Art of Synth Soloing: The Blues

Understand the theory and techniques of the masters and translate it to synth playing
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I’ve been concentrating on some pretty advanced players and solos lately, so I think it’s time to get back to some basics. And what is more fundamental to our learning than the blues? The twelve-bar blues is one of the most prominent chord progressions in popular music, so studying the great blues players to emulate their pitchbending techniques is a worthy pursuit for developing your lead synth chops.

BACK TO THE ROOTS

Studying the playing of the seminal blues guitar players can teach us a lot about making each note count, and developing expressive pitchbend techniques. All of the Kings (Albert, B.B., and Freddie) are a great place to start. Not surprisingly, most blues licks are based on the blues scale (see Ex. 1), which has the flat third, the fourth, the flat fifth, fifth, and the flat, or dominant seventh. Of course there is no problem with adding in the major third, if you wish.

Ex. 1. The G blues scale, which can be used on a G minor seventh or D dominant seventh chord

Ex. 1. The G blues scale, which can be used on a G minor seventh or D dominant seventh chord

Ex. 2 is a classic Albert King lick. The note choices are very basic, but it illustrates some important pitchbend techniques. In bar two, you play a C note and bend it up into a D. Usually you will make the bend up quickly, and perfectly in tune for the whole-step bend. If your pitchbend range is set to a whole step, no worries, just bend up as far as your mechanism allows. To add more possibilities to your bending you might want to set the bend range to 3 semitones (a minor third). Then you need to work on your technique to get the whole step bend accurate.

Ex. 2. A basic Albert King lick, which we can use to explore a variety of pitchbend techniques

Ex. 2. A basic Albert King lick, which we can use to explore a variety of pitchbend techniques

To vary your playing, you should experiment with making the bend at different speeds. Very fast, medium, and slow all can sound good. The slower you go, the more likely you will hold the note a bit longer than shown in the example. The slower you bend, be sure to make “the face”, showing the pain you are suffering just to get the note out! Another technique that is common when bending a note at the end of a phrase is to not bend up to a perfect interval. Part of the emotion and color in the blues is playing some bent notes “in the cracks”… not perfectly in tune. Try bending the C upward just slightly and then release the key. You might not quite get up to the half step (a C sharp, or D flat), or go slightly beyond the half step, but not fully up to the D. Because you are releasing the note, the final pitch is not heard long enough to register as out of tune, it just sounds soulful, and expressive. The whole range of notes from the flat third up through the fifth all can sound good when bent “in the cracks”.

In the third bar we have two bent notes in a row. Here you want to play them quickly and in tune. But the technique to concentrate on is being sure to release the first bent note before returning the bend mechanism back. You don’t want to hear the note sliding back down at all. Guitar players achieve this by using their picking hand to mute the string before releasing the bend. We keyboardists need to release the key just before letting go of the bend. Note the vibrato added to the last note of the phrase.

MORE PRACTICE RIFFS

Now that you are focused on these techniques (bend speed, bend range, clean releases) you can try some more Albert King licks. Ex. 3 is a great riff. You can think of the first three notes as almost being quarter notes, but I notated the rests to remind you to release the notes so you don’t hear the bend return. The first note is a clear bend, the second note (the B flat) is a bend upwards on release that doesn’t need to sound like a distinct new pitch: it’s just a swoop away from the note. In the second bar you have the classic “play a note, then bend up to the same note from the below neighbor” that became an essential part of fusion synth soloing in the Seventies. The bend has to be very fast, and the release of the bent note clean.

Ex. 3. This Albert King riff gives us a variety of bends and a swoop up to practice

Ex. 3. This Albert King riff gives us a variety of bends and a swoop up to practice

Ex. 4 starts with a swoop up into the first note. This is achieved by pre-bending the mechanism from below center, playing and holding the note, and then coming back to center. Be sure to practice it at different rates of speed, and from different bend amounts. Ex. 5 is the last Albert King riff we’ll use. I notated it twice to show you how you might vary how long you hold the last note before swooping up on release.

Ex. 4. Scooping up into a note is another essential part of the pitchbend vocabulary

Ex. 4. Scooping up into a note is another essential part of the pitchbend vocabulary

Ex. 5. This last Albert King lick is presented twice, showing how you might hold out a note shorter or longer before swooping away

Ex. 5. This last Albert King lick is presented twice, showing how you might hold out a note shorter or longer before swooping away

A TASTE OF B.B. KING

B.B. King was arguably the most successful blues player of all time, and a player worth studying for saying so much with only a few notes. Ex. 6 is one of his licks played using the other common scale used for blues and rock tunes, the major blues scale (see Ex. 7). This scale sounds similar to the major pentatonic scale with an added “blue” note (the flat third), and I chose to add the flatted seventh, as it can be added freely, as B.B. does in this example. Looking at B.B.’s riff you see a fast whole step bend at bar 2, and then a wider, minor third bend from the E up to the G natural. Be sure your bend range is set to accommodate this. Bar 3 only looks complicated because I notated the rest to release the note before the bender.

Ex. 6. The A major blues scale – good for blues, rock and pop playing. I chose to add the flat seventh for more color

Ex. 6. The A major blues scale – good for blues, rock and pop playing. I chose to add the flat seventh for more color

Ex. 7. A great B.B. King blues riff using the major blues scale, played over a shuffle rhythm

Ex. 7. A great B.B. King blues riff using the major blues scale, played over a shuffle rhythm