Synth Soloing in the Style of Steve Winwood

Having spent the last few months covering scales and modes so we can share a common language when describing note choices, let’s put that knowledge to practical use. When we started this column. I got a lot of requests to analyze the ingredients and styles of famous players’ solos. Steve Winwood is a top request, so let's take a look inside his synth soloing and cop his chops!

Having spent the last few months covering scales and modes so we can share a common language when describing note choices, let’s put that knowledge to practical use. When we started this column. I got a lot of requests to analyze the ingredients and styles of famous players’ solos.

Steve’s the Man

Steve Winwood is a top request. He’s a quadruple-threat musician; playing guitar, organ, synthesizer and singing, all with a soulful style that’s instantly recognizable. Keyboard has done many interviews with him over the years, starting back in June 1981; May 1989 has a full transcription of “The Finer Things.” As synthesizer players, we’re most interested in his early ’80s album Arc Of A Diver (1980), with the smash hit “While You See a Chance”, followed by Taking Back The Night (1982) with “Valerie.” In 1986, Back In the High Life also included some synth solo gems. The first two albums were pretty much solo affairs, with Steve playing all the instruments, and during this time he developed a solo synth sound and style that has been hugely influential.

The Sound

Mitchell Sigman did a great column on this in the June 2006 issue, entitled “If You Hear A Solo, Take It.” This column is now included in his very cool book “Steal This Sound” from Backbeat Books. The gist of the sound is a dual oscillator setup with both waveforms set to pretty narrow pulse waves, with little to no detuning. On most analog and subtractive synths, this is achieved by using a Pulse wave and using a pulse-width parameter set to below 50 percent (around 20 percent is best), so it’s more narrow and nasal compared to the pure square wave you would get at 50 percent. The filter is open to around 75 percent, and you’ll want to dial in a bit of resonance, maybe 20 percent. A simple “organ” envelope (instant on, full sustain, instant off) for the amplitude and you’re pretty much there.

Mitchell’s column teaches how to do this on a Prophet-5 (real or virtual), as Winwood used one extensively at that time. But reading interviews from that time (like the June ’81 Keyboard), Winwood stated that he used a Multimoog for the solo in “While You See A Chance.” He also told Musician magazine in October 1982, “the Multimoog is where I get the effect that everybody thinks is a saxophone.” That should put to rest any Internet chatter that it was a Minimoog, or even a Yamaha DX7, which he did use later in concert.

Digging further, a friend of mine, Bill Busch (“burningbusch” on the Keyboard Corner and Korg Forums groups) feels that adding a touch of pulse width modulation to one of the oscillators helps give the note attack more interest, and this was possible on the Multimoog (as well as the Prophet-5) by routing an envelope generator to the PWM of one of the oscillators (so the effect is not too pronounced). Most modern synths offer modulation routings that would allow this: Create a gentle ramp-down envelope shape (see image at left) and use that to modulate the level of the PWM with a positive amount, so the effect happens instantly and fades away gently. How gently? That’s up to your taste and ears—too fast and it sounds like a “thwack,” too slow and your sustained notes might sound too animated and/or detuned. Experiment with the envelope to PWM modulation amount as well.

Not Your Father’s Winwood Solo

To discuss his actual playing, many feel that he just used simple pentatonic licks, mostly the major pentatonic style we studied in the November 2014 column. But I find more variety. First off, let’s point to the fact that he’s playing like many of the great R&B sax players and guitar players did, with simple, melodic lines that are imbued with soul. Surely his guitar chops paved the way for this approach, as did his respect for classic blues and soul.

