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The art of synth soloing: how to play Keith Emerson's Lucky Man and Tank solos

(Image credit: Jorgen Angel)

You are all, surely, familiar with the sight of Keith Emerson’s massive modular Moog. Many of us of a certain vintage can recall how startling it was to hear those massive tones ring out from the first ELP album, and then to see him in concert. 

Before Keith Emerson did it, bringing a modular synthesizer on the road with a rock band was simply unheard of. Sure, there had been albums before that using the Moog, but many were novelty recordings, especially in the wake of Wendy Carlos’ astoundingly musical Switched-On Bach series. Others mostly used the Moog for sound effects, although its use by the Beatles and the Monkees predates the first ELP album. 

Yet it is Keith who carved a space out in rock/popular music for the synthesizer, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for his bold vision.

The first recordings

For the casual fan, it was the iconic solo on “Lucky Man” from the first album that captured our attention, likely heard on FM radio. Yet if you listened to the album you would have encountered “Tank,” first. The latter half of that tune has a majestic figure that builds up in mixed quartal/tertian harmony (mixed fourths and thirds) before taking off into an extended solo that shows off Keith’s chops and wonderful soloing sensibilities. 

Fig 1. The “Lucky Man” sound as realised using Arturia’s Mini V. Note the high resonance and fully open filter cutoff. 

Fig 1. The “Lucky Man” sound as realised using Arturia’s Mini V. Note the high resonance and fully open filter cutoff.  (Image credit: Arturia)

Which brings us back to “Lucky Man.” It is the solo that most people think of when they think of Keith Emerson. Keith never cared for it, but it is what we all heard and what drew us into his music so it is only right to acknowledge its importance. A brief historical recap: In 1971 the group was finishing their first album and found themselves a song short. No one had anything to offer, so Greg Lake brought up a song he had written as a young teen and played it for the band. It was vastly different from the rest of the album, almost a folk song but the band agreed to let him work it up and see what happened. Keith wasn’t needed so he was not part of the main production. When the tune was mostly finished it was suggested he try adding a solo to it using his newly acquired Moog modular.

Keith worked up a basic sound on the Moog and then had them run the tape so he could play along and work out what he wanted to do. Greg and producer Eddy Offord hit Record along with the playback because you never know what will happen. So Keith played that iconic solo as a warm-up, not consciously thinking it was being recorded. When he finished, he told them he was ready to try a take, and they called him in to listen to what he already did. He was not happy with it, but they convinced him it was a keeper, citing they had no more spare tracks and other reasoning. Keith relented, and here we are today. In our October 1977 interview, we asked Keith about the solo and he said, “I didn’t think much of the solo. Honestly, it’s a lot of shit. But it was just what he wanted.” In fact, Keith never used to play a solo on the song live, until Emerson, Lake and Powell toured in 1986.

The Lucky Man sound

Every synth since the advent of presets has included a sound trying to replicate the “Lucky Man” lead. In general, it’s not a hard sound to re-create, but the sheer power and majesty of those analog oscillators can really separate the men from the boys. Consulting with Will Alexander, Keith’s tech and production partner for many years, I confirmed that the sound is simply three square waves; two are only slightly detuned, and the third is more detuned and mixed back halfway. My friend and fellow Emerson-enthusiast, Bruce McPherson shared this same tip with me and provided an audio example of the detuning technique using his Moog Voyager, which I have posted online. This way, as you play higher notes you don’t hear the rapid beating that too-wide of a detuning will produce. It needs to be fat, but slowly beating.

(Image credit: Future)

What many presets get wrong is the amount of filter resonance present in the sound. It is highly resonant, around 80 percent but with the filter cutoff wide open, so you don’t notice it until you have the filter close down slowly.

When I was at Ensoniq, we released a CD-ROM (“SCD-4 Keith Emerson Signature Series”) sound library for the EPS-16+ and ASR-10 samplers that Will and Invision Interactive had recorded, with samples from Emerson’s modular and Hammond C3. I’ve posted an audio clip online of the sound, so you have a reference from the source itself.

The solo

The solo is played over three chords, A minor, E minor, and D major. Keith was sustaining a low D during the last vocal part and his entrance is hugely dramatic, swooping up to a higher D with portamento, clearly establishing that we were hearing something completely new and different. I always found it interesting how he played a lot of F naturals over the D major chord, as in bars 2 and 6. And his rhythm and phrasing almost has a jig/folk dance quality to it at times. 

In bar 24 you first really hear the resonance: Some feel it was added then (meaning the resonance was first turned up to around 80 percent) as opposed to how I describe the sound up top. Anyway, here you should sweep the Filter Cutoff with each note if you wish to sound just like the record.