Pioneering keyboardists (such as 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 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. In a band, drums and bass set the pace, so by the time you come in, much has been decided. Traditionally, funk has 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.
Ex. 1. 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. 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. 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) from a black key to a white key. On the fourth beat, the riff follows the bass line.
Ex 4. 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. Here’s 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.