Funkin’ Around with Blackbyrd McKnight, Guitar Powerhouse

Guitar titan Blackbyrd McKnight cutting loose, while Parliament-Funkadelic founder George Clinton rocks out in the background.
Guitar titan Blackbyrd McKnight cutting loose, while Parliament-Funkadelic founder George Clinton rocks out in the background.

“I don’t wanna do 20-minute solos, though I can,” guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight says to me, in reference to his solo career. “I like to do that with P-Funk.”

We laughed about that, but it’s no joke. As one of the lead guitarists in funk juggernaut Parliament-Funkadelic for over 30 years, McKnight’s well established as one of the most dexterous players in music. But his skills go far beyond propelling the Mothership with his funky fretwork. McKnight has a keen melodic sense, which can be heard on his strong 2009 solo debut ‘Bout Funkin’ Time. He also has a versatility that extends beyond the realms of funk rock and goes into jazz, where he’s worked with genre legends Charles Lloyd, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.

“I have no separation for music,” Blackbyrd explains. “I love rock just as much as jazz. My father was a complete jazz fan. Duke, Count, Miles, Blakey, all of it. It was great music. I can still sing all the solos on those songs note-for-note. It stuck with me.

“I would be playing with a rock guy and he’d say, ‘You can’t make up your mind,'” he continues, while on the topic of his ability to intermingle varying styles. “Yes, I can! It’s just music! I encompass everything I learn and I’ll go where my mind will take me”

The first place that took Blackbyrd was with saxophonist Charles Lloyd. After playing on Lloyd’s 1973 album Geeta, he hit the road as part of his touring band. It was an experience that opened the doorway to a major collaboration, the first of three he cites as career-fulfilling.

“Working with Charles Lloyd was my first road gig,” Blackbyrd recalls. “I was in Kansas City with Charles at the same time as Herbie Hancock and I got in a taxi to go to town with Bennie Maupin (saxophonist/clarinet player for Hancock). I loved the Herbie Hancock Sextet, so that was amazing.”

The two hit it off and kept in touch. Soon after, Maupin called McKnight out to San Francisco to jam, leading to the lead guitar spot in the Hancock-produced jazz-fusion ensemble the Headhunters. McKnight composed and played on the first two Headhunters releases, 1975’s Survival of the Fittest and 1977’s Straight From the Gate, as well as featuring in Hancock’s mid-’70s touring outfit. Eventually, Maupin left the Headhunters and brought Blackbyrd with him to work with Sonny Rollins. He recalls the time with Rollins fondly, but credits the overall experiences with Maupin and Hancock with helping him make a real jump as a professional musician.

“At that time, I was not musically inclined as far as writing things out,” Blackbyrd explains. “So I learned a lot working with those guys.”

Soon after his time with the Headhunters and Rollins came the role that dominated the next 30 years of his career: lead guitarist and bandleader for George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.

“I have a friend I met in my last years of high school who player guitar. He wailed on guitar and knew Archie (Ivy, George Clinton’s manager),” recalls Blackbyrd. They were in a band together, and we jammed and it went well. Archie told me about what ended up being Brides of Funkenstein.

“September 26, 1978 was my first show with the brides. A year after that I moved to P-Funk.”

McKnight’s first stint in the seminal funk outfit ran well into the last decade. For the bulk of that time, he served as the band’s musical director. He accomplished the difficult task of keeping the dozen-plus members of a band known for its on-stage mayhem in line and functioning by adhering to one simple, yet complicated concept: follow its eccentric genius founder.

“In those days, a 4-hour show was mandatory, 5 if we were feeling it,” Blackbyrd says. “I directed the band to follow what George did. I was making sure everyone was on the same page as the leader.”

While serving as Clinton’s right hand man, McKnight ended up briefly gigging with another one of his jazz heroes, the icon Miles Davis, in 1986.

“Dennis Chambers (an acclaimed jazz/soul drummer) was on the road, playing some music for Miles and it was P-Funk and Miles heard a guitar solo,” Blackbyrd says. “It was either me or Michael Hampton playing it; I’m pretty sure it was Michael. I lasted 4 gigs. In the end, Miles wanted something a little different. But it was cool.”

