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Synth Sense

Article from Making Music, February 1987

Animbling we will go (old English for left hand exercises, synth fans).


Further instruction for those pianists who've discovered they have a left hand. Andy Honeybone wiggles your fingers.

IN CASE you missed it, last month's article attempted to get you thinking about the function of your left hand, and urged you not to consider it in isolation from the right.

Here we go then, starting with rhythmic single note basses collected from the not too distant charts. No changes in pitch or wobbling about the keyboard to worry over here. This is just to get you used to rhythmic independence of the leftwards digits, which is why I've chosen these single note favourites from the world of pop.

But as an immediate digression, let me lay on you the usefulness of a drum machine for such coordination exercises. First, by entering the patterns given below in steptime, the rhythm is brought to life should reading be an undeveloped facet of your musical skills. Second, the drum machine keeps you in tempo and provides a constant reminder of what you should be doing — especially if you've programmed the bass drum. Adding on-beat snare or rim hits will also help as not all the patterns described start on the beat.

I'm not going to pretend that I've digested every nuance in each of the following tracks but what I hope to show is that it's not until you notate a rhythm that you appreciate what's going on.

Let's start with a real duffer. For the sake of propriety — for it is not the wish of the author to promote the exchange of body fluids — I'll refer to this example as 'Spot Picking in the USA' by Debbie Harry. For the most part, the right hand holds sustained chords while the left stabs at the rather unexciting repeated single note (G). The division of the first halfbar into two threes and a two is fairly common and this rhythm is possibly the most obviously syncopated of the batch.

Duran's 'Notorious' doesn't look terribly impressive on paper, but when animated by a bit of slap and twang it moves into the league of functional raunch. Although it's a two bar phrase, the second differs only in that the last note (a seventh) is repeated. The accompanying chords are of course highly stylised guitar licks, but don't let that stop you practising them. And here's a thing; the guitar rhythm on the intro is the same as the bass in Ms Harry's song. Told you it was popular.

Much more interesting is Robert Palmer's 'Didn't Mean to Turn You On'. The two bar phrase picks up with the end of the second bar and there's plenty of space for the gurgly backing bits to leak out between the solid bass drum two-in-a-bar. As to how to play the gurgly bits — I'll leave those up to you — those six foot models seemed to manage.

It may surprise you to know that, although no longer in my teens, in moments of privacy I have been known to kick off my shoes and fall to the ground whilst sustaining long notes in imitation of Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk. Fitting, then, to include 'Love Can't Turn Around' in this survey. The driving four-in-a-bar bass drum and sqwelchy synth almost drown the bass line but it would appear to comprise four crisp eighth notes (as the Americans would have it), an all important gap, and then a nice bit of off-beat to smoooth in the endless repeats. And there's a nice contrapuntal synth line for you to practise your hand independence. It's in B flat.

I have been wracked with guilt over a rather uncalled for remark I made concerning the Pet Shop Boy's single handed approach to the synthesiser. Herewith, the bass line rhythm to "Suburbia'. The bass rhythm is an extension of the pattern that dominated funk in the mid seventies even turning up in Herb Alpert's 'Rise' (who?).

Now to a personal favourite: Aretha Franklin's 'Who's Zoomin' Who?' This example is the first not to start on the first beat of the bar. The inclusion of gaps is significant and they are made all the more effective by the sixteenth note 'stutters' that follow. The bass moves up in step and after the highest note is repeated three times it climbs down to achieve a sense of completeness. The right hand chords largely flow around the bass rhythm and the combination shouldn't prove too taxing.

Swingout Sister's 'Breakout' provides two further examples. The bass rhythm at the intro is tinged with Pet Shop Boyishness, possibly because of that highly fashionable sixteenth note 'stutter' again. It comes at the end of the bar giving a pick up for the repeat. The bass riff that goes under the verse is a combination of practically every device discussed so far — excluding dramatic pauses. Even frantic activity has its place.

It's difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions from these analyses as anything goes in contemporary music. It can be seen that the flavour of the times is to inject these rapid nerve trigger repetitions, and to place a fair degree of activity at the end of a bar. Good old fashioned syncopation still has its place, and the placing of the rests remains an acquired skill.

I selected these examples for their rhythmic interest and currency than any other consideration. It might be that in a band such predominant lines would not be given to the keyboards. Be open minded — just because you've got the technique don't stand on the bass player's toes. There's plenty of arrangement 'icing' that the keyboards can handle and if you're really stuck, you could always lend a hand with the vocals!


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Bass Out Of Time

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Roland RPS-10 pitch shifter


Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Feb 1987

Feature by Andy Honeybone

Previous article in this issue:

> Bass Out Of Time

Next article in this issue:

> Roland RPS-10 pitch shifter


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