Jazz Funk Guitar

Combining jazz chords with the sophisticated rhythmic patterns and fills of funk, jazz funk is exciting and fun to play. Jazz funk guitar is often thought of as a rhythmic-heavy genre, where guitarists spend most of their time playing chords and funky grooves. But there’s another side to the genre as well, as jazz funk guitarists are also masters of creating groovy single-note lines as riffs, fills, and improvised solos.

In this lesson, you will learn the funk guitar basics needed to play smooth funky jazz. We cover both parts of learning how to play funk guitar, starting with a rhythm guitar lesson, learning how to play funky guitar chords and chord progressions. In the second section, you will learn how to play funk licks and fills.


Jazz Funk Rhythm Guitar

Have you ever found yourself comping over a tune with cool-sounding chords, but your rhythmic playing is falling flat? If you’ve ever wondered how to take your chords and make them hipper, then studying jazz-funk rhythm guitar may be the answer you’re looking for.

The options available when playing rhythm guitar are vast. I often hear students and fellow guitarists saying, “Rhythm guitar is boring,” and my answer to that is always, “You’re just not doing it right!”

When learning a new style of music, the most important thing is to listen to notable tracks from that genre. Because of this, check out these two jazz funk tracks before diving into the lesson material below.


George Benson – Breezin’

George Benson is a guitar genius. He combines fluid jazz guitar runs and chords with a silky smooth voice and is widely accredited with bringing jazz to a more mainstream audience. Breezin’ was a smash hit instrumental track for George Benson, and to this day provides a wonderful crossover between jazz, funk, and pop.

While listening to the track, take in all the different components that Benson used when playing this piece. Melodic double stops start out the piece, while the four-chord progression of Dmaj9-Bmadd9-Em9-G/A is strummed in an upbeat fashion.

The main melody throughout uses a D major scale, proving that to sound jazzy you don’t always need to know a thousand scales.

Breezin' - George Benson studio version


Michael Jackson – Rock With You

In 1979, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall was released. To this day, it remains king of all the funk rhythm guitar albums. Legendary session guitarist David Williams recorded the main rhythm guitar part heard on the track Rock With You.

This track features a jazzier vibe than Jackson’s other recordings and features some of the chords you’re going to look at in today’s article. The crisp tight rhythm sound heard on this recording is something to try and emulate in your own funky compositions.

Michael Jackson - Rock With You (Official Video)


Jazz Funk Rhythm Guitar Progression

This example introduces the chord progression that’ll be used throughout this entire article. The chords that will be used are:

Fretting the Dm9 can prove tricky at first, but its excellent sound makes up for the extra effort needed.


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jazz funk rhythm guitar 1


Syncopated Strumming Pattern

Funk rhythm guitar relies heavily on groove and syncopation.

This example adds a funk-based groove to the chords and uses a chromatic passing chord of Ab/Bb (same shape as the other slash chords) to add variation and excitement.


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jazz funk rhythm guitar 2


Triad Shapes for Funk Jazz

In jazz, you often play chord shapes that use four or more notes. In funk guitar however, triads or other three-note chords are a more popular choice.

As you’re looking at jazz funk, you can steal ideas from both genres. Here you’ve dropped the root note from each of the chords in the progression.

This creates three-note mini ‘triad’ chord shapes, which will form the basis of the following two examples.

If you always find yourself playing four-note chord shapes, it can be a beneficial strategy to drop root notes and create rootless three-note chord shapes. This will help both your comping over standards and your jazz funk playing.


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jazz funk rhythm guitar 3


Adding Slides to Triads

Triads are far easier to slide on the guitar than four-note chords, and sliding triads is a classic sound heard throughout jazz funk guitar.

This example demonstrates sliding the entire shape from one fret below each triad chord seen in the previous example. There’s also an added groove-based rhythm and a passing chromatic slash chord, first introduced in example two.


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Adding Muted Chords

The next example adds mutes to example four to create a modern jazz-funk groove. Imagine if George Benson and Nile Rodgers combined to create a riff, this is it.


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Different Neck Positions

Now that you’ve learned the chord progression and some ways to funk it up, it’s time to learn the same shapes in a different area of the neck. When learning chords, scales, and arpeggios, I recommend that you know at least two different patterns on the fretboard.

The Dm9 chord in this voicing is a little uncomfortable to fret. As you will see in the following examples, it’s easier to play if you take off the low D on the 6th string.


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Adding a Strumming Pattern

As mentioned in the previous example, it’s easier to fret this Dm9 chord if you take off the 6th string root note. This allows for all the chords to be on the top four strings, which is common in funk guitar rhythm playing.


