The Art of Synth Soloing: Funk Warrior Bernie Worrell

Funk's greatest warrior, Bernie Worrell
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George Bernard “Bernie” Worrell Jr. was one of the most influential R&B and funk keyboardists ever to grace our planet. His seminal work with Parliament/Funkadelic, all of the many offshoots of that collective, and later with the Talking Heads and others, defined a lot of the vocabulary and attitude for everyone else learning to get down on the one. A master of the clavinet, organ, string ensemble, synth, and arranging, Bernie was the de facto musical leader of those groups. For this column I chose to look at his most enduring track, “Flash Light,” from Parliament’s 1978 album Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome.

Woo’s Masterpiece

As Bernie has told the tale in numerous interviews, “Flash Light” came to the group from bassist Bootsy Collins, who had started the tune and decided not to use it for his own solo career. The original tracks had only drums and rhythm guitar, and everything else you hear comes from Bernie, except for vocals. A simple two-chord jam, the song is full of memorable hooks, riffs, and many of the signature touches that marked Bernie’s uniquely fluid approach to music.

First up is the classic bass line, played on a Minimoog (see Ex. 1). It’s a simple, infectious riff, and unlike many more commercial forms of music, the part is ever evolving. In Ex. 2 we see how Bernie starts doubling a few notes, and shifting octaves to provide some variety without straying too far from the source.

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The second most prominent instrument in the track is the ARP String Ensemble, which Bernie uses to support, and answer the vocal lines. Example 3 shows one of the main hooks of the tune. But notice how he quickly moves from the hook to answering the vocal in bars 15 and 16. The crosshead notes in bars 16 and 18 are my approximation of the notes played as another synth bass overdub. This more resonant tone sounds similar to a DJ scratch effect, with Bernie playing short, quickly bent notes for fills. These quirky parts and fills are a signature of the Woo sound.

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A Funk Dialog

Bernie is quoted as having played three or four synth overdubs across the tune, and you can hear a third tone enter at bar 29, which I would call a “chirpy” hollow synth sound with portamento. It reminds me of a video game sound. Later in bar 33 another square-wave tone enters to play some short melodic statements. See Ex. 4 for how these elements and the string ensemble weave together with more free bass playing to create a wonderful dialog that is classic Woo in action.

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Example 5 is taken from later in the tune, and now all the elements are conversing freely. The bass is walking its line, and the strings are playing a simple motif, while another synth interjects a few fills. But then starting at bar 93 the bass develops a short, syncopated riff, which carries across the next eight bars, while the strings hold things down in support of the vocal line. Take note how the playing is active, but not overly busy. Bernie never overplayed: He lived in the moment, always serving the music but never showing off his formidable chops.

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So Much More

There are many other recorded examples of Bernie’s synth prowess. I suggest you check out “Atomic Dog” (Computer Games 1982) for some great Prophet 5 sync lead work, and “Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabio-aquadoloop)” (Motor Booty Affair, 1978) for some excellent synth bass work for your continuing study of this great artist. And I’m only focusing on his synth work: Worrell was a master on the Clav, organ and other keys.