Influential recordings from the late 1960s by pioneering keyboardists (such as those by Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea with Miles Davis, and Billy Preston with the Beatles) brought the Rhodes electric piano to the forefront of modern music. Soon it was the go-to keyboard of the ’70s and early ’80s. Jazz and rock players flocked to the Rhodes’ new sound. Its dynamic range, percussive quality, and ability to play ghost notes are just some of the things that make it a stellar funk instrument as well. This quick lesson will help you get your Rhodes funk on.
The slow funk beat is a great way to start grooving on the Rhodes. When playing with a band, drums and bass set the pace, so by time you come in, much has already been decided. Traditionally, funk patterns have a very strong “one,” and a syncopated, two-bar repeating pattern. Be aware of how heavy the drums and bass are playing the first beat, and how hard the sixteenth notes are swinging.
Click the sheet music thumbnails for super-sized versions, and the example headings for audio clips!
Ex. 1 - click for audio. Here’s a bass line with an accented first beat (called a “heavy one”) and a slow,
swinging, sixteenth-note feel. There’s a little space in the middle of the bar, and a pickup
at the end to play off of — or not. Check out “Cissy Strut” by The Meters or “Up for the
Down Stroke” by Parliament for a similar feel.
Ex. 2 - click for audio. Let’s hit pretty hard on the “one” here. Hold it for two beats, then pop a few chords off the beat at the end of the bar. Since the pattern is a two-bar phrase, vary the second bar, letting the chords go downward. Simple three-note gospel voicings work great on the Rhodes, and the tone around middle C is punchy and full.
Ex. 3 - click for audio.With your second finger, add a “blue” grace note on the beat. You can finger grace notes (finger 2 to 3) or slide them (2 to 2) if you’re going from a black key to a white key. On the fourth beat, the riff follows the bass line.
Ex 4 - click for audio.If you play syncopation off of the “hard one,” lighten up on the articulation. The sixteenth notes off of the other beats should be light and rhythmic — also try to articulate long-short, or do-dat. On a Rhodes. you may find you actually have more dynamic range than on an acoustic piano, especially if you turn up the volume and play light.
Ex 5 - click for audio. Here’s a little taste of some jazz thrown onto the funk groove: chromatic half-step movement from Db13 with a backwards grace note (B to Bb — thank you Herbie Hancock!) to C13. In the second bar, slide your left hand under the right on beats 2 and 3.
Scott Healy, who authors our Session Sensei column each month, is well-known for his burning keyboard work on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. Find-out more at bluedogmusic.com.