The Art of Synth Soloing: Mr. Hands Himself, Herbie Hancock

Learn to play synth solos like Herbie Hancock
Image placeholder title

The second artist to make the cover of Contemporary Keyboard in November/December of 1975 was Herbert Jeffrey Hancock. A protean jazz pianist, he is one of the major artists to embrace electronic keyboards in the early days, and had some of the biggest commercial hits using them (“Chameleon,” “I Thought It Was You,” “You Bet Your Love,” “Rockit,” Vibe Alive”). Interestingly, in looking back on his work for this column I found very few tunes that have what we think of as lead synth solos. He most often used synths for backing parts and orchestration, relying on his acoustic and electric pianos for his solo excursions. It is more common to hear him ripping off lead synth lines in concert, where he still brings a remote keyboard, which he dons near the end of his shows to have some serious soloing fun.

The Herbie Approach

As a general stylistic overview, I find many of Herbie’s synth lead lines to be highly expressive, with an approach that sounds like he is emulating an acoustic wind instrument, as opposed to the lead guitar. Check out “Spiraling Prisms” from Mr. Hands (1981) for a great example: It’s just melodic lines, not really a solo, but it’s consummate playing. His tasteful use of vibrato at the end of the lines, and really soulful bends are a lesson for us all. He tends to bend downward a lot, and to scoop up into notes from below, as opposed to the more common upward bends. For a rare example of him playing the fusion lead guitar approach, check out the solo trading in “Don’t Hold It In” from Monster (1980), starting at 4:44.

A Funk Odyssey

His first recorded synth solo can be found in the iconic tune “Chameleon” from the Headhunters album (1973). At this time his synths were all ARP, and he used the Odyssey for the signature bass line and the solo. Ex. 1 is the beginning the solo: the complete melodic section before it progresses into more sound manipulation is available online. A lot of the solo is based on the B-flat minor pentatonic scale (Bb, Db, Eb, F, and Ab) and Bb and Eb blues scales (see Ex. 2)—very normal choices, but oh, what he does with them! Bars 1-3 are pretty normal pentatonic riffs, and in bar 4 it sounds a little glitchy, but what I have notated captures the sound correctly. The rhythmic placement within the funky track is most important: Herbie rides the groove masterfully, making his tasty lines fit into the “jigsaw puzzle” like all great funk does. There is no real pitch-bending on the solo: Herbie has stated that he found it uncomfortable to do that on the Odyssey and developed the technique later when moving on to Moogs and other synths.

Image placeholder title

The sound is a classic highly resonant synth lead, using dual square wave oscillators. I found a preset in G-Force’s Oddity2 soft synth purporting to be the lead, and it was close, but needed some adjustments. Figure 1 shows the edited patch: I darkened the filter cutoff slight, removed the delay that they were using to simulate room reverb, and turned off the oscillator sync. Why? As the solo progresses you can hear Herbie bending the pitch of Osc2 below and then back up to unison, and this can’t be done if the oscillators are synced. This is a great technique worth incorporating into your lead sounds. Notice how I did it in Oddity (see the red arrow): I set the tuning so the slider is in pitch when fully up. That way, it can be grabbed and pulled lower and then back up to pitch accurately. Listen to the solo at around 4:40.

To get the sound closer to the recording I would then add some overdrive, distortion, or amp simulation to give it a little more “dirt”—but not too much: It still wants to sound like a synth, not a guitar. Then add some room reverb to taste.

A Guest Spot

For many fans, Herbie’s best recorded synth solo is not on one of his own albums, but is his guest appearance on Chaka Khan’s What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me album (1981) for the tune “And the Melody Still Lingers On,” a reworking of Dizzy Gillespie’s classic “A Night in Tunisia.” It is a tour-du-force performance and I went to both Herbie and his then-tech Bryan Bell to get the background. At the time Herbie was recording Monster at the Automatt in San Francisco, and he and Bryan were working up a new setup to be driven by his one-of-a-kind Clavitar strap-on remote keyboard. Bryan developed some custom interfacing to allow it to trigger two Minimoogs and an ARP 2600 (this was before MIDI, and the synths each used different forms of voltage control). This three-way layer was mixed down and then sent through an unnamed overdrive pedal (Bryan is saving that info for his book!) and then into a custom Mesa Boogie guitar amp, built to match the specifications of Carlos Santana’s unit. This rig became Herbie’s “go-to” guitar emulation rig for many years. Often he is credited for playing Clavitar on a recording, but it didn’t make any sound; this was the rig behind it.

The solo is a virtuosic ride, with some difficult to notate phrases, and the full solo is available online. Ex. 3 is a section of it, and it shows Herbie’s more advanced jazz side. In bar 7 he plays a phrase based on the Ab mixolydian scale over the Db7, so he has the C natural note (the major seventh) rather than the expected B natural (the flatted seventh). This resolves down to an F, which is the fourth/eleventh of the C minor chord. Very colorful. Bar 8 uses the Db Lydian Dominant scale going into C Dorian, and then in Bar 9 the C minor becomes a minor with a major seventh.

Image placeholder title

Bar 10 is pure bebop, and then bar 11 is for me a classic Hancock line, based on the half-step/whole-step diminished scale (see Ex. 4), which is commonly used on altered dominant seventh chords. Pay attention to how Herbie develops the line as it progresses downward, and then continues the motif into the next bar. In bar 13 his line moves up into a descending group of thirds which outlines an Eb minor seventh chord over the Bb altered dominant, and he delays the resolution into the final Eb major seventh by a beat, keeping the melodic line full of color and character (Bb dominant with a sharp ninth, then a flat ninth).

Out of Space

That’s all the space I have to talk about him, but Mr. Hancock is one of the giants of our lifetime—for his music, for his humanitarian efforts, and for his adventurous spirit. Check out his recordings, his concerts, and his writing. See you next month!