The Art of Synth Soloing: David Sancious

September 7, 2017

In this column, I’ve been exploring some of the best synth soloists of the classic fusion era, and one of my favorite players is from my home state of New Jersey. Although David Sancious is often associated with Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen, he released a string of now-classic records in the mid-’70s with his trio Tone and as a solo artist. Though these releases never achieved the chart success of his peers, they are powerful recordings that are worth exploring.

Photo Credit: Armando Gallo

Sancious is a wonderful pianist, organist, and synth player who likes to think of himself as a composer who happens to play well. He has emphasized in interviews and our personal discussions how important it is to have expressive controllers for his playing, so he can bring sounds in and out, and control modulation over them. He used to employ controllers such as the Yamaha KX88 and the Peavey DPM-C8, because both offered multiple pedal inputs and wheels. And back when these tunes were recorded, he had spring-loaded pedals made for his Minimoog so he could add modulation, and even pitch bend with his feet, while keeping one hand on the Mini and another on a polyphonic keyboard.

David discusses his first encounter with the Yamaha VL synthesizer with a breath controller, which he still uses today.

ON TO THE SOLOS!

Produced by Billy Cobham, David’s first album, Forest of Feelings (1975), is a stunning work and a real departure from the music he was making with Springsteen. Example 1 is taken from the final cut, “Further on the Forest of Feelings,” where the heavily composed and orchestrated music opens up into an almost swinging 6/8 feel. David stays in the key center of D, using the notes of the major scale, and he spins wonderful melodic lines over the three chords. He seemed to have done some overdubs and I noted the additional parts I heard with smaller note heads.

I started the example a few bars into the solo to show some of my favorite phrases. I like how he works the three-note figure of G, F#, and D over the first chord, and then goes back to that type of figure in bars 16-17 using D, C#, and A, then mixing both shapes across bars 18 and 19. A nice scale run follows: Notice how the downbeats are always colorful note choices, not the root, third or fifth. The full solo can be viewed HERE.

Example 2 comes from the opening cut, “Picktor’s Metamorphosis,” on his second recording, Transformation (The Speed of Love), released in 1976. After a mellow Rhodes-drenched intro, the tune opens up into a searing rock groove, with two bars of 4/4 followed by a bar of 6/4. You can consider the whole solo section to be on an E7 chord, but I have indicated some chords and notes to show how the bass line moves around. The solo is full of great blues-scale and Mixolydian-mode lines, and it is a lot of fun to play along with the recording. Enjoy! View the entire solo HERE.

A LESSON IN SIMPLE(R) POP PLAYING

David attracted the attention of other artists and producers during this period, and he began doing a lot of session work. For instance, he recorded a couple of albums with Stanley Clarke, and my third example comes from the top-selling album School Days (1976). I chose the ballad “Quiet Afternoon,” which not only demonstrates his beautifully paced, well-constructed playing over a simple tune structure, but shows how wonderfully melodic David could be. This is a great solo to study and draw from for your own playing on pop and R&B tunes. View the entire solo HERE.

Note how he opens slowly, leaving space, and carefully paces and develops the solo. Soulful bends and subtle vibrato add to the expressive nature of the lines. As with all of this month’s examples, the full solo can be found online.

A SHORT FUSION VOLLEY

Example 4 comes from David’s 1979 album, Just as I Thought—a hidden gem of a recording! On the tune “Valley of The Shadow,” he trades 2-bar synth phrases with the guitar player (a talented fellow named David Sancious) and these are classic fusion solos. Notice how a single repeated note can make a powerful entrance when your rhythm is interesting against the groove. His second trade uses colorful note choices and syncopation to generate excitement. Phrase three uses simple triadic arpeggiation across two octaves and then devolves into a pentatonic riff. And the last phrase I’ve shown has some classic fusion bending. Fun stuff! View the extended solo HERE.

NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN

I chose this slice of time to celebrate David’s fusion music and albums, most of which are out of print but available on many of the digital download and streaming services. He has released a wide body of work, including lots of wonderful piano playing. And his work with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Seal, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and many other artists is highly recommended. Be sure to visit davidsancious.com to see what this brilliant artist is up to.

INTERVIEW

David Sancious is a master at using controllers to add expressivity to his playing. I recently had the opportunity to speak with David and asked him about his work with breath controllers.

When was the first time you saw the VL synth used with a breath controller?

The first time was at an AES show in New York City in 1995. I was walking the show with Jan Hammer and we came to the Yamaha booth, and Phil Clendeninn was showing off the VL-7 physical modeling synthesizer. It was such a huge advancement tonally from the original breath controller used with the DX7: The quality of sound and control was such a shocking advancement that I was paralyzed.

So, you immediately knew it was right for you.

I had to have it. I bought one right then and there. I pulled out my checkbook and said, “how much?” I actually bought the VL-1m—the three-rack-space module version of the more powerful VL-1 instrument, since I was already using a controller keyboard that had three wheels and plenty of pedals. I can’t recall if this was the tail end of my using the Yamaha KX88 or when I moved to the Peavey DPM C8. Anyway, I already had a capable controller so I didn’t need the keyboard version.

Was it difficult to use at first?

Phil helped me to set it up, and I quickly learned that I needed to adjust the controls on the headset for the maximum sensitivity. There is a parameter called Offset, which controls how much is output, or let through when you are not blowing. It defaulted to a middle setting, which let some sound always come through. I set it to maximum offset, so there was no sound when you pressed a key: It required some amount of breath before it started to sound. This gave me the broadest expressive range and sensitivity.

It’s amazing in that it turns the keyboard into a wind instrument. I used to play clarinet for a period of time in middle school and high school, so I had some experience with playing a wind instrument, and now I was doing that with my synth. And with the sound engine of the VL combined with this maximum breath control, I found a new voice for my playing. I still use it today. Now I use the VL-70m module: I actually have a few of them.

Once you’re set up you need to practice it, because you have to develop control and endurance: It’s just like you’re playing a real wind instrument. My cheeks would hurt after playing an extended solo!

Do you use it with other instruments?

Sometimes I will blend in a bit of an internal sound from my main keyboard, whether it’s a Yamaha Motif or the new Montage, to create an interesting texture.

Even though the technology isn’t new, it’s still an attention grabber.

To this day it’s the number one question I get when I’m playing shows, whether it’s my own or with Sting or Peter Gabriel: “What’s that thing you’re blowing into?” I’m still amazed at how expressive it is. Whatever you put into it, it will give back to you.

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