Funk Guitar Scales – The Essential Scales You Should Know

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.

funky 70s woman

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.

Check out any Prince solo and you’ll hear this scale being heavily used up and down the fretboard. Not to mention much of Niall Rodgers’ playing!

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 great Jimi Hendrix was undeniably funky at times, and he also wasn’t shy of the Mixolydian scale.

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)

 

Summary

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.

Sparse, staccato and syncopated licks, designed to complement the bass and drums are key here. No twiddling!

 

Further reading:

 

Have fun(k)!

Roz is a music teacher and our go-to person for anything music theory! When she’s not teaching or writing for Zing, Roz writes and plays in alternative/ psyche /art rock band The Roz Bruce Infusion.

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