Adam Holzman is one of the masters of lead synth soloing,
and best embodies the techniques and vocabulary pioneered by Jan Hammer.
We had a deep conversation on the art of synth soloing, and he
delivered me a burning audio clip demonstrating the concepts we talked
about, while showing off his amazing chops. He was most recently
profiled in our September 2013 issue, where you can read more about his
gear and current gig with the Steven Wilson Band.
As a starting point for a straight lead sound, Adam keeps
things pretty standard. He’ll mix a sawtooth oscillator with a pulse
oscillator at the same octave, with very subtle detuning. The filter is
open about 75 percent with little to no resonance or envelope depth, and
he uses a basic fast attack, full sustain, fast release amp envelope
(CLICK HERE for screen shot). He’ll map filter cutoff to a foot pedal. He never uses
reverb, preferring either a tight slapback echo, or a longer echo with
regeneration dialed back to support the sound, not overwhelm it.
Hearing him play a few years ago with the Mahavishnu
Project (with Jan Hammer as a special guest), I was taken with his sync
lead sounds as well. He explained that he prefers no automated sweep of
the modulating oscillator’s pitch, which is often done via an envelope
or LFO (see my September through November 2012 columns for more on sync
leads). He likes to set it to a nice interval to accentuate the
harmonics, and will sweep that pitch with a knob, slider, or pedal. But
on it’s own it stays static—no “Let’s Go” Cars presets for him!
Adam has a strong opinion on pitch-bend range. He feels
it’s foolish to set the range to only a whole-step, which is the common
default. “That forces you to move the controller very far to get the
most commonly used bend,” he points out. “It’s not smart ergonomically,
all that wasted motion.” Adam makes use of bends of a minor and even
major third, so he sets the wheel range to a perfect fourth. I found his
“wasted motion” argument compelling. [For more on pitch-bend, see Jerry’s columns from January through March 2012 —Ed.]
Lessons from Jan
“Jan Hammer developed the techniques and vocabulary that
most of us still draw from in our playing. No one has since come along
and become ‘the next thing’ in approaching the synthesizer as a lead
solo vehicle,” states Holzman. So what lessons has Adam learned from the
“Jan’s approach to pitch-bend is masterful. He mixes
upward and downward bends, scoops and fall-offs; using half-steps,
whole-steps, and minor and major thirds. But the biggest point I’d make
is that the bend is always a natural part of the phrase he plays. Too
often I hear keyboardists play a complete musical thought, and then
add a little pitch-bend wiggling as an afterthought. I hate that! Learn
to incorporate bends as an intentional part of the line, and practice
until it becomes second nature.”
Finally, Jan didn’t always just run up and down the
keyboard. “He stated small motifs based on a few notes, and then mixed
up the order of those notes, and used rhythmic displacement to develop
those ideas in compelling ways,” states Holzman. “The idea might be a
simple pentatonic or blues lick, but often he’d superimpose another
tonality over the key center. I like to do this as well, so for example,
I might move into F minor or G minor over a Cm7, or move to Db major for a little bit, and then come back home.”
Adam Schools Us
Adam recorded a short example (named “Kihei Stomp” after
where I live in Hawaii). CLICK HERE to download a full transcription. In the audio examples (scroll down), a slowed-down
version is also posted along with the normal-speed version, so you can
learn to play it.
Notes that are bent are shown in regular size with a
graphic to show the bend direction, and the bend interval note is
smaller (and in parentheses so you know which pitch to get to. Click sheet music examples below to enlarge.
Bars 1 through 4 (Ex. 1) feature some blues scale
licks, and Adam does some tasty whole-step upward bends, as well as a
half-step down bend on beats 3 and 4 of bar 1. Notice in bars 2 and 4
how he uses the classic fusion lick of repeating the same note, one
reached by a bend, and the other played open.
Ex. 2 shows more expert pitch-bending; in bar 10
the upward bends are used as a type of note release. This is a common
move that guitarists make, and is similar to an effect that brass
players use called a “doit,” where the player moves the pitch upward
through a rapid gliss on the release of a phrase. At the end of bar 12
into bar 13 Adam employs a soulful upward bend of a minor third and
hangs on it, before finishing the phrase. Very tasty!
In Ex. 3 we see the technique of superimposing another harmonic center over the chord. In bar 16 Adam is playing in F minor, and then finishes the phrase in bar 18 with a fast, descending Db major scale run. This adds interesting color to a one-chord jam.
Ex. 4 shows a riff that immediately struck my ears
as being like classic Jan Hammer. In bar 20 Holzman uses the major
third over the minor seventh chord (along with another minor third
bend), as Hammer has done on many recordings. Use the following scale: C, E, F, G, and Bb, played over the Cmin7
chord (transposed appropriately if you’re in a different key). This
scale is sometimes called the Mixolydian pentatonic, the dominant
pentatonic, or even the “Jan Hammer scale.”
In Ex. 5 we see more F minor superimposed over the Cmin7, and now Adam explores a repeating motif (C, G, and Ab,
as shown by the red notes), twisting and turning the phrase around, and
using the previously mentioned rhythmic displacement to wring a lot of
variety from just a few note choices.
Thanks to Adam Holzman for sharing so much with us all.
Just playing these licks (and the whole solo) could keep you busy for
weeks. Break it down into smaller segments, playing along with the
slower speed audio file first before bringing the tempo up. The rhythmic
notation is pretty difficult, but by first listening to Adam play it
you’ll get the hang of it. Pay close attention to the bends—not all of
them are perfectly in tune, and that’s intentional. That’s not a license
to be sloppy, as when it’s not intentional, you should be trying to nail those bends!