10 Old School Funk Grooves Every Drummer Should Know

Why does funk, R&B and soul music from 50 years ago still sound fresh today? One reason is because the grooves were so deep. Many drummers today focus on developing incredible technical facility on the drums, but miss something much more fundamental: how their grooves feel.

The great funk and R&B drummers projected feel and emotion through every note they played. One of the best ways to become a more musical and versatile drummer is to learn some of the signature funk feels, patterns and techniques from that era.

There are a few things to keep in mind when trying to play funk authentically. Funk drumming often comes down to feel more than metronomic time-keeping skills. When you listen to those old songs, you may notice occasional tempo fluctuations from section to section. They could play time as well as we can, but click tracks weren’t commonplace yet so they let the music ebb and flow from section to section. With our current worship of the click track and quantized music, it might sound like heresy to mention it, but slight tempo shifts can musically lift one section out of another to create excitement.

The Importance of Swing

Another aspect of feel comes down to swing. Some funk grooves are played very straight while many others utilize slight degrees of swing. There is a wide range of possible feels between a straight eighth-note groove and a triplet shuffle. Many funk grooves are played somewhere in the middle, so learning to play half-swung feels is necessary to become a good funk drummer. A bit of swing can make a swampy funk groove like "Cissy Strut" really come alive, but if you play it completely straight, it’ll feel square and just plain wrong.

When playing funk, don’t go for that wide open "Bonham" sound. Funk drummers muffle and tune their kits for the style. The kick drum is muffled, resulting in a deep staccato thud that really kicks you in the chest. Funk snare heads are often tuned as tightly as a tabletop for a crisp, high-pitched snap that cuts through the band. A little muffling helps keep funk’s busier grooves sounding clean and precise. Toms often are tuned low and are often muffled as well.

A word of advice: fills are fun, but when playing funk, generally try to avoid them. Commitment to the groove is everything. When you’re grooving hard, you don’t want to interrupt the flow with fills. Stick your groove in their faces instead.

Stevie Wonder, "Uptight (Everything’s Alright)" - Pistol Allen

Many people don’t realize Stevie Wonder is also a drummer and was tutored by one of the original Funk Brothers: Benny Benjamin. However, it seems that another Funk Brother, Pistol Allen, was the actual drummer on this classic song. Wonder originally wanted a feel like the Rolling Stone’s song "Satisfaction," which uses another variation of this Motown beat. The Motown groove is characterized by quarter-notes played on the snare drum that create an insistent and driving beat. A wide variety of bass drum patterns have been used underneath this simple hand pattern.

The Staple Singers, "I’ll Take You There" - Roger Hawkins

This song was a big hit for the Staple Singers and it used the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section featuring the great drummer Roger Hawkins playing the funky rim click groove you see here. There’s a small hint of swing in his groove that only adds to its magic.

Tower Of Power, "Oakland Stroke" - David Garibaldi

David Garibaldi is the remarkably precise funk drummer who combined the influences of his predecessors with linear drumming ideas to create a wide variety of difficult and unique grooves. Garibaldi uses a two-height approach: playing rim shots for the accented strokes and ghost notes everywhere else. This groove demands incredible dynamic control and coordination. Note that he omits the first bass drum note as he repeats this incredible groove. This one’s for the more advanced players out there.

The Meters, "Cissy Strut" - Joseph "Zig" Modeliste

Joseph "Zig" Modeliste is a pioneering funk drummer. His grooves were clever, unique and almost always had a bit of N’awlins’ swing in them. Their classic song "Cissy Strut" both inspired and perplexed countless drummers after hearing it. This groove uses both hands on the hi-hat with the right hand moving to and from the snare. I transcribed this groove from a live performance video so that I could include and accurately notate his stickings. R = right hand, L = left hand and B = both hands in this transcription.

The Fifth Dimension, "Puppet Man" - Hal Blaine

The Fifth Dimension combined soul, R&B and gospel influences to create their unique vocal sound. This song could have come straight from an Austin Powers soundtrack and there’s an equally entertaining version done by the Welsh pop singer Tom Jones. In this version, Wrecking Crew drummer and session master Hal Blaine played a constantly evolving groove that puts his massive double bass drum set to good use. Blaine’s unique version of a funky Fatback Boogaloo groove includes melodic tom fills and double bass, which was revolutionary in 1969.

James Brown, "Cold Sweat" - Clyde Stubblefield

Clyde Stubblefield created this incredibly funky groove while messing around in a recording studio drum booth. The other players joined in and the essence of the song was created. For this transcription, I’ve combined the original recording with Clyde’s demonstration of the groove from an instructional video. There are minor differences between these versions, but his funky displaced backbeat on the & of 4 in the first measure and delayed bass drum in the second measure remain the same.

James Brown, "Funky President" - Allan Schwartzberg

James Brown did a number of recordings using studio musicians, and drummer Allan Schwartzberg’s incredible sense of groove was proven on this track. This is one of the most heavily sampled rap/hip hop grooves of all time. What’s often missed in transcriptions and the dozens of sampled reuses of his groove are his subtle use of ghost notes that make everything sound so funky. This one swings hard!

Aretha Franklin, "Rock Steady" - Bernard Purdie

This song may be the funkiest song Aretha Franklin ever recorded and Bernard Purdie’s incredible funk groove on this track is one to learn. It percolates with ghost notes, tasty hi-hat openings and a funky bass drum part. This is the main groove, but his bass drum patterns vary slightly throughout the song.

The Winstons, "Amen Brother" - Gregory Cylvester "G.C." Coleman

It may not look familiar, but you’ve heard this one many times before. I would be remiss not to include one of the funkiest and most sampled drum breaks in funk: The Amen Break. Sadly, G.C. has never been paid royalties for the hundreds of reuses of this break.

Prince, "Sexy MF" - Michael Bland

This song’s groove is unusual and irresistible. Michael Bland’s groove places snare accents on 1 and the & of 2 and this results in an atypical and very funky beat. Much of this groove’s inspiration is derived from John "Jabo" Starks’ groove on James Brown’s "Super Bad," but that certainly doesn’t lessen its appeal.

I hope you find this sampling interesting and helpful, but it is by no means complete. If you’d like to suggest more iconic grooves from the era add them to the comment section.

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