During the course of interviewing George Duke for the September 2013
cover story, I got him to share his approach to synth soloing.
Since he is one of my main influences musically it is no surprise that
he embodies many of the concepts I have been teaching you over the last
19 columns. But there were a few unexpected turns, and a lot of fun
talking shop with him. Here are some of the highlights – go online to
listen to the whole lesson from the master himself. Scroll down for an audio clip in which Mr. Duke plays and explains these techniques.
UPDATE: This story was first posted with draft versions of the music notation. It has since been updated to contain the same notation as the print article in our September 2013 issue. -Ed.
Soulful Pitch Bending
Fig. 1. With bend range set to a fourth, try to bend up into each of these intervals.
George is an outspoken proponent of jazz having to include
the blues, and his playing certainly supports that. And nowhere is it
more apparent than in his pitch bending. I was surprised to find out
when asking him what his earliest influences were when developing his
lead synth “voice” that the answer was Yusef Lateef’s flute playing as a
member of the Cannonball Adderley Sextet. Not guitar players…although
George notes that Jan Hammer’s playing was some of the earliest lead
synth he heard.
To get truly expressive bends, he prefers to set the up
bend range to a perfect fourth. This is even further than I taught you,
and requires good pitch bend technique and sharp ears to master. Duke
practiced this by first learning all the intervals through hard work. Figure 1
shows a basic exercise to first get control of this wide range. You
should practice this both bending up and bending down, although even
Duke admits that getting good doing this bending down is much harder.
These days he often sets his down bend range to a full octave for
dramatic pitch plunges, ala a guitar whammy bar. After
getting comfortable with this you can try going for some bends within a
musical passage, aiming for some soaring bends that go up a minor
third, or even fourth (try Figure 2 with your up bend set to a
fourth). George likes to play these bends somewhat slowly and behind the
beat, emphasizing the effort that it takes to get up to the top pitch
of the bend with facial expressions and body language. “It’s not
critical that they be perfectly in tune, sometimes playing in the cracks
adds to soulfulness,” he stated with a chuckle. Listen to the second synth solo’s entrance on “Brown Sneakers” off the new Dreamweaver CD, and the synth solo that starts at 3:54 in “Wake Me Gently” from After Hours for some great examples of his soulful style.
A Different Take
Fig. 2. This exercise blends the classic whole-step fusion lick with a fourth bend at the end.
In the Feb. 2012 column I taught you the fusion repeated
note pitch bend figure, where you played a note and then played another
note a whole step below and bent back up to that same pitch. Rinse and
repeat. I was surprised to find out that George plays that figure
backwards from that, playing the bent note first and then releasing it
and playing the true note after. Figure 3
shows my earlier way followed by Duke’s version – can’t argue with the
master. George also recommends doing that with wider intervals than just
a whole step, so try it using a minor third (bend a C up to an Eb,
followed by the real Eb note), both with your pitch range set to a minor
third (I’ll call that the training wheels version!) and then as Duke
does it, with the pitch range set to a perfect fourth. Good luck!
Fig. 3 The classic fusion repeated note bend, served up two ways.
George prefers to do all his vibrato by wiggling the pitch
bend wheel/mechanism, as discussed in the April, 2012 column. This
leaves the Mod Wheel free to add more interesting modulation concepts.
Due, no doubt, to the early flute influence he is a fan of amplitude
modulation as discussed in the very first column (December, 2011).
Routing a slow LFO to the Amp level or output is a very natural and
organic way to make a synth lead line more expressive.
In the early days of playing his Arp Odyssey and Minimoog
he would often just turn up the modulation, twist some knobs, and take
his chances. George stated repeatedly that he doesn’t like to pre-think,
and overthink his playing too much, choosing to react and be “in the
moment”. Listening to his early recordings, you can hear some consistent
moves. He would often route an LFO with a sawtooth, or inverted
sawtooth wave to oscillator pitch, at a slow rate to produce a kind of
“seagull” birdcall. Then he would speed up the LFO to a much faster rate
for more drama. You can hear this in the intro to “Dawn” from The Aura Will Prevail.
Taking the same LFO and then routing it to Filter Cutoff (only, no
pitch modulation), and using fast rates while manually sweeping the
Filter Cutoff with high Resonance is also a classic Dukey Treat!
Listening to his Déjà Vu CD, I heard some interesting sync pitch modulation in the solo from “Stupid Is As Stupid Does” at 4:20 and again at 4:27. The
synth solo on “A Melody” from the same album has some tasteful growl at
3:17, achieved with audio rate LFO modulation of pitch.
Never Stay The Same
Fig. 4. George's Arturia Mini V patch. Click to enlarge.
An important point for Duke is to not leave the timbre the
same throughout a solo, just playing lots of notes. He feels that gets
boring quickly. A favorite way to vary a sound easily for him is to use a
pedal connected to modulate Filter Cutoff. This way he can subtly, or
not so subtly play with the brightness of the sound while his hands are
busy. Figure 4 shows the Arturia MiniV patch he used for the
online audio examples, and you can see how closed down the Filter Cutoff
is. But it gets modulated by the pedal, so he has plenty of room to
develop the timbre as he plays.
Another solution for Duke is to actually change
instruments for parts of a solo, so he is sharing the space with two
different “players”. He
would often start a solo on Rhodes and then move to the synth for
stronger emphasis: you can do this, or just choose two markedly
different patches to use within your solo spot. Keep it interesting via
sound choices, not just notes and chops.