Learning and Practicing Funk Keyboard

So many students are interested in practicing funk keyboard, but oftentimes the allure of the synth sounds, effects, and drum beats overshadows the real essence of funk music (and music in general)… the GROOVE!

In this article, I’m going to introduce you to a few fun methods for practicing funk keyboard and “groove” by focusing on 3 areas.

  1. Learning the groove;
  2. Playing with a solid sense of time;
  3. Maintaining the groove.

First, check out the clavinet groove we’ll be learning:

This is a simple GarageBand sketch that uses all stock sounds. For the clavinet, I used the stock “Vintage Clav, Classic D6” and tweaked some of the EQ settings (Filter = Brilliant; Pickups = “D” and “B”; Position = “Low” about 3/4 of the way up, “Up” all the way up, “Damper” all the way down; Drive and Reverb = about 50% up; Ambience and Flanger = about 40% up).

Learning the Groove

“Learning the groove” refers to the idea of fully mastering a specific groove, complete with the correct notes, rhythms, fingerings, articulations, etc. I remember many of my teachers constantly reminding me that it is “harder to unlearn a mistake than to simply learn it right the first time.” They were right, but as is true with most students, I had to learn this the hard way. So be sure to practice slowly and in small pieces. The groove is a 2-bar phrase that repeats and is based on 2 chords – F7 and Bb7. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Start one hand at a time. First learn the left hand, then the right.
  2. Follow the given fingering!
  3. Use your metronome and start slowly. When putting hands together, work in short chunks and link these together to create larger phrases.


Playing with a Solid Sense of Time

This involves going beyond the notes and chords and focusing on the rhythmic precision and phrasing of what you are playing. Collectively, these aspects of the performance are what musicians are really talking about when they say things like, “It’s all about the groove,” or “Man, those cats are really in the pocket!” What they’re really saying is, “Man, those guys have a great sense of time!”

Most students think that working on your sense of time and rhythmic precision means hours of boring practice with your metronome, and so they avoid this type of practice. I used to think the same thing, but now when I work on rhythm and time elements it is some of my most engaging and enjoyable practice. That’s because I have found some fun ways to practice these elements, such as the following:

  1. I use my metronome on different beats. Instead of always placing the metronome on downbeats, try playing with your metronome accenting upbeats or other syncopated off-beats, such as the last 16th-note of each beat. Or trying playing with the metronome on beats 1 & 3, or 2 & 4.
  2. Find some drum grooves/beats and practice with those. Drum beats, jam tracks, and play-along tracks are all excellent resources for improving your sense of time. Drum grooves fill the same role as the metronome but are generally a lot more fun and stimulating because they put you in that “real-life music” mindset, as though you are playing with other musicians. All of the courses at www.FunkPianoLessons.com include a corresponding jam track.
  3. If you have a Mac, learn GarageBand. It’s easy, fun, a powerful tool for practice and composition, and comes loaded with drum samples and loops (preset drum grooves) that can be played and tempo-adjusted with a simple click of the mouse.
  4. You can also build your own drum grooves or jam tracks in Sibelius or Finale (music notation software programs). For this you would need to know a little bit about drum notation (easier than you might think). Once written into Sibelius or Finale, you can simply cut and paste the groove to the desired length, then export the part as an mp3 audio file for use as a jam track.

Maintaining the Groove

Ever check out a Motown record and listen to what the musicians are playing on the track? Oftentimes the instrumental parts of those Motown songs are short phrases with simple rhythmic and harmonic ideas that repeat over and over again, while the singers get the spotlight and the melodic gymnastics. Basically, the instrumentalists are jamming on just one or two short musical ideas for the duration of the track. But it sounds so funky, so energetic, so locked in! Those musicians lived and recorded in an era that did not allow for seamless editing, overdubs, and isolated corrections. They all came into the studio together and recorded simultaneously, so they had to bring “IT” to every take. They understood something very important about funk and groove-based music – their job was to keep the people dancing and keep the musical energy high no matter how many times they played that same, repetitive, sometimes monotonous musical riff over and over again.

What should you learn from this? Even if you’re playing the same thing over and over again, which is sometimes typical in funk music, maintaining the groove is an important skill for all musicians (especially rhythm section players). When you practice, focus not just on the notes, but the rhythmic and dynamic intensity, nuances in the articulation of certain notes, and the interplay and relationships between the various other musicians. Be sure to stay focused on these micro-level attributes of the music and not to let your attention wane. Understanding that repetitive grooves need to be played with integrity even after 4 or 5 minutes of jamming is often one difference between an inexperienced player and a mature pro.

author avatar
Willie President
Willie Myette is a pianist, serial entrepreneur and author of over a dozen books on piano and music education. He received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and graduated in under 4 years. Willie is the creator and president of online piano instruction sites Jazzedge® Academy, Jazz Piano Lessons and HomeSchool Piano.

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