The Art of Synth Soloing: Joe Zawinul

March 24, 2017


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 below photo 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.


The Freezing Fire synth sound

Joe took this solo on his ARP 2600. I tried to recreate it using Korg’s new iOS synth, the ARP ODYSSEi, since it should be close in character to the 2600. The sound is a basic hollow Square wave. I used a single oscillator, but chose to make it mono with a few stacked voices to strengthen the sound, but without any detuning. I slightly softened the attack, so you hear no click at front (EG Attack .47 - .54). I also added a slight tail to the release, not so it lingers, just so it releases without any snap (.51). I used Filter Type II, and set the Filter Cutoff at 8.14 kHz to soften the tone slightly. Add a touch of Plate Reverb to give it some space, but not too much.


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 at /Portals/2/Freezing Fire solo.pdf It's a great study.

Keep up-to-date on the latest news
Get our Free Newsletter Here!
Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

What best describes your dream job?

See results without voting »