Adv).
Next, let’s look at the second improv scale, C Dorian. The Dorian mode is a type of minor scale obtained by modifying a major scale according to the formula 1–2–♭3–4–5–6–♭7. Therefore, C Dorian is a 7-note scale containing the notes C–D–E♭–F–G–A–B♭. You may also think of C Dorian as a B♭ major scale beginning on the note C. Let’s play this scale with the right hand.
C Dorian Scale
For a more thorough treatment of what modes are and how they are used, check out the Quick Tip Piano Musical Modes—The Complete Guide (Int).
Alright, now you’re ready to start playing Jonny’s favorite funk licks!
In this section, we’ll examine Jonny’s Top 10 Piano Funk Licks one-at-a-time. However, we’ve divided the licks into six unique categories based on their general characteristics. Most of the funk licks you hear on recordings will fit into one of these six categories:
Let’s begin by examining the first category.
Single note licks are a great way to begin soloing in the funk style. These phrases resemble melodies that a vocalist or saxophone might play, as they typically have a lyrical character. For example, single note licks often mimic vocal expression by means of ornaments, such as slides and turns. Check out the Lick #1 example below.
Lick #1 – Single Note
Our next category has a similar character, except that it does not use single notes exclusively.
Double note licks are similar to single note licks, except that they also contain intermittent interjections of bluesy upper harmony (aka top harmony). Many single note licks can be converted into double note licks simply by placing an additional note above the melody in a manner that accentuates the overall phrasing. In Lick #2A below, the note A is an example of upper harmony.
Lick #2a – Double Note
Notice that the same upper harmony note A appears over the Cm7 chord and the F7 chord. Since the same note is used over two different chords, it’s easiest to think of this note in relation to the overall key, rather than to each chord individually. For example, the note A is the major 6th in C minor. However, other upper harmony notes are also possible. For example, we can play the exact same lick with an upper harmony note of C instead—the tonic note—as in Lick #2B below.
Lick #2b – Double Note
Other common notes used for upper harmony are the 5th of the key and the minor 7th (♭7). Now, let’s check out Lick #3 below, which features upper harmony using the tonic, 6th and 5th!
Lick #3 – Double Note
Pretty cool, huh? Now, let’s move on to the next category.
Crunch licks are named for their “crunchy” harmonic character, which results from 3 or 4 notes played simultaneously, with at least one major 2nd or minor 2nd. For example, Lick #4 below contains a major 2nd interval on top between the notes B♭ and C. Moreover, this lick also contains a few minor 2nd slides from F♯ to G for added crunch.
Lick #4 – Crunchy
Lick #5 below is another crunch lick. While rather simple in essence, these driving 8th notes are very effective for enhancing the overall groove. This example might be better described as a riff, since is more rhythmic and harmonic in character than melodic. However, the terms riff and lick are sometimes used interchangeably.
Lick #5 – Crunchy
Alright, now we’re ready to move on to yet another category of funk piano licks.
In music, the term ostinato refers to a repeated pattern. Therefore, an ostinato lick is a catchy sound bite that a soloist deliberately repeats. Ostinato licks are highly relatable for live audiences and tend to elicit palpable excitement and applause. This is similar to the manner in which preachers or other public speakers deliver succinct, passionate catch phrases to drive home a point.
Lick #6 – Ostinato
Tremolo is a special performance technique that pianists use to sustain a chord beyond the instrument’s natural decay. This is accomplished by rapidly alternating between two or more notes. Piano tremolo chords like those in Lick #7 mimic the sound and energy of a Hammond organ, which sustains its tones until the keys are released. Just like ostinato licks, tremolo licks tend to excite live audiences.
Lick #7 – Tremolo
Let’s move on now to our last category of funk licks.
Piano runs differ from single note or double note licks in that they are longer, faster and cover more terrain. Runs are another way that soloists build momentum and excitement. Lick #8 below is an example of a “down run” because the overall direction is descending. This lick primarily draws upon the C minor blues scale.
Lick #8 – Down Run
Lick #9 below is another example of a down run; however, its melodic shape and structure is quite different from Lick #8. Instead of drawing on the minor blues scale, this lick is structured with quartal shapes. In other words, this run contains several successive fourth intervals. For example, the first three notes, D–G–C, are ascending fourths. Then, the next three notes, B♭–F–C, are descending fourths. On beat 3 in measure one, we get another series of descending fourths, the notes E♭–B♭–F. Let’s take a listen.
Lick #9 – Down Run
Finally, Lick #10 below is an “up/down run” because it begins with an initial melodic ascent before transitioning to descent of similar length. You may notice that this lick effectively combines several of the previous techniques all in one lick, including quartal shapes, upper harmony, minor blues scale fragments and a turn ornament.
Lick #10 – Up/Down Run
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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¹ Stewart, Earl L. African American Music: An Introduction, Schirmer Books, New York, 1998, p. 245.
² Johnson, Gail. Funk Keyboards: The Complete Method, Hal Leonard Corporation, Milwaukee, WI, 1999, p. 4.
³ Deubel, Elliot. “What Is the Difference between Jazz Fusion and Funk?” Jambox.io, 8 May 2023.
⁴ Judd, Hannah. “Virals, Memes, and the Lick’s Circulation through Online Jazz Communities.” Twentieth-Century Music, vol. 19, no. 3, 2022, pp. 393–410.
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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