The Art of Synth Soloing: Jens Johansson

The OG of metal keyboards?
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There are a lot of fine players working in the genre known as Progressive Metal, and I have covered a few of them in past columns. But credit must be given to the player who many point to the as the earliest, and perhaps most influential artist to help establish the role of keyboards in this style. (I am talking about the last few decades, as everyone would point to Jon Lord as keyboardist zero!) That man is Jens Johansson, a formidable player with a self-effacing personality who would not like the pedestal I just placed him on.

Jens is a Swedish musician who first came to prominence during the seven years he toured and recorded with Yngwie Malmsteen (from 1983 to 1989). Standing toe-to-toe with Yngwie—playing those virtuosic, classically inspired lines and trading fiery solos—certainly honed Jens’ chops and helped him to develop his unique voice, which blends a melodic style drawing from Bach, Mozart, and Paganini with the execution and tone of a lead guitar player. After freelancing in a variety of diverse groups and solo projects, in 1995 Johansson joined the band Stratovarius, where he remains to this day.

In his early years, his instrument of choice for lead playing was a Korg Polysix, which is perhaps a surprising choice. But Jens made it his own and developed his signature style and sound with it. He then moved on to using a Roland JV-1080 module, driven by a Yamaha DX7 keyboard, used as a controller. Now the rig has evolved, and we’ll discuss the gear and his sound more in next month’s column.

CLASSIC(AL) JOHANSSON

To bring you into Jens’ world, I transcribed a 2011 live concert intro that he played before Stratovarius went into their popular song “Black Diamond." This solo excursion shows his classical (and Yngwie) influences coupled with extraordinary technique. Note that Jens plays with a lot of tempo changes (accelerandos and ritardandos—the musical terms for speeding up and slowing down), which is hard to convey in notation. To make the music easier to read, I doubled the length of the notes; the notated quarter note is really the feel of an eighth note when listening to the track. I added some implied chord changes to make it easier to discuss the note and scale choices he is playing. Finally, the band tunes down, so Jens actually plays this a whole step higher, but the notes I am showing are what you hear.

Example 1 shows the opening bars of the solo. Jens is using the data entry slider on his DX7 as a volume control, so each note is swelled into as I notated with the small crescendo markings. Johansson is playing in the key of D minor and is using the harmonic minor scale, which is all white notes except for the flatted sixth (the Bb) and the major seventh (the C#). This creates the sound for the V chord of an A7 with a flatted ninth.

Ex. 1. The opening of Jens Johansson’s live intro to “Black Diamond” makes use of dramatic volume swells and then progresses into a blistering descending run down to a low A. It is a tasteful way to show off a bit and get the crowd’s attention.

Ex. 1. The opening of Jens Johansson’s live intro to “Black Diamond” makes use of dramatic volume swells and then progresses into a blistering descending run down to a low A. It is a tasteful way to show off a bit and get the crowd’s attention.

After the dramatic ritard going through bars six and seven, Jens breaks loose with the phrases starting in bar eight. Notice how he keeps changing between using a B-natural and the Bb during the runs. It is the difference between the ascending melodic minor scale (the B-natural) and the harmonic minor scale (the Bb), and the changing note choice makes the lines more interesting. This passage cascades across the range of the keyboard, dramatically coming to rest on a low note. Notice how he often uses four-note groupings, and some five-note groupings in the lines. They remind me of my years working through Hanon and Czerny technique exercises: Anyone looking to get proficient in this style of playing should be working on those types of exercises, along with a healthy dose of Bach.

MORE SHREDDING

Example 2 continues from where we left off, with another classical figure, which Jens starts slow and takes off with. Starting in bar 18 he again alternates the B and Bb notes, until descending to another dramatic low note, this time a Bb.

Ex. 2. Continuing from Example 1, Jens uses a familiar Baroque melodic figure for a few bars and then unleashes another volley of notes before descending down to a low Bb.

Ex. 2. Continuing from Example 1, Jens uses a familiar Baroque melodic figure for a few bars and then unleashes another volley of notes before descending down to a low Bb.

Example 3 happens a few bars later, and this is where Johansson moves his key center from D minor to C minor to set up the song. In bar 27 he is using the notes that imply a G7 with the added Eb note, the sound of resolving to C minor. This flurry of notes moves into arpeggiated figures on a C minor chord, with a few colorful notes added. Starting in bar 30 he plays ascending four-note groupings based on the C melodic minor scale, and then moves into an ascending scalar run that alternates in its use of the major seventh (B natural) and the minor seventh (Bb), finishing with a dramatic resolution of B to C.

Ex. 3. Moving ahead a few bars, Jen’s modulates to get ready for the tune itself. A bar of G7 moves him into C minor, with a mix of arpeggios, four-note ascending figures, and then a multi-octave scale run to a dramatic finish.

Ex. 3. Moving ahead a few bars, Jen’s modulates to get ready for the tune itself. A bar of G7 moves him into C minor, with a mix of arpeggios, four-note ascending figures, and then a multi-octave scale run to a dramatic finish.

MORE TO COME

Next month we’ll get some insights from Jens himself on his sound and playing, and we’ll look at a few more of his classic solos.