To showcase this, let’s work through a solo in the style of a lesser-known song from AoaD (gotta love those acronymns), “Slowdown Sundown.” It’s a heartfelt country-blues ballad with a masterful synth solo starting at 2:46. Winwood nails the tone, the feel, and most importantly the soulful bends. You can listen to the genuine article on YouTube or Spotify via the links at

First let’s discuss the note choices (see below; click the image to enlarge it in a new window). The song is in G major, and the solo starts on the IV chord, C. Just as in classic blues he plays around with a C Mixolydian scale, treating the chord like a dominant seventh. Each phrase has a strong pull back to the tonic G note, with a recurring motif of Bb-A-G, giving it a bluesy feel. You could argue that he’s simply using the G major blues scale I taught you in October 2014, with an added C note. Both answers are right! Bars 3 to 5 use the G major pentatonic nicely. But I love how in bar 6 he plays a very bluesy line instead of adhering to the Dsus chord sound. Is he superimposing a D7#9 over the sus chord, or just playing G Dorian or G Mixolydian with a flat third? Bars 9-12 are back to G pentatonic choices with great melodicism, followed by a return to bluesy licks for the next two bars with that recurrent Bb-A-G motif he established earlier.

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The Bends

As pleasant and melodic as the notes are, it’s Winwood’s masterful bends that give this solo its soulful character. Winwood employs a wide vocabulary of bends, including:

1. Scoops from below (the opening note, the high G in bar 9): move the pitch-bend lower, play the note and then return to center.

2. Half-step falls from above (the Bb-A-G riffs in bars 2, 3, 8, and 16): move the pitch-bend higher, play the note, and then return to center.

3. Whole-step bends up (the high C in bar 2, the long bends up and then back down in bars 4 and 10, and so on).

4. Some choice half-step upward bends (like the bluesy lick in bar 14).

5. Bar 9’s wonderful lick includes a half-step up, followed by the classic “play the note then bend up a whole-step from the note below into the same note” fusion lick we discussed in the February 2012 column, then again in the George Duke master class in September 2013.

Try to practice this solo against the recording and you will be amazed at how perfect every one of his bends are, with no trace of the bent note coming back to “zero” unless he wanted it to. It’s not just his great chops at work here. Winwood stated in interviews that he gravitated to the Multimoog because it had a ribbon controller instead of pitch wheels, and he grew to appreciate that approach since it gave him an instant return-to-zero. So if your synth/controller has a ribbon, try routing it to pitch and practicing your bends from there. If not, we all just have to practice more and get the licks clean.

A More Familiar Sound

Just below we see a more like a typical Winwood solo (such as the one on “Second Hand Woman”), utilizing pentatonic and “inside” scale/note choices. It’s in the key of D, although the progression never states that chord. Think of it as iii minor, vi minor, ii minor; then iii minor, vi minor, and Vsus. The opening riff is D major pentatonic, followed by a nice bluesy addition of the C natural. The phrase from bar 3 to 5 uses the first five notes of the D major scale, similar to what we analyzed in the Morning solo by David Foster on the Al Jarreau album of the same name—very inside, and very melodic.

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Note: As an approach to “happy” pop tunes you can use the major blues (1, 2, b3, 3, 5 and 6) and add the fourth scale tone and get a lot of mileage from it. At that point you’re only missing the seventh scale tone. Add it (the flat seventh) and you have a scale sometimes called the Mixolydian blues scale. You can also think of it as the Mixolydian mode with the added flat third.

Bar 6 brings back that bluesy C natural and then has a lick that seems to follow the D scale, and creates nice color by not trying to outline the chords, so by the time he gets to the E minor he lands on the F#, which is the second/ninth—a nice color tone. The solo closes out with a tasty B minor blues figure.

One of Winwood’s most famous solos is from “Valerie.” It’s very inside and pentatonic and a lot of fun to play. The song is in A, with a nice climbing chord progression. Most of the phrases are straight-up A major pentatonic, with a few D notes thrown in, giving us that same 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 scale we discussed earlier. With a couple of tasty bends bringing in the C natural (flat third), he’s back to that same Mixolydian blues scale we just discussed. This is a much more “inside” way of getting just a little bluesy in a major key without using the traditional blues scale of 1, b3, 4, b5, 5, and b7 (see below).

Pay attention to the nice mix of scooped bends and upward bends, and especially the very fast half-step up-and-back-down bend that acts more as an ornament to the C# in bar 13. Tasty stuff!

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