Ryo Kawasaki, Jazz Fusion Guitarist and Guitar Synth Inventor, Dies at 73

Ryo Kawasaki
Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Ryo Kawasaki performs in San Francisco circa 1979.

Ryo Kawasaki, the Japanese guitarist, composer, band leader and inventor of the guitar synthesizer, has died at the age of 73.

Born in Tokyo in 1947 to a diplomat father and a multi-lingual mother, Kawasaki is remembered for his contribution to jazz fusion techniques and his pioneering work in the space where music meets technology.

Kawasaki, whose name is synonymous with early music software tools, built the first ranges of guitar synths through partnerships with Korg and Roland Corporation, and created his namesake synth program for the Commodore 64.

Kawasaki discovered music at an early age, was turned on to jazz and electronics in his teens and found his niche in the computer world. He relocated to New York in 1973, and became a regular in the jazz community’s “loft” scene. While stateside, he quickly established himself as a session man and touring professional, working with the likes of Gil Evans, Elvin Jones, Chico Hamilton, Ted Curson and Joanne Brackeen.

Kawasaki went on to become one of the first Japanese jazz artists to sign to a U.S. label, releasing his album Juice through RCA in 1976.

Considered a peerless jazz fusion guitarist, Kawasaki recorded a long list of albums over his career. In the ‘80s, he dived into dance music, launched the contemporary jazz label Satellite Records, and developed a slate of music software programs.

A jazz master to the very end, Kawasaki passed away Monday (April 13) in his adopted hometown of Tallinn, Estonia, where he had assembled a contemporary jazz fusion band, Level 8. Their eponymously-titled album dropped in 2017 to coincide with Kawasaki’s 70th birthday. Level 8 released a live album in 2019.

“My daddy. A true original,” reads a message posted by his daughter Tane Kawasaki Saavedra. “Just as your name suggests, you did illuminate, set it afire, and your fire will burn forever as your music plays on and we continue to carry your light.”