If there’s a single guitar style that warrants greater respect than it’s received through the years, it’s funk guitar. Eschewing flashy solos—and showy lead work of any kind, really—funk instead centers on rhythm and repetition, and subtly dexterous wrist action. As writer Joe Gatto has pointed out, funk is all about the groove, about keeping it tight and on the “one.” Below, we’ve profiled 10 guitar greats for whom that funk-groove was paramount.

Freddie Stone (Sly & the Family Stone)

Sly and the Family Stone

As co-founder of Sly & the Family Stone, Sly’s brother Freddie perfected a pop-funk style that served as the engine behind such classics as “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Sharpening his gutbucket licks on a Gibson L-4 hollowbody, Stone weaved in and out of the band’s prominent horn section with spot-on timing. Players as varied as Prince and John Frusciante have cited his influence.

Jimmy Nolan (James Brown)

A key sideman for James Brown, Jimmy Nolan developed his famous “chicken scratch” style by focusing on light chops and rapid strumming, and playing near the bridge. Nolan relied primarily on either an ES-175 or an ES-5 Switchmaster to achieve his distinctive sound, heard in all its glory on tracks such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Cold Sweat.” George Clinton, Nile Rodgers and Earth Wind & Fire guitar great Al McKay are among the many funk guitarists who have cited Nolan’s impact.

Tony Maiden (Rufus)


Perhaps his name is less familiar than other funk greats, but Rufus six-stringer Tony Maiden deserves a prime spot among funk’s elite. Songs such as “Tell Me Something Good,” “Sweet Thing” and “Once You Get Started” merely skim the surface of the material fueled in large part by Maiden’s artful licks. Many of his guitar parts—which, in addition to his rhythm work, included some of funk’s finest solos—were played on an ES-175, an ES-345 or a Les Paul.

Eddie Hazel (Parliament-Funkadelic)

George Clinton’s P-Funk has boasted an array of funk-guitar greats through the years, but none has been better than Eddie Hazel. Hazel’s 10-minute solo on “Maggot Brain”--for which Clinton told him to “play like your mama just died”—will always be compulsory listening for aspiring funk players. Countless guitarists – including such rock-oriented players as Lenny Kravitz and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready—have cited Hazel’s explosive impact.

Larry “Sugarfoot” Bonner (Ohio Players)

Ohio Players

The funk world deeply mourned the passing of Ohio Players guitarist-frontman “Sugarfoot” Bonner when he passed away in January of 2013. Bonner’s scratchy rhythm work and his single-note wah flourishes—along with his distinctive vocals—helped fuel such classics as “Love Rollercoaster,” “Fire” and “Skin Tight.” Bonner spoke eloquently of funk’s origins, saying, “Funk was born the day after the blues … to take away some of the sadness…. Funk is a sort of happy blues, to me.”

Leo Nocentelli (The Meters)

The king of New Orleans funk, Leo Nocentelli long ago perfected a style built on a crisp tone, imaginative chord voicings and syncopated rhythms. Any student of funk guitar would do well to dissect his iconic instrumental, “Cissy Strut.” Nocentelli has long favored an ES-335 as his go-to instrument, often praising the guitar for its extraordinary versatility.

Al McKay (Earth Wind & Fire)

Earth Wind & Fire

Launching his career as part of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, left-hand guitar great Al McKay joined Earth Wind & Fire in 1973 and spent the next eight years powering (and often co-writing) such classics as “Let’s Groove,” “September” and “Shining Star.”  As he once explained to Premier Guitar, “feel and groove” have always been the essential components of his stylistic arsenal. Much of McKay’s best work has been done on his favorite guitar, a 1972 ES-335.

Nile Rodgers (Chic)

Though he’s sometimes been “blamed” for fomenting the ‘70s New York disco scene, Nile Rodgers’ funk gifts are beyond dispute. Citing Wes Montgomery and James Brown’s band as primary influences, Rodgers once told Guitar Player he “tried to figure out a style that would allow [his] own voice to be heard.” “Funk was the perfect opportunity for that,” he explained, “because with funk records, when someone hums the song to you, it’s usually the guitar riff they’re singing.”



Recognition of Prince’s dazzling six-string skills escalated during the final years of the iconic artist’s all-too-brief life. With regard to his funk skills, his guitar work on “Kiss,” for instance, and on the entirety of 1980’s Dirty Mind, sports some of the most infectious grooves of the past half-century. Prince's rhythmic precision, combined with great tone, constituted a bedrock foundation from which his monumental psychedelic blues could spring forth.

Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MGs)

The definitive versions of “Knock on Wood,” “Soul Man” and “In the Midnight Hour” would no doubt sound quite different were it not for Steve Cropper’s funk prowess. Speaking with Gibson.com in 2012, Cropper said his gift for great licks lay in developing rhythm parts first. “My idea was to just play the rhythm until I felt a little opening in there,” he said, “and I’d stick a lick in or a fill. It’s easy to lay a track and play a rhythm, and then have somebody go sing or lay a solo over it, because the rhythm is nailed down.”