Stop a passerby in the street and ask them this question: Do You Know Who The Funk Brothers were? And the majority of people you ask won’t know the answer.
Yet if you ask them who Elvis was? Or who The Beatles were? Or who Madonna is? Or Michael Jackson?
Those same people will know them all. And here’s the thing – The Funk Brothers played on more Number 1 records than all of the above artists COMBINED.
So Who Were The Funk Brothers?
The Funk Brothers were the in house musicians for Motown records, when Motown was based in Detroit (so from approximately 1963 until Motown relocated to LA in 72/73). And though Motown had a ton of great singers – The temptations, the Supremes, Smoky, Stevie, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye – pretty much all of the MUSIC that those singers sang over was played by The Funk Brothers.
And I was thinking about Deliberate Practice today as I was driving along. And in the car at the moment I’ve got MOTOWN CHARTBUSTERS VOLS 1 – 6 – which is a great 6 CD snapshot of the classic Motown period (approx. 65/66 to 72)
And it occurred to me that The Funk Brothers were a great example of Deliberate Practice in action – and the activity that they ‘deliberately practiced’ was providing the musical backing to all those great Motown acts, as well as a whole host of lesser known Acts.
So let’s take a closer look at The Funk Brothers – and see how ‘deliberate practice’ turned them into the biggest hit making machine the pop and rock world has ever seen.
Applying The First Key Principle Of Deliberate Practice
The first key principle of Deliberate Practice that we’re going to look at is Repetition. Now back in the day when The Funk Brothers recorded with those great Motown acts they recorded direct to 2 track or 4 track recorders.
That meant everyone was in the studio together. All the singers. Any brass musicians or string musicians. And The Funk Brothers. So on some songs there might be upwards of 20 people involved in the playing and singing of the song.
And because they were recording direct to 2 or 4 track that meant that if someone made a mistake then they had to stop the tape rolling and start again. And although the Funk Brothers were truly a band of brothers, they also liked to ‘rag’ on each other. And so if someone had made a mistake that caused a take to have to be played again that musician would be twice as determined that it wouldn’t be HIM who made a mistake on the next take. Or the take after.
So there were often multiple takes of a song before the producers got one ‘in the can’ that they liked enough to use as the Master. And this repetition – plus the constant ‘ragging’ that went on – served to raise the quality level of each track.
Applying The Second Key Principle Of Deliberate Practice – Feedback
Now we’re not talking Feedback that guitarists are usually guilty of! We’re talking feedback in the sense of constructive feedback that would allow the musicians to play better parts. Or interpret their parts better.
And at Motown whoever was producing a particular session – Berry Gordy had his songwriters and producers organized into teams – would go around between takes offering instructions to the musicians. “That didn’t quite work, try this.” And so the musicians had immediate feedback on what they had just played.
Plus nearly all of the Funk Brothers were first and foremost jazz musicians who played 5 or 6 nights a week in the jazz clubs of Detroit. And often the band leader – keyboard player Earl Van Dyke – would call out suggestions to the other musicians based on jazz standards that they all knew and played regularly.
So there was constant and timely feedback on what each musician needed to do to get better. (By better, it’s important to be aware that I mean better at delivering that musician’s role within the dynamic of the group sound – not to get better individually).
Applying The Third Key Principle Of Deliberate Practice – Staying in The Learning Zone
For anyone to get better at anything they are practicing they need to stay in a zone where they are constantly learning.
And for The Funk Brothers this was true in every session. Because every time they nailed a song then the producers would pull out the next song from Motown’s conveyor belt. So there were always new and fresh challenges.
Also new songwriters and arrangers came into the Motown machine, and tunes got rhythmically and harmonically more complex. Compare some of the simpler early Motown tunes like My Guy or Baby Love with some later period Motown tunes like For Once In My Life. Or Bernadette. Or Love Child.
The difference is startling – but chronologically is only two or three years different.
Objectively Assessing The Performance Of the Funk Brothers
It’s possible to objectively assess The Funk Brothers growth as a musical unit through the years that they played together thanks to a series of great reissues of Motown tunes – a series of CDs called THE COMPLETE MOTOWN HIT SINGLES OF 1963 or 1964 or 1965.
And if you listen to tracks from these CDs what happens is that The Funk Brothers really start to gel around 1964 (songs like Pride and Joy, How Sweet It Is, My Guy) and then start hitting their stride in 1965 (Uptight, Stop In The Name Of Love, Nowhere to Run, Same Old Song) and 1966 (You Can’t Hurry Love, What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, This Old Heart Of Mine.
In 67 and 68 there’s a serious upturn in both the quality of the Funk Brother’s output – and its complexity – (Bernadette, For Once In My Life, Heard It Through The Grapevine, Love Child, Reflections) – and these years represent the peak output of The Funk Brothers.
From 1969 there were still high points – but the Motown machine was growing and new musicians were brought in to help out with the recording duties. And whilst the quality was still high – Motown’s recording system had been delivering consistent hits for 5 or 6 years by this period – the number of exceptional tracks starts to tail off.
The main take away from this post is that although we’re looking at Deliberate Practice and how it can be applied to bass playing, Deliberate Practice is a system that can be applied to just about anything to make you – or a group of people – better on a constant and continuous basis.