These secret synth notes are why you don’t sound like Jan Hammer - KeyboardMag

These secret synth notes are why you don’t sound like Jan Hammer

This month, we conclude our study of master synth soloist Jan Hammer. His earlier playing, such as in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was his most adventurous in terms of note choices. This was the height of the “fusion” era, before he moved into his more signature guitar-emulation sound. Going back to those recordings affords us some good examples of how to apply “outside” note choices and poly-chordal concepts.
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This month, we conclude our study of master synth soloist Jan Hammer. His earlier playing, such as in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was his most adventurous in terms of note choices. This was the height of the “fusion” era, before he moved into his more signature guitar-emulation sound. Going back to those recordings affords us some good examples of how to apply “outside” note choices and poly-chordal concepts.

Trading Solos

The Mahavishnu Orchestra regularly traded solos between players in the band, sometimes trading eights, fours, or even smaller bar divisions. You can hear the same practice in Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, as well as the Dixie Dregs. During these exchanges each player would often build on what the others had played, but it was also common to interject unique colors that strayed further from the tonal center to build tension. Hammer was a master at this. Let’s explore this as captured in a live recording of “One Word” (found on Unreleased Bonus Tracks from Between Nothingness and Eternity). The song is originally from the Birds Of Fire album.

Notes From A Master

The solo section is a D7#9 groove. Simple one-chord jams are a great way to explore this soloing technique, since you have a clear root tone “drone” to move away from and back into.

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Ex. 1 shows the more common scales you might use, and they work fine to give you a rock/blues sound.

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But check out the phrases Jan plays in Ex. 2.They seem based on the B Locrian mode, and his emphasis on the B notes (the sixth of the chord) along with the F natural (the sharp ninth) give them a wonderful exotic flair. You might consider it based on a G Mixolydian mode instead, as it’s the same note choices.

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Ex. 3 shows us a great exchange that moves outside the tonality. In bars 1 and 2 he’s playing a Bb7 over the D7; note how by first playing the low C and then leaving it out he plays against the time nicely with the repetitions. In the middle of bar 2 he moves the figure up a minor third to a Db7, and then moves into a simple ascending phrase based on the white notes. Call it what you will: D Dorian, G Mixolydian, or B Locrian. He comes out of it in bar 4 with D minor pentatonic, releasing the tension he created earlier one. Perfection! Finally, I offer a simple but classic line in Ex. 4, showing how changing one note (the use of the C or the B) makes this descending run interesting; it’s no simple arpeggio. And I love the opening minor third bend into the Bb, not your ordinary note choice for a D7#9.

I can’t emphasize enough what a monster player Jan Hammer is—certainly as a synthesist, but on piano, Rhodes, and organ as well. Be sure to check out all his recordings both as a leader and a sideman. Ex. 4 below is a classic Hammer line.

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