When you transcribe and study a solo from a favorite player, you want to absorb and apply what you learned from them to make it a part of your personal musical vocabulary. This way you don’t only need to be playing that specific song to wield the influence of your musical mentor. So let’s apply what we learned in last month’s column about Steve Winwood to more general playing.
The Notes and Scales
Steve Winwood used a pretty basic vocabulary of note choices and scales, as shown below in Example 1 (click the image to enlarge). In the key of C these would be:
1) The major pentatonic (1, 2, 3, 5 and 6)
2) The major blues scale (1, 2, b3, 3, 5 and 6)
3) The major blues scale with the added 4th scale tone (1, 2, b3, 3, 4, 5 and 6)
4) The blues scale (1, b3, 4, b5, 5 and b7)
Each scale/grouping of notes has its own sound and flavor, and you want to limit yourself to specific groupings rather than try to merge them all into one super-scale (1, 2, b3, 3, 4, b5, 5, 6, b7). That doesn’t work as well - you want to create memorable melodic licks, not just “run the scale”.
Here are a few choices licks for each scale:
Major Pentatonic: Example 2
Major Blues: Example 3
Major Blues w/added 4th: Example 4
Blues: Example 5 (note the extra fancy last lick, which adds some jazzy chromaticism)
There are so many ways to play licks like these: try varying the rhythms from eight notes to triplets, mix up the length of the notes for more rhythmic interest, and try starting the phrase on different beats within the measure so they cross over the barline in different ways. As a synth player you’ll want to incorporate bends and modulation into the phrases; be sure to try both half-step, whole-step, and larger bends, and work on slides up into and fall-offs from notes as well. Most important? Learn then in all 12 keys!
Using The Licks in Songs
To put this into practice you want to try various chord progressions or songs, and like Winwood (and others) just play licks in the key center, instead of trying to outline each chord specifically. Example 6 (below) gives you a few ideas to get you started: note that this works well for both major and minor key centers.
One of the lessons we learned last month was that Winwood never played the traditional blues scale on the I chord in the key (the C major chord in these examples). He always seemed to save those extra bluesy licks for another chord in the song, which keeps the feeling more major and melodic, saving the soulful color for just the right moment.So in the first progression try using the C blues scale once in a while on the Dm chord, or the opening F chord. In the second example try it on the F chord, and so on. Just don’t overdo it… a little goes a long way.
Winwood also shared that he used a pedal to control filter cutoff, and you can clearly hear his lead tone change quality at different points in a solo. Starting off a little bit darker and opening up the filter as you build your solo works well. So does adding some filter cutoff modulation from the Mod Wheel to your usual vibrato, as I have written about before.Using a volume pedal/assignable pedal controlling MIDI CC 11 (expression) is a great addition, so you can swell into long sustained notes, and push more energy into a phrase, just as a horn player would.