Instrumentational Techniques of Jazz-Rock Fusion

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Subject: Piano » Jazz Piano
Last updated: 31/08/2011
Tags: instrumentation, jazz, jazz fusion

Instrumentational techniques and characteristics of jazz-rock fusion between 1968 and 1975

Jazz fusion combines elements of jazz and rock music which, based on Gilbert’s (2002) definition, can be divided into 4 main categories: 

  • The presence of amplified and electronic instruments, as well as signal procession devices and effects
  • The presence of rock or funk style rhythm
  • The presence of jazz harmonies in improvisation and accompaniment
  • Borrowing rock and funk form


Gilbert asserts that ‘technology had a major bearing on fusion’ (Gilbert, 2002, p. 402). Whereas the mainstream of jazz was ‘...conservative in its choice of instruments’, jazz fusion employed a wide range of electric instruments and musicians involved were eager to ‘...embrace new developments in instrument technology’. According to Gilbert (2002) and Gridley (2006) fusion musicians started to use highly amplified electric guitars, the piano was replaced by electric piano, organ and synthesizer and acoustic bass with electric bass guitar. In addition various signal processing devices were used, such as distortion, delays, phase shifters, wah-wah pedals and flangers.

To paraphrase Gilbert’s (2002) statement from the previous paragraph, technological development had a major influence on the genre since fusion musicians employed the latest achievement of electric instruments. Pauley (2009) and Goeltz (2003) agree that Fender Rhodes Electric Piano and the Fender Bass Guitar, which became popular in the 1960s, had a major influence on the sound of the late 1960s’ and 1970s’ fusion music. The Hammond organ, the Moog synthesizer or the Mellotron which, based on Harris’s (n. d., online) statement, became popular in the 1960s, were widely used as well.

Electric piano, synthesizer, organ

Gridley (2006) claims that after 1968 Miles Davis replaced the conventional acoustic piano by Fender Rhodes and an electric organ and ‘...often employed two or more electric keyboard instruments at once’ in his band. 

Pianists often abandoned spontaneous comping which was popular in the 1940s and ‘...adopted repeating accompanying riffs’ (Gridley, 2006, p.307). Herbie Hancock frequently used echo, tremolo and fuzz effects when playing the electric piano, like in the piece ‘Vein Melter’ on the album Head Hunters from 1973 (Hancock, 1997). He often substituted busy phrases of bop by legato lines and sustained tones in order to create moods rather than conventional jazz chord progressions. Hancock extensively used synthesizers which entered the music scene in the late 1960s. As an example we can mention the famous piece ‘Cameleon’ (Hancock, 1997) from the same album. One member of his band played nothing but a synthesizer, which was an unusual practice in the early 1970s. Chick Corea’s chord voicings in fourths and devised lines from pentatonic scales proved particularly effective for the electric piano. Regarding Corea’s compositions Gridley (2006) states that many of them featured bass doubling the melody of the piano and horn parts.

Rhythm section

The most significant features regarding the fusion bass playing technique was abandoning conventional jazz walking bass lines and introducing new rock and funk influenced bass playing styles. According to Gridley (2006, p. 310) the ‘bass was the pivot in this music; bass figures were as essential to the 1970s ... style as complex chord changes had been to hard bop’.

Gridley (2006) states that Joe Zawinul encouraged the use of a wide range of exotic percussion instruments by his musicians. His band, the Weather Report explored an unusual approach to improvisation and rhythm sections. Rhythmic figures as well as melody lines could come from any member of the band, from any instrument. In addition to this Shipton (2001) claims that Weather Report abandoned the traditional jazz soloist / accompaniment approach, featuring opportunities for continuous improvisation by every member of the band. With the album Sweetnighter in 1973, according to Gridley (2006), Weather Report began to include more repeated, funk influenced rhythm section style. Gilbert (2002) states that Jaco Pastorius, one of the most influential jazz-rock bass players, introduced the style of playing a non-repetitive, interactive funk style with great naturalness. 

Drummers’ playing style was influenced by rhythms of R & B and Latin American styles. Gridley (2006, p. 309) states that there was a general ‘...increase in the use of drums, particularly the bass drum, and a decrease in the use of cymbals for timekeeping’. According to Gridley (2006, p. 308) ‘jazz-rock drumming style was very full and active’. In Miles Davis’s band the beat was easily detectable, but it contained a vast number of constantly changing sounds. Also the traditional swinging rhythm was substituted for straight rhythms of rock and funk. Textures in some cases were as much in the forefront as written melodies. The album ‘Bitches Brew’ from 1969 can be mentioned as an example (Davis, 2006).

Chick Corea and his band, called Return to Forever integrated Latin American rhythms and Spanish themes into fusion music in their albums Return to Forever and Light as a Feather from the early 1970s (Gridley, 2006).

Guitar, Trumpets, saxophone

An important part of jazz-rock fusion music is the highly amplified and effected guitar sound. According to Gridley (2006) one of the most influential fusion guitar players is John McLaughlin, who introduced a high level of instrumental proficiency. He added to fusion hard, cutting and metallic colours of playing. Before him this kind of texture was more preferred by rock guitarists. Shipton (2001) asserts that his guitar improvisations contained far less syncopations previously typified by jazz. An example of this is the album Birds of Fire from 1972 recorded by his band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Gridley (2006) states that guitarists Larry Coryell and Pat Metheny brought a country influence to jazz fusion. Coryell’s playing on the 1967 Duster album is clearly influenced by rock and country. 

Shipton (2001) asserts, that Miles Davis added new dimensions to trumpet playing. He used sweeping runs, ‘in and out of his extremely high registers’. In addition to this, Gridley (2006, p. 311) states, that he also employed effects, such as echo on his trumpet lines which is evident on the title track from Bitches Brew. Soprano Saxophone was frequently used in this period, as its sound could carry over drums and electric instruments. Trumpet and saxophone improvisations usually represented an influence from traditional and free jazz.


Based on the research which has been done about the development of instrumentation techniques and characteristics of jazz-rock fusion it can be stated, that technological development and electric instruments played a determining role in the evolution and the sound of the genre. However, its appearance was also influenced by other effects, such as the demand from the audience for rock music.

The question remains open. Was jazz fusion the last popular sub-genre of jazz?



  • Gridley, M. C. (2006) Jazz Styles History & Analysis, 9th edn. New Jersey: Pearson Education
  • Shipton, A. (2001) A New History Of Jazz. London: Continuum
  • Gilbert, M. (2002) ’Jazz Rock’. In Kernfeld, B. (ed.) The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd edn. London: Macmillian Publishers Ltd.
  • Uhl, J. (n.d.) History of the Fender Bass guitar. Online. Available from:  [Accessed 22.01.2011]
  • Pauley, J. (2009) A History of The Fender Rhodes Electric Piano. Online. Available from:  [Accessed 22.01.20011]
  • Harris, D. (n.d.) History of the Hammond Organ. Online. Available from: [Accessed 23.01.2011]
  • Goeltz, R. M. (2003) History of the Electric Bass. Online. Available from: [Accessed 24.01.2011]
  • Davis, M. (2006) Bitches Brew (audio recording on compact disc) New York: Sony BMG
  • Hancock, H. (1997) ’Vein Melter’. In Head Hunters (audio recording on compact disc). New York: Sony Jazz
  • Hancock, H. (1997) ’Cameleon’. In Head Hunters (audio recording on compact disc). New York: Sony Jazz

Matyas Bacso Classical Piano Teacher (Colchester)

About The Author

I have been passionate about the piano from a very young age and I always wanted to become a pianist and composer. In my teaching I enjoy sharing my passion for music with others and I encourage creativity.

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