A lesson from the March 2015 issue of KEYBOARD

When you play a lead synth line or solo and bend some notes, you owe some thanks to a certain keyboardist. He defined the art of using the synthesizer as a expressive instrument, and stood toe to toe with many of the guitar greats of the last few decades. I could go on (and on) but we all know I am talking about the inimitable Jan Hammer. Space doesn’t permit me to tell his musical story, so look to back issues such as January 1995, April 1993, September 1985, October 1978, and even August 1976 (the seventh issue of Keyboard, if you can find it!) for more on his career.

Over the next few columns we’ll dissect his signature sounds and some aspects of his playing in order to better understand this musical giant.

Sound? Which Sound?

For most people, Hammer is known for his searing and soaring guitar-like lead synth sound, followed by a more gentle sound that’s often described as “flute-like,” which is really a more hollow square-wave sound. When you research the development of his oft-imitated lead sound, you find that “the” Jan Hammer sound was constantly evolving. 

The First Sound(s)

Hammer first recorded with a synthesizer (a Minimoog) on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s second album, Birds of Fire. On this album, his synth sound is different for each track he plays. As a general observation, his strong lead sounds are more sawtooth wave-based and have a percussive attack, and on the mellower cut “Sanctuary,” he first introduces his flute-like sound, with a hollower tone and softer attack.

As a starting place set up a two-oscillator sound with dual sawtooth waves and very little detuning. Use a 24dB-per-octave (four-pole) lowpass filter with cutoff set within the first 30 percent of the range. Modulate that cutoff with an envelope with instant attack, a small amount of decay and medium sustain. The amount that the envelope modulates the filter is up to you: Remember that it interacts with the filter cutoff, so experiment freely.

The amplitude envelope should have an instant attack, fast decay, and full sustain level, with no noticeable release. This sounds like “lead synth 101” stuff, except perhaps for the fast filter decay. And it is. From this simple template you can shape a lot of variations.

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Attitude Adjustment

Before we start shaping the sound more, we need to add some aggressive edge to it. On Birds of Fire Hammer’s tones are all slightly overdriven. He began using tube guitar amps, and in later years moved on to devices like the Scholz Research and Development Rockman, and even a battery-powered Pignose amp. Look back to my June and July 2013 articles for tips on how to add edge to your sound. Filter overdrive, distortion, subtle waveshaping modulation, or full-on guitar amp simulations and distortion/overdrive effects are all fair game. Just don’t go too far with it; we still want to sound like a synth, not a full-out fuzz guitar.

Variations on a Tone

From this basic template you can build up plenty of variations. Here are some common tweaks he did.

1. Change oscillator 2 to a square wave (or 50 percent pulse).

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2. Change the filter attack to a slightly slower value, to produce a slight chirp; not too slow, perhaps 4ms (see Fig. 2 above, click to enlarge).

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3. Close the filter cutoff completely, increase the resonance, and decrease the filter decay (see Fig. 3 above, click to enlarge). This produces a very percussive, clipped resonance tone. For added expression, route velocity to the filter cutoff amount slightly. Hammer would have done this using a pedal.

The Next Generation

Pretty quickly, Hammer added an Oberheim SEM module to his setup, later replacing it with an Oberheim Expander. He would layer the Minimoog and the Oberheim together to beef up his sound, specifically adding synced oscillators to the blend. If your synth has four oscillators you can re-create this; if not you’ll want to layer two sounds together. It’s important not to sweep the pitch of the modulating oscillator, tune it to a harmonic that you like, and leave it straight. (I like using +6 half-steps, with a bit more detuning, but so many settings work well.) Okay, it can sound nice to have a slight amount of pitch sweep, but your ear shouldn’t hear it; it’s more that you want to add a little interest to the sound. Assign some controller to sweep that pitch on lower notes as a nice highlight when you’re soloing. Open up your Filter decay slightly for these oscillators, so you can clearly hear the sync tonality, and then blend it back behind the other two more percussive ones.

For more movement in the sound, Hammer used a slight bit of flanging, coming from an MXR black-face pedal (now reissued by Dunlop). The LFO sweep should be very slow, with little to no regeneration. We want it to add slight motion to the sound without it becoming too noticeable. His settings did get deeper around the time of “Blue Wind” from Jeff Beck’s Wired album. Around 1976 he started to use delay on his sound, originally from a Maestro Echoplex, and it remained an integral part of his rig ever since.


By the mid-1980s (and the beginning of Miami Vice), Hammer had traded the Minimoog/Oberheim combination for a Memorymoog, which gave him the synced oscillators he wanted, and he continued using the flanger and guitar amps. In the early ’90s, he began using the Fairlight and sampled sounds, eventually trading in analog oscillators for real guitar samples that he would layer with other synths (like the Korg O1/W) for controllable feedback elements and movement. When Hammer appeared at the 2006 Moogfest in NYC he certainly played a lot of important parts on a Moog Voyager, but when it came time to take a trademark solo, he played it on a Korg Triton Extreme with the added MOSS board to deliver a screaming synced oscillator sound. No matter what instrument he plays, it always comes out sounding like that sound. That’s the sign of a true master. Next month, we’ll examine more sounds and do some note/scale analysis.