The Art of Synth Soloing: Brent Mydland

Playing (synth) in the band
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No doubt you are surprised to see me covering the Grateful Dead in an instructional column on synth soloing. But here we are, and it’s a rare, but very tasty little solo we are covering this month.

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EXPANDING THE DEAD’S SONIC PALETTE

The Grateful Dead’s fourth keyboardist, Brent Mydland brought a lot of sonic diversity to the group during his tenure from 1979 to 1990. Of course, he covered acoustic piano (mostly Yamaha CP-70, actually), Rhodes, and some ferocious B3 playing, but he started to diversify and used a Minimoog, a Prophet 5 (and later a 10), a Yamaha GS-1, and then went whole-hog-in using a Kurzweil MIDIBoard to control an ever-expanding arsenal of MIDI modules, including a Roland MKS-20. However, he really is only known to have taken one true synth solo, and that was on the tune “Alabama Getaway” from the Go to Heaven album, released in 1980.

TASTY MOOG TREAT

Ex. 1. The A major blues scale, which consists of the root, second, minor third, major third,
 fifth, and sixth scale tones. You can also think of it as the major pentatonic scale with an
 added minor third.

Ex. 1. The A major blues scale, which consists of the root, second, minor third, major third,  fifth, and sixth scale tones. You can also think of it as the major pentatonic scale with an  added minor third.

“Alabama Getaway” is a basic I-IV-V rocker, written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter in the style of Chuck Berry. Mydland’s solo is very simple and melodic, and sounds akin to what a pedal-steel guitarist might play. He mostly uses the A major blues scale, which is like the A major pentatonic scale with the added minor third—the C natural (see Ex. 1). The full solo of 16 bars is shown in Ex. 2. Pay particular attention to the various bends throughout the solo. Brent utilizes a number of techniques and speeds of bending, which shows how well he had assimilated the Minimoog, even though it showed up rarely in his performances with the band after 1981-82. The bluesy half-step bends from B to C natural in bars 1 and 9 through 11 are quick, but listen to the slow whole-step bend he does in bar 4. Very expressive.

Ex. 2. Brent Mydland’s only synth solo with the Grateful Dead, as captured on the studio recording
 of “Alabama Getaway” in 1980. Note the tasteful pitch bending, which seems to emulate a pedal
 steel guitar approach.

Ex. 2. Brent Mydland’s only synth solo with the Grateful Dead, as captured on the studio recording  of “Alabama Getaway” in 1980. Note the tasteful pitch bending, which seems to emulate a pedal  steel guitar approach.

His opening line utilizes a cool bend technique that I’d like to analyze. Looking at my notation you see that the first note is bent: he plays a G key but sounds an F#. Here, I don’t mean for you to play the G and then bend down to the F# audibly. You need to pre-bend the note, so your wheel/joystick/lever is bent down a half-step before you play the G.

Ex. 3. Two approaches to playing the opening phrase of the solo. The first uses the technique of
 pre-bending a note down, which allows for a smoother release of the wheel post-bend. The second
 uses an easier bend approach, but it can be difficult to release the wheel quickly before the last note.

Ex. 3. Two approaches to playing the opening phrase of the solo. The first uses the technique of  pre-bending a note down, which allows for a smoother release of the wheel post-bend. The second  uses an easier bend approach, but it can be difficult to release the wheel quickly before the last note.

To play this whole solo you should set your bend range to a whole-step above and below, so you need to get familiar with what the half-step feels like (and sounds like). To hear why this technique is helpful, look at Example 3 and try both of the bend approaches shown. In the second approach, where you play the F# and then bend up the half-step into the G, it is hard to keep the notes legato and then play the A cleanly, without hearing the “release” of the bend mechanism. The pre-bend technique of the first example avoids this.

Ex. 4. Here’s another example showing the pre-bent note technique vs. the more traditional bending
 approach. You should strive to master both methods.

Ex. 4. Here’s another example showing the pre-bent note technique vs. the more traditional bending  approach. You should strive to master both methods.

In Example 4, I show the application of this technique again later in the solo, which occurs in bars 12 and 13. Here the pre-bends are a wholestep, which is easier to execute since it is the full bend range we are using. Be sure to listen to the recorded solo to hear how smoothly Mydland executes these bends, and the whole solo in general.

LIVE VERSIONS

There are so many live recordings of the band, and you can hear that Brent often stuck closely to this solo in concert. Of note is their appearance on Saturday Night Live on April 5, 1980, when they were first promoting the new record. Mydland plays the solo exactly like the record. On Dick’s Picks, Vol. 13, the version performed at Nassau Coliseum, N.Y., on March 6, 1981, has a markedly different Minimoog sound, with a softer attack. And you can watch him play the solo on YouTube at a March 28, 1981, concert at the Rockpalast in Germany.