Continuing our study of Jens Johansson’s work, I got a chance to talk with him about his gear and his approach to crafting his famous lead-synth tones. Due to “old age” and the difficulties of touring with gear these days, he has retired his trusty Yamaha DX7 keyboard and switched to a Roland A-800 Pro controller. He is not thrilled with its pitchbend mechanism due to its short throw and dead zone at center. So, his fabled use of a pitch differential to get a continuously smooth response from his bend mechanism has been retired…for now. He has also swapped out the Roland JV-1080 module for a JV-1010 since it is half-rack size.
RUMINATIONS ON HIS LEAD TONE
While Jens won’t give exact details about his lead tone, he was willing to offer some guidance on emulating it, or crafting your own. He describes his original Korg Polysix tone as “detune-free unison,” as he likes to hit the distortion effect with a very sharp sound. In general, Jens suggests that you always craft your lead sound with the distortion on: The sound you need to feed the effect may sound plain, or even crappy on its own, but it’s the tonality of the distortion effect that is critical.
Jens adds some expressive control by using aftertouch to bring in a little bit of detuning and some extra filter resonance. The modulation axis of the joystick fades in two additional oscillators an octave lower. But the critical character comes from his use of the Morley JD-10 amp-simulator/overdrive pedal, which has been his choice for decades now. If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right?
A CHOICE SOLO
Johansson has so many great solos to explore, but my research led me to this solo, both as a fan favorite and one that caught my ear (see Example 1). Taken from an album that he was a guest soloist on, the opening of the tune “The Cage” from Sonata Arctica’s 2003 release Winterheart’s Guild, shows Jens tearing it up at an inhumanely fast tempo. It’s a great example of how melodic Jens can be while playing the whole solo using the same scale/note choices.
One aspect that makes it so melodic is how he uses mostly nonroot tones across all the chords. He is singing across the chords, thinking more horizontally or linearly. You might consider bar 7 to just be vibrato, but since he achieves it using positive pitchbend, I chose to write it out that way.
After the first eight bars of linear playing, he switches up in bar 9 to some ascending arpeggios to bring him up high in range. I like the figure that he starts in bar 21, moving from adjacent notes to increasingly spread intervals from the lower D he uses as an anchor. Also pay attention to how he keeps things interesting rhythmically by mixing up his use of sixteenth notes and triplet groupings. Even when playing blisteringly fast, he’s crafting well-thought-out lines.
ONE FROM THE EARLY DAYS
Since Jens first came to public attention during his years with Yngwie Malmsteen, I thought I’d share something from that seminal time. The tune “Trilogy Suite, Opus 5” (from their third album, Trilogy, 1986) was one of their biggest hits. Partway through the tune, Yngwie and Jens trade solos, and Example 2 is Jens’ first volley.
Notice how he freely mixes up the Ab melodic minor scale (using the F and G notes), with the Ab harmonic minor scale (using the E-natural and the G). Starting in bar 5 through the end, he varies his note groupings from triplets (which match the pulse of the 12/8 time signature) with groupings of four and five notes, creating a sense of urgency in his bravura phrases.
Example 3 is the next phrase where Jens answers Yngwie, and here the tune changes tonality and the Ab now sounds major, or dominant seventh. Jens is using a very cool scale called the Aeolian Dominant, which is the fifth mode of the Db/C# Melodic minor scale. The Ab/G# Aeolian scale is the natural minor scale, so think of the Bmajor scale starting on the sixth tone, but with a major third (C), instead of the minor third (the B) as in Example 4.
Coming back to Example 3, notice how the opening of his phrase is clearly major, but in the next bar how the tonality gets richer, based on the implied Db minor. This constant I-major to iv-minor harmonic movement is very colorful and fun to solo over, which Jens does beautifully.