"Oh yes – music itself has that healing thing. And groove music specifically. You find it in church, all kinds of things, and that is the essence of funk. When you pick up a tambourine and jam. You can do basic, do the best you can and funk it – that’s where funk starts."
George Clinton to the LA Record
Beaming down from the Mothership at the zeitgeist of the heavy rock and R&B movement happening across America in the late ‘60s, Funkadelic – and later, Parliament – brought a one of a kind attitude that blended colorful psychedelic visions with a soulful, gritty humanity.
One part Sly Stone slinking thumping bass, one part James Brown funky beats, and a megaton of Jimi Hendrix-inspired freak out attitude created a sound that this group of eventually over 50 musicians would take to the top of the charts, selling out arenas for over a decade.
In the P-Funk world, everyone is a child of the cosmos and everyone is united to get down just for the funk of it. Their relentless beats and infectious chants and lyrics are unmistakable among a sea of pale imitators.
Live, its many lineups were capable of leaving an entire audience feeling like they were having an extraterrestrial experience. Their effect on pop music is impossible to overstate, influencing just about everyone from The Doobie Brothers to Hall and Oates to Dr. Dre.
Come on Up to the Mothership: The Birth of Parliament
The Parliaments began in turbulent 1960s Detroit as a doo-wop band led by one-time barber, legendary eccentric and vocalist George Clinton. The group began to expand its R&B sound and instrumentation after finding spiritual and sonic soulmates in the heavier music made by Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and the Detroit proto-punk scene.
As the decade went on, the band changed its name to Funkadelic, embracing wholeheartedly the burgeoning “anything goes” attitude of psychedelia and launching expeditions into its outer limits.
With songs blending relentless clockwork drumming, looping slap bass lines, and state-of-the-art audio guitar and synthesizer technologies, the band quickly found themselves at the forefront of the nascent funk scene. Word about their untouchable live show and several experimental, forward-thinking and best-selling albums made them stars.
Bringing a horn section — which would eventually include Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley — into the mix, Clinton shrewdly rebooted The Parliaments as Parliament to distinguish from the typically more aggressive and guitar-driven sound of Funkadelic. Their differences were not always maintained, and before long, composite versions of the group were touring together performing songs from both bands under the name P-Funk.
Parliament Live in 1976
Your average P-Funk show would put most bands of any era to shame. The band's many lead singers and musicians would bring their unique roles and personas from the record to the stage, wearing wild androgynous costumes and employing crazy stage props like a massive spaceship that would land at the climax of the song “Mothership Connection.”
And while their antics are legendary, with tales of epic drug abuse and rampant nonstop partying, the music these bands and its offshoots created was absolutely bulletproof. From the actual performance to the songwriting and arranging, there aren't many groups that can match the layered, spontaneous and orchestrated intricacies you’ll find in every song in the P-Funk catalog.
When you listen to a Parliament or Funkadelic recording, you are hearing some of the most talented and experienced musicianship in rock and roll. With its players coming from all over the industry carrying experience on several different levels of success, each and every track by both bands was able to take on a life of its own, existing in its own world with a unique sonic texture that was more than the sum of its parts.
To anchor the seemingly free-flowing nature of their sound, ringleader George Clinton worked closely with and favored a small group of performers in the band, utilizing their unique sounds to advance the band’s sonic approach. These musicians ultimately took a massive role in the band, contributing songwriting, performances on recordings and onstage and being devout in their sonic quest to explore the possibilities of what funk music could sound like.
This is by no means a complete list of the all of the P-Funk performers (nor a complete list of all of the gear used by each performer mentioned. Rather, it is a look at the most crucial musicians and equipment during the P-Funk’s initial run. These performers are arguably the greatest contributors to the overall sound, and their greatest hits and gear provided much of P-Funk’s sonic signature.
Getting in on the P-Funk mix early, Bernie Worrell's keyboard playing painted broad splashes of wild sonic textures across the group's relentless funk grooves. Starting with the band when Funkadelic first formed and crafting some of their most infectious and influential riffs, Worrell’s contributions as music director and songwriter cannot be overstated. Nor can his contributions to the art and prominence of synthesizers across nearly every musical genre.
With his mastery of several traditional keyboards and the recently created Moog synthesizers along with his inimitable approach to performing, Worrell challenged his band and listeners to take the funk into unknown sonic territory.
Here's a brief sample of some of Bernie's favored gear:
"So I laid the Moog synthesizer, the Minimoog. The old one, not the new stuff. The old one, which is... I told Bob Moog, they sent one of his technicians; the new stuff still isn't as fat, got the meat, like the old ones. So that's why I like the vintage stuff."
