Adam Holzman on Synth Soloing like Jan Hammer

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Adam Holzman is one of the masters of lead synth soloing, and best embodies the techniques and vocabulary pioneered by Jan Hammer. We had a deep conversation on the art of synth soloing, and he delivered me a burning audio clip demonstrating the concepts we talked about, while showing off his amazing chops. He was most recently profiled in our September 2013 issue, where you can read more about his gear and current gig with the Steven Wilson Band.

Basic Sound

As a starting point for a straight lead sound, Adam keeps things pretty standard. He’ll mix a sawtooth oscillator with a pulse oscillator at the same octave, with very subtle detuning. The filter is open about 75 percent with little to no resonance or envelope depth, and he uses a basic fast attack, full sustain, fast release amp envelope. He’ll map filter cutoff to a foot pedal. He never uses reverb, preferring either a tight slapback echo, or a longer echo with regeneration dialed back to support the sound, not overwhelm it.

Hearing him play a few years ago with the Mahavishnu Project (with Jan Hammer as a special guest), I was taken with his sync lead sounds as well. He explained that he prefers no automated sweep of the modulating oscillator’s pitch, which is often done via an envelope or LFO (see my September through November 2012 columns for more on sync leads). He likes to set it to a nice interval to accentuate the harmonics, and will sweep that pitch with a knob, slider, or pedal. But on it’s own it stays static—no “Let’s Go” Cars presets for him!


Adam has a strong opinion on pitch-bend range. He feels it’s foolish to set the range to only a whole-step, which is the common default. “That forces you to move the controller very far to get the most commonly used bend,” he points out. “It’s not smart ergonomically, all that wasted motion.” Adam makes use of bends of a minor and even major third, so he sets the wheel range to a perfect fourth. I found his “wasted motion” argument compelling. [For more on pitch-bend, see Jerry’s columns from January through March 2012 —Ed.]

Lessons from Jan

“Jan Hammer developed the techniques and vocabulary that most of us still draw from in our playing. No one has since come along and become ‘the next thing’ in approaching the synthesizer as a lead solo vehicle,” states Holzman. So what lessons has Adam learned from the master?

“Jan’s approach to pitch-bend is masterful. He mixes upward and downward bends, scoops and fall-offs; using half-steps, whole-steps, and minor and major thirds. But the biggest point I’d make is that the bend is always a natural part of the phrase he plays. Too often I hear keyboardists play a complete musical thought, and then add a little pitch-bend wiggling as an afterthought. I hate that! Learn to incorporate bends as an intentional part of the line, and practice until it becomes second nature.”

Finally, Jan didn’t always just run up and down the keyboard. “He stated small motifs based on a few notes, and then mixed up the order of those notes, and used rhythmic displacement to develop those ideas in compelling ways,” states Holzman. “The idea might be a simple pentatonic or blues lick, but often he’d superimpose another tonality over the key center. I like to do this as well, so for example, I might move into F minor or G minor over a Cm7, or move to Db major for a little bit, and then come back home.”

Adam Schools Us

Adam recorded a short example (named “Kihei Stomp” after where I live in Hawaii). In the audio examples (scroll down), a slowed-down version is also posted along with the normal-speed version, so you can learn to play it.

Notes that are bent are shown in regular size with a graphic to show the bend direction, and the bend interval note is smaller (and in parentheses so you know which pitch to get to. Click sheet music examples below to enlarge.

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Bars 1 through 4 (Ex. 1) feature some blues scale licks, and Adam does some tasty whole-step upward bends, as well as a half-step down bend on beats 3 and 4 of bar 1. Notice in bars 2 and 4 how he uses the classic fusion lick of repeating the same note, one reached by a bend, and the other played open.

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Ex. 2 shows more expert pitch-bending; in bar 10 the upward bends are used as a type of note release. This is a common move that guitarists make, and is similar to an effect that brass players use called a “doit,” where the player moves the pitch upward through a rapid gliss on the release of a phrase. At the end of bar 12 into bar 13 Adam employs a soulful upward bend of a minor third and hangs on it, before finishing the phrase. Very tasty!

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In Ex. 3 we see the technique of superimposing another harmonic center over the chord. In bar 16 Adam is playing in F minor, and then finishes the phrase in bar 18 with a fast, descending Db major scale run. This adds interesting color to a one-chord jam.

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Ex. 4 shows a riff that immediately struck my ears as being like classic Jan Hammer. In bar 20 Holzman uses the major third over the minor seventh chord (along with another minor third bend), as Hammer has done on many recordings. Use the following scale: C, E, F, G, and Bb, played over the Cmin7 chord (transposed appropriately if you’re in a different key). This scale is sometimes called the Mixolydian pentatonic, the dominant pentatonic, or even the “Jan Hammer scale.”

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In Ex. 5 we see more F minor superimposed over the Cmin7, and now Adam explores a repeating motif (C, G, and Ab, as shown by the red notes), twisting and turning the phrase around, and using the previously mentioned rhythmic displacement to wring a lot of variety from just a few note choices.

Practice Tips

Thanks to Adam Holzman for sharing so much with us all. Just playing these licks (and the whole solo) could keep you busy for weeks. Break it down into smaller segments, playing along with the slower speed audio file first before bringing the tempo up. The rhythmic notation is pretty difficult, but by first listening to Adam play it you’ll get the hang of it. Pay close attention to the bends—not all of them are perfectly in tune, and that’s intentional. That’s not a license to be sloppy, as when it’s not intentional, you should be trying to nail those bends!