That late ’80s also saw a collaboration that nearly put him on the path to superstardom: McKnight was nearly the lead guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers after the group’s original guitarist, Hillel Slovak, died in 1988. After laying down some jams with the band, the Chili Peppers picked John Frusciante for the spot. It was a decision that left him angry for a long time, but something he’s since come to terms with.

“I wish I could do something with Flea and the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Blackbyrd says. “I think they did well going with what they did (hiring Frusciante). Frusciante lived Hillel. Had I stayed in the band, maybe we should have changed the name and done something else, but they wanted to remain (the Chili Peppers). I took it hard when it happened. But I’m over it now. We still get along now.”

With such a lengthy career playing with musical greats, it wasn’t until 2009 that Blackbyrd charted a solo course, releasing ‘Bout Funkin’ Time. Getting the album done meant cutting ties with Clinton and P-Funk, something that for McKnight was long overdue.

“February 15, 2008 was my last show,” Blackbyrd recalls. “I had been wanting to put together my album.

“It was a long time coming,” he continues. “There was stuff intertwined. I thought George wasn’t responsive to me and something happened on stage in Long Beach, my last show. It was just time to go.”

‘Bout Funkin’ Time was a true solo record for McKnight, as he was only joined in the recording process by P-Funk keyboard player Danny Bedrosian. The album was the culmination of accumulated and fresh ideas. He’s proud of the album, and rightly so. A lot of guitar-centric albums from leads are lame. They meander and exist to show just how many squealing notes the guitarist can play per minute.

McKnight’s album isn’t like that. There’s some nifty leads, to be sure, but there’s a rhythm, a pulse to it that keeps it interesting from start-to-finish. As I said to him, it flows and it never gets tedious over the course of its 50-plus minute running time. It’s a project he enjoyed creating and still clearly proud to discuss 7 years later.

“Some of these (songs) I worked on over the years, some of it was new,” he says. Getting into the nuts-and-bolts of recording, he continues, “Sonically, I wish I had done some different things, but I love the whole thing. I did it the best way I could do it and I love that album.”

McKnight and I were speaking as he took a break from working at his home studio on another solo project. Nothing is concrete yet, but he’s looking at a multi-release endeavor. When I asked him about what the plan is, he replies, “That’s what I’m pondering on. I wanna do 2-3 CDs, including a live album. Some of it is more of the same, but I wanna do a little bit of everything. I would like it to be heard.

“I’m working on it now. Since I don’t have a label, I can take my time. I work from a home studio, which is great, but life intervenes,” he says with a laugh, “It was a lot easier when I was living in the country – there was nothin’ to do!”

While the home studio can be a distraction, returning to the P-Funk fold also cuts into solo recording time. It was a slow, welcome return back to the band for McKnight, one initiated by Clinton, as he explained when I asked him who reached out to whom.

“He did,” Blackbyrd says. “One day I got a Facebook message from one of his nephews: George is summoning you to play some guitar on his new album.

“Last year at NAMM (a popularly attended guitar convention) George came and asked me to stand in. I said no harm, no foul and that went well,” he continues. “Then George asked, ‘Why don’t you just come out and do a gig or two?’

“It’s hard not to enjoy playing music with P-Funk. Another gig became another and George said, ‘Well, you see what we’re doing,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m back,'” he laughs.

Now that he’s clean from a decades-long crack addiction, Clinton is the musical director of P-Funk, freeing Blackbyrd to kick back and play. The time away from playing in Parliament-Funkadelic hasn’t had a detrimental effect on McKnight’s relationship with George and he sees himself back with the group for the long haul.

“I’m really digging being back; I ended up walking into a world tour,” Blackbyrd says. “It’s hard not to have fun.

“We’re close (he and George). Everyone goes through a little shit about money, but I’ve spent a lot of time with George. I even lived with him in the country for a while. To have the grace to ask me back means the world to me.

“This time I plan to be there until the end.”