The Art of Synth Soloing: Caped Wonder Rick Wakeman

February 9, 2017

Is there a bigger star in all of prog-rock than Rick Wakeman? It is estimated that he has sold more than 50 million albums across his solo career, never mind about that band he used to play in. Fleet fingered, flamboyant, funny, and given to excess (he virtually invented the “who has more keyboards” arms race), Mr. Wakeman has created a body of work that has influenced so many of us keyboardists.

As with other artists I have covered lately, many of the prominent synth parts in Wakeman’s discography are the result of composition and arrangment. But by including some released live concerts, I had no problem finding excellent solos for us to dissect.

A Yes Classic

My first example comes from the live album Yessongs released in 1973, from a concert in December 1972. (Note: the recently released 14-CD boxed set Progeny elaborates on this 1972 tour, offering seven shows in their entirety.)

“Starship Trooper” was part of the The Yes Album, released in 1971 and featuring Tony Kaye on organ throughout. A three-part suite, the last section of “Starship Trooper” was “Würm,” a three-chord dirge that built in intensity, capping off in a left speaker/right speaker guitar duel by Steve Howe. After Wakeman joined the group, they often performed this tune in concert.

Rick takes a short Minimoog solo before the guitar feature, and he filled the space with his typical flourish of fleet-fingered gymnastics. Example 1 shows the opening of that solo. And while the arpeggiated notes are not that hard to analyze against the harmony, I dare you to equal his articulate chops given the tempo, and remembering how difficult it was to play so fast and clean on a Minimoog. I double-dare ya!

None Better

After the live album, Yes returned to the studio to record Tales From Topographic Oceans in late 1973. It was controversial for its supposed excess; a double-album with extended tunes and ever more mystical themes and lyrics. But within this recording are many wonderful musical moments. For me, it includes my favorite Wakeman synth solo ever committed to tape, in the song “The Revealing Science of God.”

The whole solo is presented in Ex. 2. The note choices come from the Dorian mode for each chord. Rick shows great taste in his lines, opening the solo on the 9th of the A minor chord, moving through some scale-based runs and then emphasizing the 6th of the chord in his phrase in bar 5. Starting in bar 8 he plays a colorful repeated figure on the D minor, which looks like an A sus chord, so it avoids the more basic root and minor third part of the tonality in favor of more interesting color. For the G minor chord he plays some scale runs that again center on the 9th and 11th before finishing on more basic chord tones. Then for the A minor he starts using the blues scale (bars 18-20) for a nice change-up. For the final D minor chord he plays a charging downward phrase that again starts to emphasize more colorful, non-triadic note choices. Look at the downbeat of each note grouping in bars 23-25; he uses the 11th, 9th, and 7th of the chord, with the final group starting on the 6th. Tasty.

Revisiting a Classic

Rick left and returned to Yes a few times over the years, and he has stated that one of his favorite times coming back to play with them was between 2002 and 2005. During those touring years they played a headlining show at the 2003 Montreux Jazz Festival, which was released as a CD and DVD in 2007. I chose Rick’s solo on “South Side of the Sky,” originally from the Fragile (1972) album for Example 3.

This solo is a blistering synth/guitar duel on a single chord, and Rick really tears it up. Again, he starts on the 9th of the chord, and uses the Dorian mode throughout, although he never touches on the 6th note of the scale. This example shows off a signature aspect of Rick’s playing, which is the fast little turns, or ornaments, he often uses in his lines, both on synth and piano. (Look at the figures on beat four in bar 5, beat one in bar 6, beat three in bar 7, beat four in bar 11, and beat one in bar 16.) This solo section is the first from the series of trades with the guitar; the full version is posted online. Enjoy!

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