George Duke - Master of Many Keyboards

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[This article was the cover story of the July 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

Rock aficionados know him as a former member of Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention. Big band devotees know him from his work with Don Ellis. Leonard Feather thinks of him as “a musician of rare versatility,” gifted with “a compelling jazz style,” while some alumni from Merritt College and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music remember him as their young jazz and improvisation teacher.

George Duke is all these things, and yet much more. By dint of his talent and hard work, the 31-year-old music veteran has climbed to the pinnacle of the multi-keyboard mountain. Where some players resort to flashy effects to gain the listener’s attention, Duke builds his sonorities carefully on his battery of keyboards, saving the heavy artillery for the right context. And having developed his technique in a variety of musical styles, he can display his distinctive approach in pop, rock, Latin, jazz, and avant-garde genres with equal ease.

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Duke’s musical education has been thorough. He earned his BA in composition and trombone from the San Francisco Conservatory in 1967, and his MA in composition from some Francisco State University in 1969. But that time, Duke had also been grounded in the music business, he led his own trio from 1965-70, playing first at the Half Note Club in San Francisco, then going on the road to Mexico backing up and writing for a vocal group, the Third Wave, and finally returning to San Francisco to play behind Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hutcherson, and other jazz artists. Following some albums recorded with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, the trio dissolved, and Duke went on to stints with Zappa, Cannonball Adderley, and, from 1975-76, Billy Cobham.

Duke now plays keyboards and sings with his own band, which includes Leon (“Ndugu”) Chancler on drums, Byron Miller on Bass, Charles Icarus Johnson on guitar, and three vocalists—Deborah Thomas, Sibyl Thomas, and Dee Henricks. He has recorded with Ponty, Zappa, Adderley, and others, and has also put out several albums of his own, including From Me to You (Epic, PE 34469), Liberated Fantasies (MPS/BASF, 622835), I Love The Blues, She Heard My Cry (MPS/BASF, MC 25671), and The Aura Will Prevail (MPS/BASF, MC25613).

What was it that sparked your interest in music?
When I was very young, my mother took me to hear Duke Ellington. She told me that at that point I went ape. I said, “Hey, I can do that—I gotta do that. I want to do that. Get me a piano.” And so she got me a piano and I started messing around with it. She showed me a few things, and then got me a teacher, and it just happened from there. I almost quit, though.

Who did the work for you?A friend of mine named Pete Geerlings. It's an amazing story. I tried for a year to get somebody to do it, and nobody believed in the idea. They all said, “You can't do that.” I went to the factory, and they wouldn't do it. I finally found this guy working in a music store in Los Angeles. I told him what I wanted, and he said, “Yeah, I did that to my piano, but I only divided the signal into two parts.” So I asked him to work on mine. By the way, I don't know where Pete is now. He left the store—he's out there somewhere working on being a rock and roll guitar player.

How do you handle amplification?
Well, first of all, I have a 16-channel mixer for my keyboards—The Yamaha PM 1000. Then there is a bi-amp system and some Crown amplifiers. Then I have some custom made cabinets with JBL speakers and Gauss speaker cabinets and horns. The speaker cabinets were put together by Flag Systems (1452 N. Batavia, Orange, CA 92667). The whole set up is really clean, and I'm very happy with it. I have spent a lot of time getting my keyboard set together, and I decided that, in order for me to do the things I wanted to do, it was necessary for me to go all the way and get some first-class sound reinforcement stuff. You can be playing great music, but if the sound system is chewing it up, no one is going to hear what you're doing.

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Do you use EQ on all of your instrument?
Yes, I EQ each thing. The Yamaha mixer has EQ built-in. I'm also using some sub-mixers. The Crumar organ has four outputs, and I wish I could use them all, but there is no room for them on the main Yamaha unit, even with sixteen channels. So I use a Malatchi sub-mixer on the Crumar, and also use a couple of Yamaha PM 180s as sub-mixers with the Oberheim 4-Voice and digital sequencer.

