The Art of Synth Soloing: Tony Banks—The Early Years

Learn the synth parts of Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks
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It takes admirable restraint to play only what ’s needed for a song, and to compose , accompany, and orchestrate without the need to shout “Hey, look at me!” These traits are the foundation of the tasteful playing by Genesis keyboardist, Tony Banks. Even in the band’s early days, when the music was at its most adventurous, his parts always served the composition.

In Keyboard’s first interview with him in 1976 (available online at, Banks says he was impressed by Keith Emerson and The Nice when he saw them live, but was more influenced by Matthew Fisher (the organist from Procol Harum), because his parts served the song so well. He decided that was the direction he wanted to go in, because, get this: “I could never be so technically impressive.”

In our 1978 interview, Banks discussed how he thought of solos more as instrumentals and tended to play most of them the same night after night. These attributes of his playing gave me pause about covering him in the context of this column, even though I get a lot of requests. But I decided it is a good lesson to share. Not all of our solo sections should be about playing to impress with technique: Creating a memorable mood, playing interesting melodic and harmonic ideas, and using a suitable synth timbre in service to the composition are the most musical goals I can think of. So let’s celebrate some of Tony’s most memorable moments.

A Fan Favorite

One of the top requests I get is for “Cinema Show,” from Selling England by the Pound (1973). On this album, Tony’s rig consisted of a Hammond T-102 organ, an RMI electric piano (run through an MXR Phase 100 and a Fender Blender fuzz pedal), a Mellotron 400, and (for the first time) an ARP Pro Soloist synth. Emulating the Pro Soloist lead sound is pretty simple, as it was a single-oscillator synth. But I think it’s fine to use two oscillators as long as you don’t detune them much. The solo starts out with a relatively bright square-wave sound, and then quickly introduces some deeper filter resonance, swept and then left alone. Be sure to add a touch of portamento, as well.

Ex. 1. This is the first half of Tony Banks’ classic synth solo from “Cinema Show.” It provides an excellent example of how melodic he could be using simple scale runs and arpeggios. The second half of the solo is available online.Ex. 1 shows the main part of the synth solo: The song has moved from 4/4 into 7/8 and, after some RMI electric-piano playing, the synth comes in. Bar 3 features a nice descending E minor pentatonic run. Bars 6 through 8 require that you put your synth in mono mode/last-note priority so you can play the short, lower notes and then the main upper note and get the right “glitchy” triggering.

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How do you approach bars 11 through 17 if your sound is in mono mode? You can switch to another version of the sound and have two oscillators tuned in fourths, or use a controller to modulate the pitch of an oscillator so it goes down a fourth, and then play the higher note. Or, you can switch your sound from mono to poly if your instrument supports that. Bars 19 through 24 are pretty basic downward arpeggio groupings, followed by some nice lines that remind me of a Hanon exercise. All in all, these are fairly simple note choices against the harmony, but they create a lovely melodic section. A transcription of the entire solo is available online for you to study.

Tony Lays It Down

Ex. 2. This is a transcription of the entire synth solo from “In The Cage,” which has a classical flavor. It also shows how “composed” Tony’s solos, or interludes, were. The song “In The Cage,” from Genesis’ 1974 epic The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway has remained a concert staple for the band, even through their 2007 reunion tour. This synth sound is a basic sawtooth, mono lead with a medium amount of portamento. Remember Tony’s self-effacing comment regarding his lack of technique? Try to play Ex. 2 up to tempo and you’ll certainly disagree. Opening with a straight Eb major scale run, Tony’s lines quickly evolve into arpeggiated figures that retain a consistent upper tone alternation between Eb and F across the various chords. It is vaguely classic in nature and simply perfect. The scale run returns in bar 7 and continues across through bar 9, after which he develops a recurring figure that he uses through to the end of the solo in various ways.

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More To Come

Next month, I’ll look at a few tunes from the later years of the band, when Tony’s rig evolved and he used a wider variety of keyboards and synth sounds.