Two-Handed Synth Soloing Ideas, Part 1

March 26, 2014
[Editor's note: This column originally appeared in our March 2014 issue and was entitled "Nothing Wrong with Showing Off."]
We’ve been binging on synth programming for quite some time in my column, so let’s get back to some playing techniques. At some point in the night you’re likely to have a solo on a more high-energy song, and it can be fun to throw in some attention-getting riff as a high point to your solo, or just a way to energize the tune on the way into your last chorus. Years ago I read one of Chick Corea’s columns in this very magazine where he talked about liking to break up riffs between the hands, as it gave you a new, more rhythmic and percussive approach to your playing. A very fine pianist and instructor out of New York, Dave Frank (not to be confused with synthesist David Frank of The System) recently analyzed this and dubbed the technique “ten drummers.” CLICK HERE for a video of Dave's master class, and pay special attention at around 4:54 for the performance and 12:27 for the analysis. Though he demonstrated his techniques on piano, they lend themselves extremely well to synth soloing, as we’ll examine here.

Simple Two-Handed Chromatic Approach

The basic concept of the “ten drummers” technique is to use only a few fingers of each hand, and alternate the right hand and left like you would a pair of drumsticks. The best way to get comfortable with it is to start with only one finger from each hand. Pick a starting tone that matches the key you’re in, and an interval that you like (minor third, major third, and perfect fourths and fifths work well). So in Example 1 I’m in E minor and I’m using minor thirds. The notes with downward stems are the left hand; upward stems are the right. You can use the second finger in each hand, the third, or whatever feels best. Like all good practicing, start slow and speed up as you get comfortable. Example 2 shows the same concept using perfect fifths.

Over time as you get more fluent, you can introduce this riff/technique into your playing in various ways. I like to use it as a way to climb up into a high-note bend that adds some modulation to the held, bent note. The notes can be played semi-detached, very short and choppy, or any number of ways. If you make longer arm movements (again, think of the drummer analogy) it can be visually exciting as well. Check out the audio examples online—although you won’t see the expressive faces I made while playing it! [Is that good or bad, Jerry? —Ed.]


Note Flurries

Now we’ll move into some two-note groups for each hand. Staying in E minor, I’m choosing two whole-step pairs, D and E, for the left hand (the minor seventh and root) and G and A for the right hand (the minor third and the fourth). Example 3a shows a simple way to run up the keyboard, again leading into a melodic phrase or bent note. Note the fingerings. Example 3b show some other note choices.


That’s an okay beginning, but I like to “double back” on the right hand notes again with the left hand, as shown in example 4. This becomes much more interesting, and there are countless variations of how you can move up and down the keyboard using these. Examples 5a and 5b show two ways of repeating a grouping before moving up to the next one. Example 6 shows two ways of mixing up some different notes groupings to get even more interesting.


Agitated Bees

Way back in the August 2012 column I discussed using a repeated riff/figure as a way of creating a nice groove or interlude in a solo, and as an opportunity to sweep your synth’s filter while the notes repeat. We can apply this concept to the ten drummers technique. The main idea here is to not move up and down the keyboard; find a few notes and repeat them, ideally as fast as you can (since we’re showing off). Example 7 shows some possibilities, and uses a few more fingers to help you develop and expand on this technique.


But Wait, There’s More!

As you play through these later examples you may notice that we’re coming close to the guitar hammer-on technique pioneered by Eddie Van Halen, which is a staple of most shredding guitar players’ vocabulary. That’s intentional—next month we’ll explore this approach in greater detail. Until then, happy sh(r)edding!

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