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jazz funk rhythm guitar 7.1


Triads Part II

In a similar way to example three, example eight creates mini triad shapes high up the neck.

These triads are named in terms of what they produce when played along with the backing track. The shapes seen in this example are fundamental to funk, reggae, and ska guitar parts.


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jazz funk rhythm guitar 8


Slides Part II

Example nine builds a lovely jazz-funk rhythm part simply by adding slides and a syncopated rhythm to the chords introduced in the previous example.


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jazz funk rhythm guitar 9


Mutes Part II

In this example, you add muted strums in between the chords to add a percussive funk based effect.


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Jazz Funk Guitar Soloing Concepts

In this part of the lesson, you’ll look at single note jazz-funk lines and common applications. The single note jazz-funk guitar part has two main occurrences:

  • Providing a secondary rhythm part that cuts through a mix and doesn’t disturb the main rhythm part.
  • The central hook or theme of a piece of music.

Throughout this lesson, you’ll learn how to create interesting single-note jazz-funk patterns, and develop a smooth jazz theme over a common chord progression.


The Chord Progression

When I’m writing and creating rhythm guitar parts, I like to play over a backing track. This gives me the feel of playing in a live situation and focuses my playing in the style and genre of the song.

The chord progression I’ve used for all of today’s examples is:  Em7, Am7, B7#5b9 (B7alt). This chord progression will be used for every single-note example throughout this lesson.

In this example, I’ve shown a common funk way of approaching these chords, but you can use any chord voicings that you wish over the backing track. Just make sure that they are some version of Em7, Am7, and B7alt.


Jazz funk guitar chords


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jazz funk soloing 1


Single Note Theme

This musical phrase demonstrates the power of simplicity in funk guitar by only using two notes.

Playing these notes creates the following intervals over the chord progression.

  • E over Em7 = Root
  • E over Am7 = 5th
  • D# over B7alt = 3rd

By combining a single note for each chord with a syncopated 16th-note picking pattern, you create this seriously funky riff only using two different notes.


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jazz funk soloing 2


Single Note Theme Multiple Octaves

It’s always good practice to be able to play a riff or lick in multiple positions on the guitar fretboard. Although there are six options that you could choose to play these notes on the guitar, I’ve picked three of the most common and notated them below.


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Jazz Funk Single Note Fill 1

The tendency when starting to play jazz-funk guitar is to add fills everywhere, but it’s better to think of fills as the sprinkles on the top of a cake. They are there to add the final touch.

That said, having some exciting fills in your guitar playing arsenal can turn an ordinary boring rhythm guitar part into something exciting.

In this example, I’ve created a similar groove to the pattern in the previous phrase, but I’ve added the extra note D for a bit of variety.

I then play the fill over the B7alt chord to add a jazzy flavor to the lick.

The hammer-ons and pull-offs I included in this lick make it much easier to play the line at this speed.


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Jazz Funk Fill 2

This next phrase is one of my favorite fills of all time. This fill uses the top four strings of a B7#5#9 to a B7#5b9, and adds a slide on the D string.

Although simple in construction, this lick can be tricky to play at the required speed of 105 beats per minute.

Start off very slowly with a metronome around 60 beats per minute and gradually increase the tempo only when you can play it five times correctly in a row.


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Jazz Funk Fill 3

This phrase demonstrates a fill that uses the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D).

When playing on a session or in a live situation, I aim not to add a fill in more than every four bars. I’ll commonly add a fill in at the end of an eight-bar section, or when the song changes between sections for example between a verse and a pre-chorus.


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Jazz Funk Fill 4

The next fill uses three-note minor chord shapes on the high strings.

The C minor chord shape outlines the top notes of the B7alt chord, and the E minor chord shape prepares the ear for the resolution that comes in the next bar.

Once again, although relatively simple on paper, the movement between the two chord shapes can take practice.


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Jazz Funk Theme Part 1

Now that you’ve covered ways to write an effective single note jazz-funk guitar part, it’s time to look at creating a theme or motif over the backing track.

When writing instrumental tracks, my approach is very structured:

  • Start with an appropriate scale choice for the track you’re working on. Today you’re going to use the E  minor blues scale (E G A Bb B D).
  • Then create a simple melody that uses just the notes of that scale without any articulations and phrasing.

This example demonstrates this technique over the backing track.


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jazz funk soloing 8


Jazz Funk Theme with Articulations

Now that you’ve created the basic formula for your theme, you add articulations such as slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.

You also add rhythmic phrasing to make your motif sound more musical.


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Jazz Funk Extended Theme

Once you’ve created a central theme to your jazz-funk song, you can add a responding lick or line to create a longer phrase.

