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The Art of Synth Soloing: Larry Dunn - KeyboardMag

The Art of Synth Soloing: Larry Dunn

Old-school Moog master
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In addition to being a founding member and keyboardist of Earth, Wind and Fire, Larry Dunn was also its musical director, a co-writer, and a co-arranger during the band’s commercial zenith from 1971 to 1983. Like many players of that period, Larry was surrounded by a bank of keyboards. But when it came to synth soloing, Larry was an avowed Minimoog master.

When I talked to Larry about synth soloing, he emphasized pacing and melodic development. “I hear so many players just jump in and start playing fast, playing everything they know right off the bat. I think of it more like romancing your woman: You need to take your time and build up the magic. Sure, sometimes you want to just let loose and wail, but I think it’s more important to make a good musical statement.”

A LIVE CLASSIC

EWF drew upon many styles and their live shows had instrumental interludes that included elements of jazz and Brazilian music. Their 1975 live recording Gratitude features a tune called “New World Symphony,” which spotlights Larry on Minimoog. Example 1 shows the opening of that solo, when the band moves into a slow 2-chord shuffle.

Ex. 1. Larry’s solo on “New World Symphony” mixes blues and jazz elements, driven by an aggressive
 and biting Minimoog sound.

Ex. 1. Larry’s solo on “New World Symphony” mixes blues and jazz elements, driven by an aggressive and biting Minimoog sound.

Larry starts out with some bluesy licks, but in bar 5 gets a bit jazzier. His lines through bar 9 are very modal, with plenty of emphasis on the 9th, 11th and 13th tones, and the use of the major 7th on the A minor chord adds nice color. The complete solo is available online and is a great example of how to blend blues and jazz in an R&B context.

GREAT MELODICISM

Example 2, which shows us Larry’s melodic gift, is taken from the fade-out of the title track of his 1992 solo recording Lover’s Silhouette. Played at the end of the tune over a single chord, Larry starts out with a nice motif, which he develops across the first few bars. He lets it breathe for a moment and then gets more rhythmic.

Ex. 2. This solo during the fade-out of “Lover’s Silhouette” (from Larry’s 1992 solo release) showcases
 his penchant for melodic development and rhythmic interest.

Ex. 2. This solo during the fade-out of “Lover’s Silhouette” (from Larry’s 1992 solo release) showcases his penchant for melodic development and rhythmic interest.

Bars 7 through 10 finds him outlining the color tones of the harmony; you might hear it as a Bb maj7th or 9th chord. Bars 11-13 return closer to the C7sus sound to anchor us for a moment, before he takes flight into more colorful territory as the track fades.

A HIDDEN GEM

In addition to his duties with EWF, Larry produced records by a number of artists, and our last example comes from a great band that was too short-lived, Caldera. Larry co-produced their 1976 recording Sky Island, and he took a wonderful Minimoog solo on the tune “Ancient Source.”

Example 3 shows the solo as the band plays a Latin groove. Larry paces himself wonderfully with great melodic development emphasizing a lot of 9th tones. Attentive readers will notice that in bars 11-12 he stays on the A minor sound, using B natural against the G minor accompaniment, but it seems to work.

Ex. 3. Co-Producer Dunn joins the band Caldera for a highly melodic synth solo on the tune “Ancient Source” from their 1977 Sky Island release.

Ex. 3. Co-Producer Dunn joins the band Caldera for a highly melodic synth solo on the tune “Ancient Source” from their 1977 Sky Island release.

In bars 13-16 are strong chord hits and Larry takes off with cascading runs and arpeggiations: He can certainly bring it when the mood strikes. In bars 17-18 he uses the E minor pentatonic scale over the Am9 chord, giving him plenty of color tones. I close out the print example as he enters with some classic fusion licks with the D, and then the C bent up into the D. This continues for a while, as you can see online where the entire solo transcription resides.

For more on Larry Dunn, visit larrydunnmusic.com.