The Art of Synth Soloing: Welcome Back My Friend (More Emerson)

Re-create Emerson's iconic synth solos
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Continuing to explore Keith Emerson’s iconic synth solos, I think of Keith in some ways like Tony Banks of Genesis, in that many of his most memorable synth parts are written sections of songs, which he played the same way each night. A perfect example of this is the “Old Castle” section from Pictures at an Exhibition (available at Some may think that this is a solo, but my gut says no, it’s his arrangement of that movement of the piece. Last month we explored tunes from the first ELP album, so let’s move through their discography.


For many, this album was ELP’s coming of age. It is certainly Keith’s most memorable composition, and the one he would point to as his favorite (along with his piano concerto). While the synthesizer plays a prominent role throughout, the only real synth solo occurs late in the composition, in the section called “Aquatarkus.” Organ introduces the main theme at 16:42 in the tune, with the synth taking over at around 16:57.

The synth sound is interesting, in that it is played mono (of course) but produces a chordal sound. The tuning has the main pitch, a second note a whole step below, and a third note a perfect fifth below, producing a suspended chord (see Ex. 1). The timbre is a very bright sawtooth that is harsh enough that you might consider using some distortion or overdrive effect on it.

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The melody is played an octave below the main pitch using a “quacky” sawtooth synth lead, which is then used for the solo. This means a lead with pronounced resonance, and a slightly softened filter attack so it… quacks. Most synths would need to be using a layered, split, or combination mode to produce the opening section timbre correctly, which Keith must have overdubbed. Listening to live recordings he would just play the opening with the “chordal” bright sawtooth and then switch to some form of solo lead, which varied greatly over the years. Feel free to experiment: Keith certainly did.

The figure Keith solos over is shown in Ex. 2, although being a trio the upper parts would not be played, so it was solo synth over just the bass line and drums. Example 3 shows the first sixteen bars of the solo, which is wonderfully constructed. You’ll note that while the figure moved from an F minor Dorian mode to some alternate note choices (the A natural in bass in bar 2, and the right hand tensions on bar 4), Keith holds to a pretty straight F Dorian mode throughout this excerpt. His melodic development is masterful: I especially like how he builds the small chromatic motif in bars 8 through 11. The complete solo is online for you to enjoy.

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From the Beginning

From The Beginning, ” on Trilogy, showcases Keith’s jazz influences. Based on a simple A minor to D vamp (a ii-V in jazz terms), he uses colorful note choices from an A Dorian mode to bring real interest to his solo. In Ex. 4, I chose my favorite lines: The climb in bar 6 to an F# over the A minor is not your usual pop/rock choice and he resolves the line with a great descending motif. Bar 10 has a classic bebop lick that once again finishes up on the sixth on the A minor. The end of bar 12 onward arpeggiates a G major9 over the chords, staying away from any of the triad notes of the supporting chords. Tasty!

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The sound has two components: a lower, medium-thin pulse wave with a medium-bright filter cutoff and a fair amount of filter resonance. No filter envelope shape is needed. This is mixed with a pure-sine or triangle wave three octaves higher, with no filter resonance: You need a synth that can use separate oscillator paths so the sine/triangle wave is not going through the same filter setup as the lower pulse wave.

Keith Jams in E!

Yes, Keith could rock out over a single chord. On the Works Volume 1 album Keith reimagined Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, turning it into a rocking jam. At this point Keith had become enthralled with the Yamaha GX-1, a synthesizer masquerading as a three-manual console organ, of which only a small number were ever made. (The owner’s club included Stevie Wonder, John Paul Jones, Benny Andersson of ABBA, and Hans Zimmer, who bought one of Keith’s.)

The sounds he used are a harmonicalike patch played on the top manual, a synth brass sound on the middle manual, and a brash, resonant sawtooth comping sound on the lower, which he used for doubling the repeated-note bass line and chordal playing. In later years Keith would solo using many different types of tones: He did not try to replicate the sound. So you should feel free to use the sound(s) of your choice. The full solo is posted online, but here are a few favorite parts.

Ex. 5 is from just after the opening bluesy lick, which he repeats a few times. Where I’ve picked it up is the third repetition, and he moves into a phrase based on open-fifth intervals—so Emerson. Considering how the opening brass lines in Fanfareare based on fifths, Keith’s use of them here is a nice touch. Example 6 starts off with the bluesy lick and then moves into some ascending fourths (sounding like an E sus chord), which move up using a Phrygian mode (the scale starting on the third step of a major scale) for some color, seemingly outlining an F major seventh, then a C triad, and then an A seventh. Keith continues to explore the Phrygian tonality for the rest of the section resolving back to an E.

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Example 7 has Keith riffing downward into some Phrygian ascending quartal chord voicings, and then answering them with the lead. He has strayed pretty far from the blues clichés, as only Keith would.

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Remember that Keith was a fearless improviser and always took chances and new approaches in his solos on songs. Learn from him, but then take that knowledge and just go for it. That’s what Keith would do.