The Art of Synth Soloing: Joe Zawinul

'The Austrian Master
Image placeholder title

I don’t think there is another musician who is so closely tied into the use of synthesizers for their composing and arranging than the late Joe Zawinul. He embraced them like no other artist of his time and created a singular voice with them. As he stated in a March 1984 interview in Keyboard, “I’m inspired by sounds. When I program my instruments I find a sound that I like and out of that sound comes a tune.” But it is revealing that he also said (in a September 1977 interview), “I try to stay away from electronic sounds, and go for natural sounds, instead. They don’t have to be known natural sounds.”

Zawinul first started using an ARP 2600 with Weather Report on the Sweetnighter album in 1973, and he continued using synths mostly for color and arranging over the next few recordings. The first true synth solo I could find was on the tune “Freezing Fire” from the Tale Spinnin’ album from 1975.


As was common for Weather Report, this tune falls into a one-chord jam that is very organic and interactive between the players, especially between Joe and Alphonso Johnson’s bass lines. Joe uses a pretty basic square-wave sound on his ARP 2600 (see online for guidance in making the sound), and partway during the solo he overlaps a unique resonance-swept element on top of the plainer sound. In the early days of his synth work, the sounds were very pure and could be thought of as pseudo-woodwind/reed emulations.

Image placeholder title

Example 1 shows the opening of the solo: After a colorful opening that emphasizes the upper color tones and the sharp-11th (think of it like E major seventh over A) it stays squarely (pun intended) on the A major pentatonic mode. It is highly melodic, and Joe phrases nicely, allowing his lines to breathe. He develops a small motif across bars 11-13, and then breaks away from it in bar 14, superimposing a B major triad arpeggiation to come back to that sharp-11th tonality, and then resolves it. The rest of the lengthy solo can be found online, and it is a great study.


Weather Report found mainstream success with their Heavy Weather album in 1977, and the megahit tune “Birdland.” The other classic tune from that album, which has become a jazz standard, is the ballad “A Remark You Made,” and it features a beautiful, romantic solo towards the end of the tune.

Image placeholder title

Example 2 shows the opening of that solo, and it can be difficult to read, due to his fast playing over the slow tempo. The solo section alternates between two chords, and Joe, again, sticks pretty closely to the major pentatonic mode for the Eb and the F minor pentatonic for the Db chord. But after the opening two measures, notice how he stays on the Eb major pentatonic across both chords for a few bars, playing incredibly fleet lines that harken back to his European roots as an accordion player. Only at bar 6 does he return to outline the Db tonality a bit more. The arpeggiations he plays throughout bars 6 and 7 are simply wonderful. Large intervallic jumps and pretty color tones abound, with very little use of the root tone. In bar 8 he moves from the Eb pentatonic to more of a G minor pentatonic, so he starts emphasizing the major seventh (D) and ninth (F). Bar 9 features a wonderful climbing run based on the F minor pentatonic over the Db chord, again emphasizing the major seventh (C) and ninth (Eb) with no root tones played. The rest of this solo is online; it is a stunningly beautiful performance.

Image placeholder title


Skipping ahead a few albums we come to perhaps my favorite of Joe’s solos with Weather Report. The tune “D Flat Waltz” is from Domino Theory (1984), the second recording to feature the post- Jaco/Erskine rhythm section of Victor Bailey and Omar Hakim. Joe takes a wonderfully aggressive solo on the Rhodes Chroma synth, a rare instrument that had become an important part of his synth arsenal. As Joe told us in 1984, “Early in ’83 I replaced the Rhodes electric piano with the [Rhodes] Chroma, which I now use for solo playing. I’ve got some really hip solo sounds on it, which are not guitar sounds but have the strength or the power of a rock ’n’ roll guitar, only with more possibility for flexibility in the sound itself. It’s a fine instrument.”

The synth sound and the solo just ooze attitude (as did Joe!) and the ongoing dialog between Joe and Victor Bailey is masterful. Example 3 shows the start of the solo, and I have to admit that some of the chords are unclear to me. Every time that sections such as bar 4, 6, and 8 come around, the bass notes are as written, but Joe will play different triads over them. So my notation is just a reference. I love the polychordal nature of his lines and their angularity. Be sure to check out the recording of this tune and the full version of the solo posted online.

In the sections that I marked as rests, Joe comps on his Prophet-5, and those sections are equally intriguing. It’s an example of his big-band-from-Mars approach to synth orchestration, and if it were translated to real horns (like on the wonderful Brown Street CD he did with arranger Vince Mendoza and the WDR big band back in 2006), you can hear how he took his love for Duke Ellington and reimagined it for modern times and electronics.

MORE TO COME Next month I’ll move into the Zawinul Syndicate years, where his affinity for world music came to powerful fruition.