The classic funk sound that emerged in the late 1960s featured large ensembles and intricate arrangements. Indeed, one of the rewards of listening to this era of funk is hearing how intricately the grooves have been assembled like puzzle pieces. The pieces themselves are the simple, repeating parts that the individual musicians play that then fit together to form a dazzling whole.
This approach demands each player’s disciplined adherence to the prescribed part. Without that, the groove would fill up with notes and thereby lose shape, and in funk, the shape of the groove is everything.
James Brown's influence will be heard in subsequent examples, so let's start with him. “Mother Popcorn” illustrates the Puzzle Principle in action. See if you can zero in on this or that part; you’ll hear it repeat. This is no loose jam. The groove's sharp angles would be lost were the players to stray from their parts.
Furthermore, note how each part leaves a lot of open space. The guitar, for instance, is playing single notes instead of chords, which is typical of funk.
Indeed, even when the parts are combined, ample space is left for James Brown to stretch out with his singing and punctuate the band groove with percussive shouts of his own. This is a product of his insistent attention on the arrangement.
Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” is driven by the interplay between the bass and guitar, the drums providing the framework that clarifies the nature of that interplay. (This is the Teeter Totter Principle in action.) One of my favorite details of this groove is how Larry Graham’s bass part finds a low, sustained E every other round of the pattern. It calls pleasing attention to the architecture of the groove.
The above video captures an excavation of the groove, as the band reunites in the studio to hear the tracks in various combinations.
This sixteenth century gate from India illustrates the principle at work in classic funk music—composition out of simple, repeating patterns that combine to produce the effect. Note how pleasing and necessary the repetition is. The intricacy of the design demands it, for without the repetition, the effect would vanish, just as a funk groove would lose definition if the players strayed from their parts. Note also the reliance on sharply drawn lines, which are analogous to the precision demanded of funk players.
AWB’s “School Boy Crush” is a good example of how funk grooves typically embody the Puzzle Principle and the Teeter Totter Principle in action. The groove is constructed from individual simple, repeating patterns (the Puzzle Principle), and these patterns combine weak and strong beats in danceable proportions (the Teeter Totter Principle in action). In fact, each part takes turns on both sides of the strong/weak-beat teeter totter.
A final thought. A likely source for this approach might be the compositional insights of African drumming tradition, where the individual musicians play simple, repeating parts that interlock to stunning effect. Here's a glimpse.
Thank you for reading.