What sound modification devices do you use with your system?
I have an Eventide Harmonizer, which is stereo, and an AKG stereo reverb unit. There is also a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase and some Phasors. Actually, I have a phase shifter bank—took some Mu-Tron units, cut them out of their boxes, and rack mounted them. There are four of them in a row, and I had some LEDs put on them so I could see whether they were on or not. I also have an MXR digital delay that I'm running the Minimoog through. Chick Corea turned me onto that. It works well, and it's a lot cheaper than the Eventide delay unit. It's clean, and it suits my purposes just fine.

Do you set up all your effects on individual instruments?
Well, actually I run most of these things into my effects-send on the mixer, so I can assign it to any instrument I want, including my vocal.

Do you use many stereo panning effects with the mixer?
I’ve really got a quad system. The audience can't really hear 4-channel movement out front, but as long as I can get off, I feel good about it. The two custom-made cabinets are behind me, and then in front of me I have two Bose cabinets. The Bose speakers are basically for my vocal, but I found that if I run a certain amount of my instrumental sound through them also, it fattens up the whole sound. And I'm surrounded by my sound, so I don't have to push it as hard; of course, there are monitors so I can hear the rest of the band.

And you work the mixer yourself?
Yes, it's right there on stage with me. I don't control the overall level the audience receives, just internal mixing and adjusting. And I run my own vocal, so I don't have to worry about telling somebody else to turn me up.

So, when you play, you're playing a lot more than just keyboards—you're playing a lot of knobs too.
Yeah, But that's something I want to talk about. A lot of people get so involved with knobs—especially on synthesizers—that they wind up not playing anymore. That's been a complaint of some audiences who watch bands with a lot of electronics. They see people turning knobs, rather than people playing music, and by the time the musicians get into something suddenly they have to turn another knob, and it breaks the flow. That's what makes music work: spontaneity and flow. It's a problem, and the only way to get around it with synthesizer settings is to work at it and work at it. I work on making things natural, all part of the same musical impulse, so it's never a thing of my thinking, “What am I going to do next?” You can't stop the music to think about that sort of things. It's like improvising—if you have to stop and think then you’re in trouble.

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In other words, you have to understand what's happening with all the knobs, so that they become a part of the music instead of just being a mechanical thing attached to it.
Right. That is the way it has to become. It's just like turning up the volume knob on the Rhodes. When the Rhodes was first being used, people would stop and say, “Okay, now I've got to turn the piano up.” And then they’d start playing again. A lot of people have developed a flow now, so they can still be playing, and turning the knob up a little bit becomes a part of the same action. It all becomes a part of playing music on the instrument.

Do you use any foot pedals with your synthesizers?
Yes, on the monophonic units—it gives you more control over the shape of the sound. I use DeArmond volume pedals and Vox wah-wahs; standard stuff. There's also an ARP filter pedal on the Odyssey, and a Moog pedal to control oscillator pitch on the Minimoog. And I use a Colour Sound wah-wah pedal with the Clavinet; I think it works better with the sound of the Clavinet.

Do you have any trouble with noise buildup over all of these pedal connections?
It can be a problem. I put together a noise-gate bank to deal with it. I had six MXR noise gates taken out of their boxes and rack-mounted them with LEDs—the LEDs again to tell me if they are on or not. I don't really need them on the synthesizer, because they are relatively quiet even with the pedals. I use them on the Rhodes because I am EQing it a lot to get the sound I want. I also use them on the Clavinet. The Yamaha and the Crumar units are very quiet. Sometimes I’ll kick the noise gates in and out, depending on the kind of passage I’m playing.

You have been using both the ARP Odyssey and the Minimoog for quite a while. Is there any particular reason for it? Do you find that they do different things?
Well, I think the oscillators and the overall tonal characteristics are different. There are certain places where I would rather use the ARP sound than the Moog sound, and vice versa. And then there are certain things that you can do with one instrument that you can't do with the other.

