The Art of Synth Soloing: Derek Sherinian

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Derek Sherinian has been at the forefront of the aggressive keyboard playing pack for almost thirty years, from his first gig with Alice Cooper through his time with Dream Theater and Black Country Communion, on more than seven solo albums, and with his latest band Sons Of Apollo. Greatly influenced by guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Allan Holdsworth, Derek has a distinctive and recognizable distorted tone and soloing approach with his lead-synth playing.

THIS SOUND IS ALIVE

Derek developed his signature lead sound during his tenure with Dream Theater, after acquiring a Korg Trinity. Working with Korg’s sonic maestro Jack Hotop, he crafted a sound based on a Program called “Monster Lead” that beefed up the tone through the choice of waveforms, distortion and EQ, giving Derek control over the wah by pulling the joystick toward him, and faded-in feedback harmonics using the ribbon.

Ex. 1. Derek’s solo on “Alive” is chock full of tasty guitaristic techniques and wonderful note choices.

Ex. 1. Derek’s solo on “Alive” is chock full of tasty guitaristic techniques and wonderful note choices.

You can hear it on the new Sons of Apollo release, Psychotic Symphony, with Sherinian’s solo on the tune “Alive” (see Ex. 1) illustrating his mature, guitaristic approach. Soloing over a B minor riff, Derek enters with a low A that bends up into a B. Towards the end of the bend, he uses the ribbon to add a hint of the feedback effect. In bar 2 he holds down an E while trilling between an A and then a G#: The mono-mode behavior returns to the held E between the repeated upper notes. (This is a classic guitar move reminiscent of Jan Hammer.)

Note how he superimposes the E major tonality over the band’s B minor groove. In bar 3 he plays a bluesy riff that brings it back to the B minor harmonic territory, and in bar 4 he opens the wah/sync sweep on the target notes. Bar 5 is a wonderful ascending line that uses very colorful note choices, including the sixth. Played on its own, it sounds like D Lydian, and the note choices and wider intervals remind me a bit of Allan Holdsworth.

The next few bars are a tour-du-force of runs still hewing to that colorful sound, emphasizing the D triad plus the sharp-fifth tone. He doesn’t seem to be thinking B minor so much as superimposing these colorful sounds over the riff center. Bar 7 offers another mono-mode trill, this time holding one tone while moving the other constantly around. The final descending flurry again seems outline chords other than B minor; perhaps an A major followed by an E major and so on. The lesson here is how much more interesting the solo is versus simply running a B minor mode or the B blues scale. He even ends on the fifth of the chord rather than the root, retaining our interest.

ANOTHER FINE LEAD

Ex. 2. “God of the Sun” features a majestic, Dave Gilmour-inspired synth solo with soaring melodies and virtuosic runs that say a lot in a short amount of time.

Ex. 2. “God of the Sun” features a majestic, Dave Gilmour-inspired synth solo with soaring melodies and virtuosic runs that say a lot in a short amount of time.

The opening lines of his solo on “God of the Sun” outline the chords nicely. The trill at the end of bar 4 moves into rapidly shaken octaves in bar 5, and he then takes off on a virtuosic run with a lot of the flat ninth in it (the Eb). Bar 7 has a melodic three-note motif that he answers down the octave, and then repeats over the next chord. In Bar 8, Derek bends up a note and then, while holding it, hammers on some upper notes as a guitar player would. Because the held note is bent, he compensates and plays a half step lower on the keyboard to get the right pitch. A soaring run up into the next bar continues his melodic approach, and then in bar 10 he plays a beautiful phrase using the note below, and then above the final target tone, and continues to build an ascending line using that same construct, ending on a rapid arpeggiated figure (with some slight variations) to fade out the solo.

Derek feels it’s some of his best playing to date, and I wholeheartedly agree. See the online video where Derek, again, shows how he executes the solo, with his usual slight variations.