A good way to get started with funk improvisation on the piano or keyboard is by learning to use pentatonic scales in a creative way. Repetition can also be a strong element in funk, especially if it is rhythmic and fits into the groove. While pentatonic scales consist of just five notes (hence the name pentatonic, with penta- meaning five in greek), they go a very long way if you want to improvise.
Here is a demonstration of how you can gradually build a solo phrase starting with simple elements. The example is played over a simple chord progression in the key of C major and uses the C major pentatonic scale. It consists of C, D, E, G and A, i.e. the root, second, major third, fifth and sixth.
The C major pentatonic scale
In the first two bars the phrase is very straight and simple. In bars three and four you will see how adding more rhythm in the form of sixteenth notes and playing on off-beats creates a much smoother musical flow. Playing up an octave makes the whole phrase more interesting as well.
In the second example more changes are added along the same lines – sixteenth notes and rhythmic elements. While all notes are from the major pentatonic scale, the phrase is very musical and could easily be extended for a longer time in a similar manner without getting boring or sounding too simple.
Try using the notes of the major pentatonic scale in creative ways to come up with your own funk phrases on the piano. Don’t move too fast, and take it step by step so you won’t lose the musical and rhythmic elements along the way!