The Art of Synth Soloing: Tom Coster

A jazz-rock pioneer

The early ’70s were a fertile time for musical experimentation, and as Carlos Santana began stretching beyond his Latin and rock roots, he sought out Tom Coster to help him in his explorations. Already an accomplished jazz player, Tom moved beyond his organ and accordion roots into multiple keyboards, and especially synthesizers. This placed him at the forefront of the development of the synth as a lead instrument, while helping to develop the musical language that was called “fusion.” We covered Tom’s career in an extended interview in the March 2013 issue (available at, but this month we look at some of his personal favorite lead-synth solos.

Synth or Guitar? Jan Hammer was not the only player channeling his inner guitar hero on a synth: Tom mastered both the sound and the playing style in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He would credit the instrument as the Moog Invader, but it was actually a Moog Liberation (or Mini-moog) run through a Hiwatt 100 tube amp-head and a Randall 4x12 speaker cabinet. He also used a Maestro Echoplex for some additional saturation and a slight “shadow” to the notes, as he puts it. That’s all—no flanger, for example. He preferred the natural beating of the analog oscillators. I have vivid memories of seeing Tom play this setup at a NAMM booth in the mid-’80s and he would tear it up!

As the years progressed, Tom would continue with this emulation using various Korg synths and relying on internal effects for the overdrive, but this was mostly out of touring convenience. There’s still nothing like driving a real tube amp hard to get that sound. To help you in your explorations of these timbres, review my June and July 2013 columns.

Synth Hero

A perfect example of this setup and style of playing is found on Tom’s first solo recording, Ivory Expedition, (1981) on the tune “Zulu Queen.” Ex. 1 shows his entrance, and it is masterful in the emulation of guitar technique. The first two bends that I notated (bars 1 and 3) are actually the sound of one oscillator bending up into pitch with the other, a technique guitar players commonly use, called a double-stop bend. You can program a controller on your synth to bend only one oscillator, and bring it down a whole step or minor third, and then back up. I don’t use the pitch-bend wheel or joystick to do this, since I still want to have all my normal pitch bend techniques available, but you can use a ribbon, a knob, or the Y-axis of a joystick. Move the controller to the “bent” position, then play a note and bring it back up to pitch. With the heavy distortion it’s a great sound, and a technique to master. We’ve posted audio of those first few bars online.

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Tom plays sparsely, letting us soak up the distortion-drenched tone. The trill in bar 7 gets bent downward in the next bar, emulating the whammy bar technique of many shred guitar players. He uses open intervals in the next few bars to evoke the power chord approach so often used in rock: No thirds allowed! Note that he doesn’t come in guns blazing; he is pacing himself to build energy and excitement.

Ex. 2 shows him really ripping on the second half of the solo. He is using an F minor pentatonic mode across the four chords, and his riffs and bending are classic fusion-era vocabulary. Bars 31 and 32 showcase one of his trademark approaches; playing a run that doesn’t line up with the beats, so each repetition comes at a different place, downbeat or upbeat. First he plays seven notes, then multiple groups of six. Developing these types of phrases can be a great way to interact with your drummer, as they can make the hits along with you, accenting the top note of each phrase.

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In bars 33-35, Tom exploits the “fusion lick” as I call it, playing a note followed by a lower note bent up to the same pitch. But he does it with such rhythmic variety and then begins to vary the bends from F, then to G, and finally up to Ab, before returning to the F for a final flourish. We have posted the full solo online: Be sure to check it out for some great examples of playing “outside” the changes and some incredible sweep runs at the end of the solo.

Tom’s Favorite

When I reached out to Tom to ask him for solo suggestions, he immediately brought up the Vital Information tune “Seven and a Half,” from the Vitalization recording (2004). This is an example of his more modern-day lead guitar approach, which he played on a Korg Triton, using a sound that Jack Hotop made for him (with a few tweaks). It’s an interesting tune in that, while you can think of it as being in 15, the band plays it as 7 1/2; listen to the drum backbeats. This is inspired by South Indian music, which Steve Smith has studied for years. In Ex. 3, I kept the notation in 15/4 (4/4+4/4+4/4+3/4) for clarity’s sake.

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What I like about this solo is how Tom moves from pretty regular A minor pentatonic licks into some ferocious chromatic and outside-the-key-center lines. The solo starts normal enough: Note what I call pitch-bend vibrato, which is Tom wiggling the joystick of the Triton so he is getting positive-only vibrato/trill. But fasten your seat belts as we approach bar 14, where Tom rips off an astounding chromatic run and then heads far outside the key center for bars 15 and 16. Tom is a master of what I call “slippery chromaticism” and here’s a great example. He uses it to climb up to a high C and then is back to the pentatonic key center, and some more “fusion lick” bending. It’s just enough energy and dissonance and then back into the pocket. Tension and release: Perfection.

Tom’s Jazzier Side

For the last choice (Ex. 4), we chose something more “inside,” and closer to Tom’s Latin and jazz roots. Taken from the tune “The Group,” from his 1994 release The Forbidden Zone, this two-chord vamp shows Tom playing mostly within the mixolydian modes on the sus-dominant vamp, using a synth flute tone. It’s wonderfully melodic, and tasteful playing.

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Well Played, Sir!

Longer solos are posted online, and you can listen to and purchase Tom Coster’s solo recording tunes from his son Tommy Coster’s bandcamp page ( Tom recently retired from touring, so we’ll have to enjoy his music through his many recordings with Santana, Billy Cobham, Vital Information, and others. He is a ferocious player that all synth soloists should check out.

Find audio and transcription for the "Zulu Queen" solo, and full solos for "Seven and a Half" and "The Group"