Trying to reduce George Duke’s playing to five examples is
basically impossible. He has done so much in such a wide variety of
styles, that what follows will only scratch the surface of his musical
mastery. That being said, I’ve grouped George’s playing into different
keyboard instruments, as he plays and approaches each type of keyboard
in a different way. I’ve also included how George approaches playing
funk to round out the list. George Duke is quite simply one of the best
keyboardists on the planet and certainly one of the most eclectic ever.
1. F is for Funk
When playing Funk music, George advocates really digging in
more, especially on the “1.” That, he claims, is what gives you the
attitude and the grease, and it’s almost more important than the actual
notes you play. Ex. 1 is a funky piano groove of George’s. Notice the heavy accent on beat 1.
2. Clav Comping
When playing Clav, George takes a nod from Stevie Wonder
and Herbie Hancock and keeps things pretty simple in terms of rhythm. He
primarily thinks in terms of a steady sixteenth-note pulse throughout.
What makes things really interesting is how you break up the steady flow
of sixteenth-notes between the bass and treble parts (left hand/right
hand). Ex. 2 is a typical Clav comping groove that George might play.
3. Rhodes Lines
When George plays Rhodes, he tends to have a lighter touch
than when he plays piano. George attributes this to the fact that most
Rhodes electric pianos have an uneven action across the key range, so by
using a lighter touch you can then choose to emphasize certain parts of
the phrases more than others. If you play too hard, the music won’t
speak as well. Ex. 3 is a line that is similar to what George might play on the Rhodes.
4. Wurly Bends
George cites the Wurlitzer electric piano as an influence
ever since hearing Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” on the radio. A very
soulful instrument, George claims the Wurly takes him to a place unlike
any other. George tends to “bend” the notes more when playing Wurly,
meaning he uses one or two consecutive notes as grace-notes leading to a
stable target note such as the third. Ex. 4 is an example of his Wurly work.
5. Acoustic Piano Parts
George says, “It’s all about touch with piano. Many
piano players play too hard and miss the nuances and subtlety of the
instrument.” However, George is quick to point out that if you’re
playing in a rock context, it can be useful to play harder. Ex. 5 is something that George might play on piano behind a sax player or singer.