Can you describe some of the differences you find important?
Well, the Minimoog has that fatter sound—it has that Moog sound. And the pitch-bend controls are different, so they give you different kinds of control over the sound. With the ARP knob there are certain things I can do to make a guitar sound that I can't accomplish on the Moog, because of the physical relationship my thumb has to the Moog pitch-bend wheel. With the ARP I can switch between two notes and get the pitch to go sharp and flat in a different way than I can on the Moog. It just sounds completely different. When I did the tune “Dawn” on The Aura Will Prevail I used the Odyssey to play the melody because I could get a kind of vibrato physically on it that I couldn’t get on the Minimoog. Now, of course that could just be me and my particular physical relationship to the two instruments, but I find that I use their different characteristics to do different things.

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What is your feeling about the center detent on the Minimoog wheel?
Actually, mine is loose.

Did you have that done?
Believe it or not, it came like that. It was weird. As a matter of fact, when I first played the Minimoog I remember thinking, “Man, this wheel is awfully tight.” But when I went down to buy one, the one I picked out was loose already. But they are usually pretty tight.

Do you find any difference in dealing with the slider pots on the Odyssey and the rotary pots on the Minimoog?
It doesn't make a bit of a difference to me. I started with the ARP, and it made working with the Moog a lot easier because I understood a little bit about synthesizers at that point.

What caused you to become interested in synthesizers?
My whole basis for playing synthesizes revolved around my finding out that you can play humanly on them. When I found out that you could do a lot more than just “go out” on a synthesizer, I said, “Hey, this is the instrument for me.”

What things make it possible to play humanly on a synthesizer?
The pitch-bend, for one thing. I've always wanted to be able to bend pitch. But, being a keyboard player, I wasn't able to do it—you can't play in the cracks. The synthesizer gives you that possibility, among others.

Are there any particular tone settings that you lean towards?
I have certain settings that I use a lot. They are standard, run-of-the-mill things. I just find settings that I like and use them. When I get into the studio I try to do different things. The problem when you play live is sometimes the overall volume of the band. It was a problem I had when Billy Cobham and I had the band together. I mean, Billy plays loud, so consequently the whole band was loud and strong. There were certain synthesizer settings I wanted to use, but they involved kinds of sounds that I would never project over the rest of the sound, so nobody would have heard them. Specially when you start changing the filter a little bit here and there—some of the those kinds of changes are so subtle that no one would hear them live. So you’re limited; but the studio is another story.

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Do you have a tendency to go for guitar-like sounds?
Yes, but I also like lute sounds. I generally prefer settings that have more attack on them simply because they project more and I feel like the tone is spinning more. A lot of people don't like that—and that's okay with me.

When did you start getting into the polyphonic synthesizer?
Well, as I said, I just got the Oberheim recently. I tried out a bunch of them—the Oberheim, the Polymoog, the new Yamaha unit that will be out soon. All of them are great; but so far I like the Oberheim best, so I'm working with it.

What features led you to prefer the Oberheim unit?
The sound is good; there are certain effects you can get with Oberheim lowpass filters that you can't get with the other polyphonic units; I like all of the tonal characteristics on the 4-Voice. And the programmer is great—you can set up a lot of sounds and get to them quickly. I have set up some stops that I think are kind of interesting. What's really happening now, though, is that I'm not using it as much as I would like to use it. I want a chance to really get into it—I want to use it more and more in an orchestration role. Right now I use a few sounds in the middle of something. Other than that I let it run off by itself a lot of the time with the digital sequencer. I'll program a set of events into the sequencer and start it off hooked up to a particular programmed tone in the 4-Voice; then I'll change the selected program on the 4-Voice in the middle of the sequence, and the whole sound shape of the music will change. That's fun to do, but I really look forward to sitting down with the Oberheim and getting to know it as well as I know the Odyssey and the Minimoog.

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