Bernie Worrell talking to Red Bull about the recording of the song "Flash Light"
Clavinet The electronic clavichord – basically a small-scale keyboard that’s strung like a harp, played with mallets and then amplified – forms the rhythmic backbone to a multitude of P-funk songs and songs across the R&B, funk and soul genres.
Its unmistakable Clavinet sound was usually heavily treated with Worrell's use of wah wah pedals, envelope filters, and other effects to make his Clavinet performances unmistakable.
Minimoog Simplifying the unwieldy and ever-expanding modular synthesizers produced by Moog and others, the Minimoog allowed Worrell the ability to easily adapt its thick and spacey sounds to the pulsing rhythmic underbelly of P-Funks rhythm section live and throughout the majority of its recorded output.
Hammond B3 This classic organ brought some soulful rumbling and melodic riffing to Funkadelic's early output. Its unmistakable, whirling tones added a melodic voice to the band’s psychedelic groove.
ARP String Ensemble The ARP string ensemble is that ringing, padded string tone you hear over P-Funk hits like "Flash Light." Its higher pitches and unnatural orchestral wobble served as a counterpoint to Bernie Worrell's rumbling low-end riffs on his Minimoog.
Yamaha CS80 An early polyphonic synthesizer with a wild spectrum of tones, Bernie Worrell would use the CS80 to color songs with sounds different from his go-to Minimood and Clavinet. The CS80 would be featured more regularly later in P-Funk’s career.
RMI Electra Piano An early electric piano, this was Worrell’s main electric keyboard for songs that needed synthy sounds or acoustic piano-type sounds. He would take these sounds and inevitably blend them through a variety of effects and processors.
Funkadelic - "Undisco Kidd" (Live in Houston, 1979)
Bringing the aggressive rock and roll sound of Jimi Hendrix into the funky world of James Brown and Sly Stone, Eddie Hazel's contributions to P-Funk’s legacy and sound would go onto inspire generations of guitarists. Famous for his swirling, reverb-drenched solos and razor sharp rhythm playing, Hazel would spend time in and out of the P-Funk enterprise and gained a reputation as a loose cannon.
His sprawling, multi-dimensional guitar solo on the landmark song "Maggot Brain" stands as one of the greatest solos of all time on any instrument. Singlehandedly, it influenced a generation of psychedelic axemen looking to tap into the sonic abyss. While Hazel could frequently be seen playing a number of different Gibson guitars - Firebirds, Les Paul Standards and Customs, and a couple different semi-hollows - Eddie is probably best known for playing Fender Stratocasters, ranging from a late-'50s Sunburst Strat to a small hoard of 3-bolt '70s models.
"Eddie Hazel's one of my favorite guitarists. Very sensitive. We'd just go in and hit it. Hit it and quit it."
Bernie Worrell on the late Eddie Hazel
Fender Dual Showman Head The Fender Dual Showman is a powerful tube amplifier head released in the 1960s with the guts of the powerful and clean-sounding Twin Reverb in head form. This amp’s ability to bring out the best in fuzz and wah wah pedals was crucial to shaping Hazel’s powerful sound.
MXR Phase 90 The swirling, three dimensional sounds of the MXR Phase 90 are essential to
adding texture and drama to simple rhythms and melodic patterns.
Echoplex Delay System Utilizing actual audio tape that is printed with a signal live and then replayed inside of a large box, the Echoplex EP-2’s texturized decay and dramatic effects are all over Eddie’s early solos.
Maestro Fuzz-Tone FZ-1A The grainy, fuzzy sound of the Maestro Fuzz-Tone gave Eddie Hazel the “all systems go” distortion tone that he employed on a number of P-Funk riffs and solos.
Dunlop Crybaby Wah Eddie Hazel’s use of the Crybaby Wah is the stuff of legends. Taking Hendrix's wah finessing even further, Hazel would leave the "wah" parked – that is, set in a certain position or only moved slightly – to give his leads that signature honking and slithering quality.
Music Man HD130 One of the cleanest and most powerful amps ever built, the Music Man was the cornerstone of Eddie’s Sound during his later days with P-Funk.
"Standing On the Verge of Getting It On" (Live in Houston, 1979)
The rubber band that kept the P-Funk unit slinky and grooving all over the heavy funk zone was former James Brown associate and bass protégé Bootsy Collins. The over-the-top persona and stage presence of Collins along with his virtuosic mastery of the bass and its unexplored potential catapulted him to the front of the stage, leading to his own successes as a master bandleader himself.
Championing the power of hitting the "one" the first beat of each measure extra hard and in just the right way (an approach he learned during his days with Brown) pushed the P-Funk sound into an even heavier funk direction. Collins' infamous "Space Bass" is one of the most recognizable instruments in all of music, with its wild shape, excessive number of pickups and gigantic frets demanding attention. Be sure to check out Warwick's interpretation of the Space Bass to get yourself funkin' proper.
