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How to play funk guitar – a beginner’s guide

Nile Rodgers
Nile Rodgers is a master of funk and disco rhythm (Image credit: JORGE GUERRERO / Getty)

Strumming is probably the most useful technique you’ll ever learn. About 90 per cent of what an ordinary listener considers ‘guitar playing’ involves it, and once you can do it, you’re off and running.

‘Scratching’ – strumming while choking the strings with your fretting hand – is a good way to start. Your fretting hand doesn’t have to do much, so you can concentrate on pick technique. You can hear it in Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.

It’s great when a student listens a lot to a certain style, because they can hear when it sounds right. For funk strumming you need a light, relaxed touch. The challenge is getting the upstrokes to feel good. If you feel like the pick is fighting to get over the strings, you probably won’t sound good.

You can reduce resistance by trying a thinner guitar pick, and stopping the pick extending too far between the strings. Imagine it gliding over the top instead. You can create ‘accents’ (emphasis) by strumming a little harder or by hitting more strings on the beat than you do off the beat.

That will groove better and help you to feel the pulse. Strumming is not very similar to many everyday movements, so it’s challenging to help students figure out how it should feel. You can get closer by thinking of shaking water off your fingers, or the African finger snap.

Technique check...

Get your fingers in the right place and those funky string scratches will groove!

Funk guitar strumming – muting

(Image credit: Future)

1. Fretting hand

Rest your fingers lightly across the strings anywhere on the neck. Don’t press the strings onto a fret.

Funk guitar strumming – pick

(Image credit: Future)

2. Pick

A thinner pick (0.73 mm or thinner) produces less resistance for strumming or scratching. Softer materials like nylon can also help.

Funk guitar strumming – pick position

(Image credit: Future)

3. Pick angle

On your upstrokes, letting the tip of the pick point to the floor can help it glide over the strings.

Funk guitar strumming – hand position

(Image credit: Future)

4. Picking hand wrist

Your wrist should feel loose. A slight bend helps to stop it locking.

Strumming technique

(Image credit: Future)
  1. Simply strum four evenly-timed downstrokes here.
  2. Fig 2 shows down-up style strumming. Keep the downstrokes from Fig 1 going and add upstrokes in between.
  3. All downstrokes here, but the main idea is to hit more strings on the beat than you do off the beat.
  4. Fig 4 has the same movement, but you hit strings on upstrokes, too.

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Jenna writes for Total Guitar and Guitar World, and is the former classic rock columnist for Guitar Techniques. She studied with Guthrie Govan at BIMM, and has taught guitar for 15 years. She's toured in 10 countries and played on a Top 10 album (in Sweden).