So, you want to play some funky lead guitar and wondering which scales are the funkiest ones to use? Well, first things first, funk isn’t normally defined by or remembered for its melodic features – there is no such thing as a ‘funk’ scale.
According to Collins dictionary, music is described as being ‘funky’ when it is rhythmic, danceable and is characterised by syncopated rhythms and staccato, spaced out grooves. It is this separation of sounds that makes funk different to rock, blues, jazz and other genres. However, all that said, funk guitarists do of course use scales to improvise with. And, as certain scales are extremely common in funk music, I guess you could say they’re ‘funk scales’. There’s also some more good news: the scales you’re about to see are probably ones you might already know.
Here are the four scales to learn for funk:
1) Minor Pentatonic Scale
The minor pentatonic scale, the most used scale in pop and rock guitar solos, is also perfectly acceptable to play funk with.
The notes of the A minor pentatonic scale are: A C D E G (A)
2) Blues Scale
OK, OK, so it’s called the ‘Blues Scale’, but that doesn’t mean it’s limited to that genre.
As we’ve already established, there’s no ‘funk’ scale – funk is rhythmically focused music which is a danceable combination of soul and rhythm and blues. So, of course you can use the blues scale here.
Keep your licks short and staccato, and ensure that they complement the rhythm section. Wailing bends should be used sparingly and any twiddly playing should be used very sparingly in funk.
The notes of the A blues scale are: A C D Eb E G (A)
3) Mixolydian Mode
The solo for ‘Purple Haze’ features a bit of this mode, and it’s a popular choice of mode to use over dominant 7th chords (which Hendrix used quite a lot of). Dominant 7ths also pop up in James Brown’s ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag‘, and Kool and the Gang’s ‘Hollywood Swinging’.
If you’re playing lead guitar to accompany a rhythm guitarist’s funky, fast strums, this unique-sounding mode is worth having up your sleeve.
The notes of the A Mixolydian Mode are: A B C# D E F# G (A)
4) Dorian Mode
You can catch this in Prince solos including the funk-tastic ‘Let’s Go Crazy‘!
The Dorian Mode is popular in jazz and blues (including the Miles Davis classic ‘So What’, and is made of the following notes, in A):
A B C D E F# G (A)
So remember, whichever of these scales you use, they won’t automatically make you sound funky. Funky scales become funky scales when they are used in combination with a solid, funky rhythm section. Another key ingredient to funk up your sound is your effects board. To get that characteristic ‘quack and bow’ for funk, you’ll need a decent envelope filter pedal (also known as an auto-wah) or just a straight up wah-wah pedal. In terms of which type of guitar sounds best for funk, many will do the trick, but the versatile Stratocaster is a popular choice (used by funk-meisters Nile Rodgers among many others).