The Art of Synth Soloing: 40 Years Ago Today

Learn to play like Chick Corea
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Learn to play like Chick Corea

In September 1975 a new magazine for keyboardists debuted, called Contemporary Keyboard, and it featured Chick Corea on the cover. I was a charter subscriber, as I was a fan and wanted to see what this fledgling publication would uncover. Plenty! And here we are—40 years later, the magazine is still dishing out information and inspiration, and so is Chick Corea. So it’s high time that we cover his lead synth playing.

A Seminal Synthesizer Soloist

Chick has had a long and influential career, which started in the mid-’60s and is going strong to this day. He first started using synthesizers on the electric version of Return To Forever’s second album, Where Have I Known You Before, released in 1974. He favored the Minimoog for his solos, although he did also have an ARP Odyssey. His sound was pretty basic: a bright sawtooth lead with no detuning, varying the filter cutoff and resonance to taste. He used pretty deep LFO-based vibrato, and had an unusual pitch-bending technique. Watch some videos of Return To Forever from the mid-’70s and you’ll see that he kept his left hand just behind the wheels, resting his fingertips on the end block of the synth. He would grab the pitch-bend between his thumb and index finger, rather than the more usual resting-of-the-palm-on-the-surface and using only the thumb. He tended to bend much further, often going the full range of the wheel, which was almost a perfect fifth; resulting in some serious pitch swoops.

Dig His Notes!

Whether you’re of fan of his synth timbres or not, what Chick plays is masterful. When he started using synths he was already a highly influential jazz pianist, and an early adopter of the Fender Rhodes. He had taken the influences of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Latin jazz and much more, and spun that all into a unique and instantly recognizable voice. Space doesn’t permit me to explain his musical vocabulary, as I would be writing a veritable history of modern jazz. But we do have room to point out some core and important attributes:

Clear motivic development and pacing. Chick often starts out a solo with a simple idea, and leaves space so he can develop it. It may be melodic development, or rhythmic, but his solos always have clarity and purpose. See Ex. 1, inspired by the opening of his solo trading with Joe Farrell (on soprano sax) on the classic “Nite Sprite” from 1976’s The Leprechaun album. A very articulate two-note motif is developed (based on the alternating C and Bb triads of the tune’s main comping figure), which progresses into a pentatonic scale line, resolving nicely back to the tonic.

Pentatonic scales. He makes liberal use of this vocabulary; see my November and December 2014 columns for more info. Where his acoustic piano work would take this vocabulary into very advanced realms, for his jazz-rock synth soloing he would stay more basic. Ex. 2 shows how he would have used pentatonic-scale notes to navigate the fast moving changes in the tune “The Samba”, from his guest appearance on Jeff Lorber’s second album Soft Space (1978). The whole line is based on the F# minor pentatonic scale—a very “inside” choice. Also note the characteristic two-note groupings he uses for this opening salvo in his solo.

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Ex. 3 is a short, but classic Chick-let [Hold on Jerry, I’m supposed to be the bad pun guy! —Ed.] inspired again by “Nite Sprite,” this time showing the concept of superimposing a pentatonic scale over a chord for a cool color. The solo is on a C7 chord, but he uses the G minor (or Bb major) pentatonic, which avoids the third of the chord, emphasizing the second, fourth, fifth, flat seventh, and root. Still very “inside” sounding, but not the typical major pentatonic or blues scale approach.

Broad pitch bends. As mentioned earlier, his ’70s and early ’80s work often exhibited this characteristic, as opposed to the more bluesy, and guitar-like work of many of his peers. Ex. 4 shows this.

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Advanced bitonality and chromaticism. Don’t think that all is simple with Chick. He explored very “outside” and free jazz-style playing starting with his time with Miles Davis and into his group Circle, and he can build wonderful tension in his lines. Ex. 5 moves through some advanced chromaticism and is hard to analyze, I think of it more as a form of tension and release.

Even further “out” is the passage in Ex. 6, which is reminiscent of “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” from Return To Forever’s epic Romantic Warrior recording (1975). Here Chick is sliding from key center to key center, with many chromatic passing tones. This phrase occurs deep into the solo, as he doesn’t begin the solo with moves that are this advanced.

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Check out Ex. 7 for an earlier passage, where he stays closer to the chords/key center. The first two bars are basically the first five notes of the D major scale, and in the third bar he moves into a D major pentatonic, then quickly slipping into a D9 over the C chord. Bar 4 seems more like the D major pentatonic over the B7, avoiding the major third and the tension of the chord altogether. Bar 5 can be thought of as a fragment from the A minor pentatonic scale, again avoiding spelling out the chordal movement that is happening underneath it.

Are We Overthinking?

Any time you want to discuss advanced playing of this sort, it may come off as getting too technical and analytical. Do I think that Chick was thinking as I am describing while he was taking the solos? Surely not. At his mature level of playing, the theory has been deeply absorbed and it becomes second nature. Sometimes he uses a common scale to flatten the harmony that is occurring underneath, and other times he superimposes a shifting palette of key centers while the harmony remains static. These were the languages developed in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, when modal jazz and then jazz-rock fusion were first being explored. Chick Corea was one of the most influential and accomplished players in those idioms, as he remains today.

Next month we’ll move into the later ’80s and early ’90s and explore some of his work with the Elektric Band. Meanwhile, you can download audio examples of this lesson here.