Chugging along with Bernie Worrell bass riffs on the MiniMoog, the two developed P-Funk’s signature low-end sound. His aggressive slap bass approach and relentless use of effects – especially the envelope filter – have made his sound and approach the cornerstone by which all other funk bassists are judged by.
"Each and every person has to find their own funk," he said. "Funk to me is making something out of nothing. We didn't have nothing, so we did what we did with what we had."
Bootsy Collins talking about coming up in the funk game to Billboard Magazine
Roland Space Echo Known for its warm, gritty echo sounds and iconic tank-like looks, the Roland Space Echo was the backbone to many of Collin's bass freak-outs and psychedelic breakdowns. It improved on the Echoplex with an open reel tape design that made the unit reliable and resulted in less noise and wobble when in use.
Mu-Tron Octave Divider Inspired by the classic Octavia pedal popularized by Jimi Hendrix, the Mu-Tron Octave Divider could add a higher and lower octave to the signal. When mixed in with bass or guitar, this effect could give a futuristic and fat low-end sound.
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi The legendary Big Muff Pi fuzz was firmly embraced by the P-Funk community at-large for its fat and dirty distortion and fuzz tones that could turn a bass from a slinky snake into a screaming demon.
Mu-Tron Mutron III Maybe the most crucial effect for those who want to sound authentically funky, the Mu-tron III Mutron creates a wobbling, "bow-wow" like tone that makes an instrument sound like it’s bubbling or even moving. It's easiest to think of it as an automatic wah, but the Mutron had its own unique envelope and gain controls that set it apart from similar pedals like the Electro-Harmonix Dr. Q.
While not a P-funk track, Stevie Wonder's massive hit "Higher Ground" and its insistent Clavinet riff gets its funky sound from The Mu-Tron III, for reference. The Mu-Tron III, with its gain pushed or combined with other effects, would make Bootsy and Bernie's rhythm work sound squiggly, slithery, and alive.
Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth >Bootsy's later funky bass sounds got a futuristic boost from the EHX Bass Micro Synth. Specifically tailored to bass guitar and offering a number of fat synth tones, the pedal can make a bass sound nearly as fat and thick as a classic Moog synth.
"In the beginning, everybody was against me and all my pedals. Once they saw how it worked and sounded, they couldn’t wait to get me in the studio because it was so much fun."
Bootsy Collins, Bass Player Magazine 11/1/2010
Bootsy's Rubber Band - "Psychoticbumpschool" (Live, 1976)
Another protégé in a band full of them, Michael Hampton was drafted into the P-Funk lineup after he was discovered at a party to be capable of replicating the often unpredictable Eddie Hazel's guitar solo in "Maggot Brain." He quickly earned lead guitarist status and eventually "leader of the lead guitarists" status amongst the lineup of regularl guitar players.
His searing tone foretold and was directly inspired by the heavy and fast guitar playing style coming into prominence in hard rock and heavy metal. His ability to blend this ferocious attack with a soulful, funky style that embraced string bends and feedback made sure that every solo Hampton took unique and gutsy. His virtuosic soloing usually served as a melodic counterpoint to the unstoppably funky keyboard and bass antics and group singing.
"Plus, I would just crank the guitar, man. I would turn it all the way up. Most of the time everything would probably be at 10. I guess it came from the pickups itself and the actual makeup of however it resonated. I pulled the saddles all the way back, too, so I could get more flexibility and more play in the string, and it wasn’t intonated correctly."
Michael Hampton talking to Premier Guitar
Alembic Omega Series 1 Electric Guitar What became the Alembic Company has an interesting history. Starting as a sound reinforcement project by the legendary LSD chemist Owsley Stanley, ostensibly to improve the Grateful Dead's live sound, Alembic became well known for its advanced take on guitar and bass design and technology. By the mid-70s, their trademark chopped curvature and neck-through racing stripe would come to stand for sophisticated, high-performance tone for elite musicians. Hampton's Alembic guitars produced immense and precise tone thanks to their high bandwidth, low-impedance pickups.
Fender Stratocaster with Humbuckers Perhaps the original Super Strat player? Michael Hampton's tricked out Stratocaster graces his work from the mid-’70s and has tone you'd recognize a mile away. Talking to Premier Guitar, Hampton says,"It’s a Strat. I put the left-handed neck on and three DiMarzio Super Distortions—I just went crazy with that guitar. I had an Alembic preamp they made back in the day—that kind of blew out later. I always liked funny cars and hot rods and that’s basically as close as I’m going to get for the guitar"
Parliament Funkadelic - "Cosmic Slop" (Live in Houston, 1976)