Interview with Progressive Funk-Rock Guitarist and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight
By Thomas J. Amoriello Jr.
NAfME Member and NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair-Elect
The article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of NJ Music Educators Association journal, Tempo.
“How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” is a joke heard often amongst classical musicians. The same could be said for musicians of popular styles about Cleveland and getting to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The diversity of the guitar and the many styles associated with it are the factors that continue to allow the instrument to grow in stature. The guitar is the instrument that attracts youth well after the deadline for 5th grade band signups.
Our subject, DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight has a resume that includes working with jazz giants such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, and Alphonso Johnson as well as funk legends George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was a member of The Headhunters, a fusion band from 1975 through 1978 and then went on to be the musical director of George Clinton and the legendary Parliament/Funkadelic from 1980 to 2008. Thank you to Mr. McKnight for sharing his musical journey with us.
You recorded with jazz icon Herbie Hancock on his Man-Child & Flood albums, what was it like to work with who many consider to be a musical genius during his funk experimentation period?
It was quite an honor to work with someone of his caliber. I had three goals that I set for myself when I was young and playing with him was one of them. Truly one of the greatest experiences I could hope for in that time of my life.
You serve as music director for Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Parliament-Funkadelic and have traveled the world. What are some of the tougher aspects of life on the road?
Actually, to me life on the road is not that tough. Performing for people makes me happy. I get to see friends and visit places I would not get to if I didn’t travel. It’s sometimes difficult to get healthier foods in some places. The whole traveling thing can get tiresome from time to time, but it’s what the job entails. Traveling from city to city playing music for people who wish to listen and enjoy is special to me and one of them get-offs of being a musician.
What is your favorite part?
Obviously the shows. It is great to see people enjoy our shows, not to mention the landmarks you get to see like Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Buckingham Palace, etc. For example, some years ago when the Berlin Wall was being torn down, we played Berlin and were able to visit the wall and participated in chiseling the wall down. I even brought a couple of pieces, which I still have. How cool is that? I like to visit other countries and see how people live.
What were a few of your first guitar memories as a child?
Dropping by the local music store and staring at the guitars through the window every day, hoping and wishing to play someday. Receiving my first guitar from my uncle, sitting on the steps of the back porch, plucking away, learning my favorite songs. Of course, my first electric guitar and amp, going over to friends’ houses and jamming. There are many favorite episodes from that era that I am very fond of!!!
Did you take guitar lessons and was there a mentor who helped you grow as a musician?
Yes, I did take lessons for a very short period of time. I also learned some music in grade school, junior high, and high school (which they taught us in school then). I used to carry around a pitch pipe which I took everywhere. Every time I heard a sound or a note, I would find it on the pitch pipe until I remembered it. From there I developed a better ear and started learning things on my own by watching other musicians on TV, radio, everywhere. I just became absorbed in music.
I have a friend named Shuggie Otis whom I learned a lot from by sitting with him and watching him play in his father’s band “The Johnny Otis Show.” Johnny, Shuggie’s father, also had some other really great musicians in his band whom I also learned from. I was very fortunate to have guys like Johnny and Shuggie Otis let me go to gigs with them and hang out. A lot of other musicians helped me as well to develop, and I always listened and watched as much as I could. Truth is, I am still learning.
As well as funk is a style, it’s also a way of life. It is a musical feeling and expression, but more so than that, it’s what you feel inside of you.
What is your definition of Funk Guitar playing? Please be specific to tone, fretboard concepts, equipment, and approach.
As well as funk is a style, it’s also a way of life. It is a musical feeling and expression, but more so than that, it’s what you feel inside of you. Funk determines how hard you hit the open E and A strings when you chank a chord. Funk is the way you play a 9th chord, as in how hard you play it; your tone comes from all of that. Funk to one person is different to another person and everybody’s feel and approach are different.
You have to understand the rules to know how to break them. Funk is all of that. Some people strum a chord, some chank which calls for a more aggressive approach. However, there is the form of funk where you can use finesse such as a funky ballad. Everybody has the funk but needs to know how to interpret it their way. You can learn from somebody else but make sure you have your own identity. As much as funk is, don’t limit yourself to one thing. Listen to as much music as you can but never abandon what you love.
How do you see the future of funk guitar in the world of music?
First let me say, to me, funk guitar will always have a place in funk music. From what I understand and don’t want to believe is that music is not being taught in a lot of schools. I hear in my state they are cutting music and art classes due to state budget. With schools not to have instruments to teach kids the fundamentals of music, funk and music itself looks bleak.
We have to take it upon ourselves to expose our kids to music, put instruments in their hands, play different types of music for them so they can absorb and grow. We need to keep educating our children. From what I can see, there is a lot of talent out there and kids are willing to play music. Your organization supports kids, and I will keep on playing music for people. The future of funk guitar and any kind of music, art, everything, should be fine as long as we keep on doing what we are doing.
Keep on doing what you are doing. I will do same here. God knows we need music.
You have performed on recordings that have influenced countless musical acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the hip hop samplings of Dr. Dre. What are your thoughts?
Well again, that’s the get off. When I started playing music, I did it to become a great musician, get fame and all of that. It is obviously a great honor to have influenced anyone. Part of the reason of picking up an instrument is to reach as many people as I can through my craft, and I hope I am achieving this. Having said all that, I still have only to grow.
This article will be read by many K-12 music educators and members of the National Association for Music Education. Do you have any words of advice or statements you would like to make to them?
I would like to thank you, K-12 music educators, members of the National Association for Music Education, and collaborators for allowing me to participate in this article and congratulate all of you on reaching out to people and helping them to develop the riches that music has to offer. Keep on doing what you are doing. I will do same here. God knows we need music.
About the author:
Thomas Amoriello is the Guitar Education Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association and also serves on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education as the Chair-Elect. He teaches guitar for the Flemington Raritan School District and Hunterdon Academy of the Arts. Tom graduated from Shenandoah Conservatory with a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance. He is the author of the children’s picture books; A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo & Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand, both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made a heavy metal recording with a stellar roster of musicians including former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Cacophony that was released in February on H42 Records of Hamburg, Germany on 7-inch Vinyl.