The Art of Synth Soloing: Big Daddy (a.k.a. George Duke)

Learn to play synth solos like the late, great George Duke
Author:
Publish date:

George Duke’s talents crossed many boundaries ; he was a player , singer, producer, composer, arranger, and larger-than-life, fun-loving friend to so many. His musical tastes encompassed many genres, and for me, he was the best player of his generation at utilizing and orchestrating with all the electronic keyboards.

I conducted a interview with him before his passing, and it appeared in Keyboard’s September 2013 issue. I highly recommend you check it out at keyboardmag.com; you’ll also find audio lessons with him on his approach to each type of keyboard. “The Art of Synth Soloing” column in that issue focused on George Duke as well, again with additional audio content online. But until now, I haven’t shared any transcriptions and analysis of his playing, and there is much to learn from him. So let’s dig in!

Some Dukey Treats

George’s playing conveyed a lot of feeling, and he was a master at blues and gospel music. I liken him to B.B. King, in that he could say so much with just a few well-placed notes, and his time and pitch-bending were masterful. Looking back to one of his earlier recordings, Feel, from 1974 our first examples come from a tune called “Funny Funk”. It’s a master class in soulful funk, with George playing Rhodes, Moog bass, Clav, and lead synth, accompanied only by Ndugu Chancler on drums. Ex. 1-4 are all wonderful blues licks from the tune, and are a great place to start. Like B.B. King, it’s not about the complexity of the notes/phrases: It’s about how perfectly they are placed in time, and how much they sound like a blues singer’s expressive cry. Listen to the recording: Each example is time-stamped so you can find them. Adding to the funkiness is Duke’s use of a wah-wah pedal on the synth, which sounds different from just modulating filter cutoff.

Image placeholder title

Get the Funk!

Starting in 1977, George moved into a more commercial R&B direction, and had a number of chart successes, from albums such as Reach for It (1977), Don’t Let Go (1978), Follow the Rainbow (1979), Master of the Game (1979), and Dream On (1982). The tune “Reach for It” and a later iteration “Son of Reach for It” sound like they came out of the Parliament/Funkadelic school. Any group wanting to play funk should be studying these tunes. Ex. 5 is the beginning of Duke’s synth solo and shows how he builds upon a simple motif, making only small variations to the melodic figures, often just in the rhythm. On the first chord he plays ba-sic A7 figures, but for the second chord he keeps to an A minor pentatonic scale, so the key center remains A the whole time, and the note choices become more colorful over the G7sus chord.

Image placeholder title

In funk, repetition is important: Each player is providing one small piece of the puzzle, and each part needs to fit against the groove and leave space for the other players. That is what George is doing here—riding the groove and playing within the ensemble rather than over it. I provide the full solo online for your further edufunkation (sic).

Mr. Soul

My next solo choice (Ex. 6) jumps through time to the album Déjà Vu, from 2010, and the tune “You Touch My Brain”. The song is a variation of a common jazz minor blues progression (im7, bVI7—sometimes this is VI half-diminished7ii half-diminished7, V7), and Duke plays a stellar synth solo on it. George sticks mostly to the C minor blues scale, and gets plenty of mileage out of it. The figure in bar 11 is a classic Duke line: I’ve heard this come up in his playing many times over the years.

Image placeholder title

More Than Just Blues

Duke enjoyed playing many styles of music, and Latin/Brazilian was very close to his heart. Ex. 7 comes from one of George’s favorite recordings (mine too!), The Aura Will Prevail (1974). The tune is called “Malibu” and is a wonderfully melodic, jazzy samba. Duke sticks with mostly mixolydian and pentatonic modes: I especially like the line starting in bar 13, where he arpeggiates an F# triad over the C#7sus chord, and at the top of the line he bends up from the third of the chord for a wonderful color—so melodic!

Image placeholder title

The solo sounds more to me like an expanded song melody, rather than the usual showoffy solo. This is another great aspect of George’s playing: He always served the song and the production and paced his solos. Sure, sometimes he came barging in, full-steam-ahead on a fusion song. (Check out a great YouTube video of him playing “Stratus” with Billy Cobham at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1998!). But often he would start a solo quietly, and draw the audience in, playing sparsely until he knew he had everyone’s attention.

More Online

As an extra treat I’ve transcribed one more burnin’ Duke solo, from the tune “Fuzzzion” from his Night After Night album from 1989. We’ve posted it online for you to study and enjoy.

***

Fuzzion transcription PDF

Malibu transcription PDF

Son Of Reach For It transcription PDF

***

There is so much to learn from George Duke’s playing, and it is important to keep his music alive for new generations to appreciate. I’ll end with some words from the master himself, taken from a song folio published in 1978 (©1978 Almo Publications) that I have in my music library: “My records and performances are like taking a trip through music and absorbing what you can feel from the various styles presented. It is not necessary to look so closely at the technical aspect of the music, but rather to feel what is there, accepting it for what it is and taking the trip.” Thanks for the trip, Big Daddy!