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How to play synth solos like Chick Corea

How to play synth solos like Chick Corea
(Image credit: Andrew Putler/Redferns)

The music world suffered a huge loss this year with the sudden passing of Chick Corea in early February. His influence and wide-spanning creative output touched on so many aspects of jazz, latin and fusion music, but here, we’re going to focus on his considerable skills as a synth soloist.

Chick first started using synthesizers on the electric version of Return To Forever’s second album, Where Have I Known You Before, released in 1974. He favoured the Minimoog for his solos, and his signature sound was a bright sawtooth lead with no detuning, varying the filter cutoff and resonance to taste.

He used pretty deep LFO-based vibrato, and had an unusual pitch bending technique. Watch some videos of 1974-76-era RTF and you’ll see that he kept his left hand just behind the wheels, resting his fingertips on the end block. He would grab the pitchbend between his thumb and index finger, rather than the more usual resting-of-the-palm-on-the -surface and using only the thumb.

Chick’s Style

We can break down Chick Corea’s synth soloing style into a few overarching elements:

1. Clear motivic development and pacing

Chick often started out a solo with a simple idea, and left space so he could develop it. It may have been melodic development, or rhythmic, but his solos always had clarity and purpose.

See Ex.1, the opening of his solo trading with Joe Farrell (soprano sax) on the classic Nite Sprite from 1976’s The Leprechaun album. A very articulate two-note motif is developed (based on the alternating C and Bb triads of the tune’s main comping figure), which progresses into a pentatonic scale line in bars 3 and 4, resolving nicely back to the tonic.

Chick Corea synth solos

Ex.1 (Image credit: Future)

2. Pentatonic scales

Whereas his acoustic piano work would take this vocabulary into very advanced realms, for his jazz-rock synth soloing Chick Corea often would stay more basic. 

Ex.2 is taken from the tune Duel Of The Jester and the Tyrant from Return To Forever’s epic Romantic Warrior recording (1975). The section alternates five bars of soloing with five bars of a unison band figure. The first solo phrase uses the E Harmonic minor scale to navigate the chord progression, but take note of the second and third solo phrases (bars 11-15, and 21-24). Throughout both he uses the E minor pentatonic scale across the whole progression. 

Chick Corea synth solos

Ex.2 (Image credit: Future)

Ex.3 comes from the RTF tune Vulcan Worlds from their second album, Where Have I Known You Before (1974). Here he starts using the D Major pentatonic scale in bars 1-2, and then switches to the A major (or F# minor) pentatonic in bar 3, due to the C# notes he employs. However, by the end of that bar he shifts back to the D major pentatonic again. If you look back to Ex.1 we can now analyze the pentatonic used in bars 3-4 as the Bb major, or G minor, which gives the chord a suspended fourth flavour, before resolving into the last beat.

Chick Corea synth solos

Ex.3 (Image credit: Future)

3. Broad pitch bends

Corea tended to bend much further, often going the full range of the wheel, which was almost a perfect fifth. resulting in some serious pitch swoops. This was distinctly opposed to the more bluesy and guitar-like work of many of his peers, like Jan Hammer and George Duke. Bars 5 and 6, again from the Nite Sprite example, show this.

4. Advanced bitonality and chromaticism

Don’t think that all is simple with Chick. He explored all kinds of very ‘out’ and free playing, starting off with his time accompanying Miles Davis and continuing into his group Circle, and he could build wonderful tension in his lines.

Look at Bars 6–8 from Ex.1 to see how Chick moves through some advanced chromaticism that is hard to analyse: think of it more as a form of tension and release. 

On Reflection

Do we think that Chick was thinking as we are describing while he was taking the solos? Surely not. At his mature level of playing, the theory has been deeply absorbed and it becomes second nature. Sometimes he used a common scale to flatten the harmony that is occurring underneath, and other times he superimposed a shifting palette of key centres while the harmony remained static.

These were the languages developed in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s as modal jazz, and then jazz-rock/fusion were first being explored. 

And Chick Corea was one of the most influential and accomplished players in those idioms, as he remained for over six decades, continuing to inspire and innovate until his passing.