Most synthesizers come pre-loaded with hundreds of sounds, and it’s a lot of fun to scroll through different banks and experiment with all of the various sonic possibilities. I have had many keyboards in my life, and there is definitely a honeymoon period each time I get a new instrument. There is a lot of education in trying out and listening to so many synthesizer sounds. Some are great, and you’ll return to them frequently on your gigs. Others are seemingly useless. I mean, how often are you going to need to recreate the sound of a helicopter rotor or crashing waves (yes, these are sounds on my Yamaha Motif). But as a professional gigging musician, I can say unequivocally that 80-90% of the time, I’m using the same essential funk sounds on my gigs. Even when I need to find or create something unique, I’m generally starting with one of these essential funk sounds as my foundation and layering other sounds or effects on top.
Here are my “Essential Funk Sounds” that I use on all of my funk-rock gigs and some great examples for you to check out for further reference.
#1. Acoustic Piano – Yup, just a regular old piano sound because, after all, you can get pretty funky on the piano. There are, of course, a LOT of funk and rock tunes which features the piano prominently in the recording, such as “September” by Earth Wind & Fire, “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles” by Billy Preston, and “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker, just to name a few.
#2. Fender Rhodes – Every keyboard player seems to love the sound of the Fender Rhodes. This is an example of an electro-mechanical instrument (an instruments that produces sounds mechanically but then transmits the sound electronically). The Rhodes keyboards started to rise in popularity in the 1970s (as funk and jazz-rock was also growing in popularity), and nowadays is a vintage instrument that still gets a lot of use on gigs and recordings. Check out the sound of the Rhodes on some classic funk recordings, such as “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.”
#3. Wurlitzer Electric Piano (Wurly) – Also an electro-mechanical instrument, the Wurly (as it is called) is another vintage instrument that still gets a lot of use in today’s music. Its sound is similar to the rhodes, but also very different in that it has more bite and grit in its sound. Check out the Wurly being played in these classic recordings: “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” by Marvin Gaye, “What I’d Say” by Ray Charles, and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by Joe Zawinul (with Cannonball Adderley).
#4. Clavinet – The clavinet is an instantly recognizable, funky sound that often is used more for its percussive and rhythmic qualities than its harmonic qualities. It’s really a vintage funk sound that still gets a lot of use today. Perhaps the most well-known use of the clavinet in funk-rock music is that of Stevie Wonder with tunes like “Superstition,” and “Higher Ground.” Bill Withers’ classic funk tune “Use Me” also features the clavinet prominently. Check out all three of these great tunes in our lesson “Clavinet Grooves Revealed“!
#5. Organ – There are many different drawbar settings and therefore many different sounds that you can associate with the organ. Basically, I’m referring to the Hammond organ, the classic B3. But there are other organs (such as the Vox and Farfisa) that also have a home in funk and rock music. Check out the different sounds you can achieve with the organ in funk-rock music by listening to “Cissy Strut” by The Meters, “Back at the Chicken Shack” by Jimmy Smith, and “Love the One You’re With” (Aretha Franklin featuring Billy Preston). All of these tunes are also featured and discussed in our Essential Hammond Organ Course!