The next example carries on the smooth jazz theme using slides and articulations within the E Blues scale (E G A Bb B D).


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Jazz Funk Theme with Licks

For the final example today, I wanted to blend the theme with some fun B altered scale (B C D Eb F G A) licks.

In this example, I use the theme as a call and the B altered licks as a response. By alternating between a theme and a lick, you can build longer solos that sound well-constructed due to the melodic theme throughout.


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Conclusion and Further Listening

Just like in more traditional forms of jazz there is no better way to improve than transcribing. I’m always ‘stealing’ other player’s licks, chords, and phrasing. Also, it’s worth pointing out not to limit yourself to ‘stealing’ only from guitarists, try emulating a saxophone part or a vocal ad-lib.

Ronny Jordan is a personal hero of mine in this genre. I thoroughly recommend the album After 8 for further jazz-funk listening.

Here’s Ronny Jordan’s version of the Miles Davis classic So What.

Ronny Jordan - So what ! ''Jazz Mix'' (1992)


About the Author

Simon Pratt heads up the Fundamental-Changes YouTube channel providing a wide range of video lessons for the site. He has written three number one bestselling books, the latest of which is the Finger Guitar Gym. As well as writing books and producing videos, Simon spends his time devoted to teaching the guitar and has students from all around the world via Skype.

A big thank you to Andrew Koshcheyev for the transcriptions featured in this article.

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75 thoughts on “Jazz Funk Guitar”

  1. Mourard

    Great Lesson ! Many Thanks !

  2. andrew morrison

    Astounding lesson Simon! I love this genre, and its amazing to find such a detailed treatment. I would love to see more.

  3. Dheep'

    When I was young someone invariably asked that ridiculous question when they found out you played Guitar:
    “Do you play Lead or Rhythm” ?
    “I play Guitar” was usually my answer as they scratched their head & those tiny gears spun
    In my mind it was never a separate thing. It’s just all guitar to me

  4. Brynmore

    Great lesson. Thank you so much. RIP Ronny Jordan, the greatest acid jazz guitarist.

  5. Philip Jerrome

    As a novice, I hear SO many thing in here that I need to know. Thanks for putting it all together in this composition. Amazing career and such an inspiration to me personally.

  6. SteMcK

    Excellent lesson Simon. Easy to understand for all levels. Keep up the great work.

    1. Simon Pratt

      Thanks for writing. So glad it was helpful to you!

  7. Ken

    What more could I say, other than showing appreciation of you providing these really helpful and precious instructions.. Please keep up the good work!

    1. Simon Pratt

      What a lovely comment Ken. Thanks for much for writing to me. It’s comments like these that make it all worth it!

  8. What about picking? Say, at part ‘Jazz Funk Theme with Articulations’, do you recommend to keep up pick on down beat?

    1. Simon Pratt

      I recommend always use alternate picking (down up) and start on a down pick on beat 1. Funk is all about momentum and alternate picking is a great way to achieve that.

  9. Great lesson Simon well structured & easy to “grab” keep up the good work.

    1. Simon Pratt

      Thanks so much for that Alan! Glad you enjoyed it

  10. Smoothjazzman1957

    Great Lesson. I agree with Elvin, more, more, more. There’s not much on the Internet on for Smooth Jazz and Jazz-Funk, so lessons like this are a God-send. Maybe you can convince the suits at Fundamental-Changes to do a complete book-audio on the subject. Reserve my copy.

    1. Simon Pratt

      Thanks for the comment. Yes I realised there was very little on the web and it’s my passion so I decided to do something about it. Appreciate the lovely feedback.

  11. mojazz

    Thank you so much Simon. Great stuff, I’ve been working on it every day and just love it. Hope to see more from you

    1. Simon Pratt

      My pleasure. Thank you for such a nice motivating comment :)!

  12. LesCopeland

    Beautiful lesson! So easy to understand. Beautiful playing and beautiful tone. Thanks so much!

    1. Simon Pratt

      Wow Les Thank you! It’s comments like this that inspire me to write and teach every single day.

  13. Curt

    Fantastic lesson! Your examples using the tools, examples and ideas has given me a better understanding on how I can improve my guitar playing to be more melodic and rhythmic. Thank you!

    1. Simon Pratt

      Thanks Curt. Wonderful to hear that it’s given you new playing ideas.

  14. Rory

    Very well done! It was like a book I couldn’t put down!

    1. Simon Pratt

      Wow thank you Rory. What a lovely comment. Really brought a smile to my face today!

  15. Roberto Cirillo

    Nice lesson, it’s a good way to set up a proper improvisation and is pretty much almost for everyone.

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