Synth Soloing Clinic from George Duke

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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.

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Soulful Pitch Bending

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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

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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!

Modulation Master

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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

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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.