When I was playing the club circuit in Boston and New England in 1972, I thought I had a pretty great keyboard rig: a Rhodes Stage electric piano, a Fender Twin Reverb amp, and a wah pedal. Then I stopped by Bunratty’s Bar and saw a band that had a brand new Minimoog. It was love at first sight, and I had to get my hands on one. I was mesmerized by how it lets a keyboard player bend notes and be expressive the way a guitarist or horn player can be. I’ve been a big Minimoog proponent ever since. Here are some tips for building your own expressive jazz-rock synth solos.
1. Guitar-Like Leads
Ex. 1 was built using a stock Yamaha Motif patch called “Latin Lover,” which I assume refers to a Carlos Santana-style lead sound. This kind of sound also works well as a synth lead. I set the pitch bend wheel to a whole-step, which lets people know it’s a synth and not a guitar being played. The solo starts out with a diatonic pattern that descends down the E Dorian scale and then throws in a little blues line in bar 2.
2. Major Surprise
Ex. 2 is something you don’t hear that much about, which is jamming on a major chord. There are a few different Weather Report songs where Joe Zawinul does some wonderful soloing in a major mode, such as “Birdland,” “Black Market,” and “Man in the Green Shirt.” Zawinul should be studied not only for his cool soloing and lead sounds but also for his incredible synth orchestrations. Not using ii-V patterns as much when soloing forces you to make more out of your phrasing, with starts, stops and the forming of little motifs and variations within the major tonality to make a solo interesting.
3. Minor Jams
In Ex. 3 I’m jamming on a house groove in F minor. This sound is comprised of a Minimoog MIDI’ed to the Yamaha Motif guitar sound mentioned above. The solo starts out with some bluesy licks with pitch bends to accentuate the blues element and then moves into some more diatonic scalar patterns. The next section moves up to a higher range and then introduces chromatic variations in the patterns.
Getting That Sound
Over the years, I’ve tried lots of options to create interesting lead synth sounds. Back in the day, I’d fatten up the sound by MIDI’ing keyboards together and before MIDI, I used control voltages and gates to combine sounds. One sound that I used quite a bit in the 1980s involved controlling my Moog 15 modular synth with a Moog Liberation that would also send control voltage and gate to a Minimoog. The main sound was the modular synth and I’d add a higher octave on the Minimoog with a quick decay to give the attack of each note a little spike. These days I take the easy way out: a straight Minimoog run through Waves’ GTR amp modeling software. Pictured is a combination of preamp, chorus, delay and panning that adds a lot of stereo fatness.