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September 2008
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The Delicate Art Of Playing Keyboards

Richard Wright or Elton John?

   I love playing keyboard instruments. The first instrument I learned to play was the trumpet but the first instrument I learned to love was the piano. The piano offers so much in the way of musical satisfaction when compared to other instruments. On what other instrument can you so richly play all the bass, harmony, melody and rhythm? Not to mention the technical complexity you can achieve on the piano. It’s a very satisfying instrument to play. Like most piano students I learned to play it as a solo instrument.

   As I got better on the piano I began to think about getting in a band playing keyboards. Two things worked against me, first of all I couldn’t convince my parents to shell out the kind of money that a good synthesizer cost. The second thing is I discovered the guitar, which I taught myself to play from piano music. As fate would have it, I was asked to join my first rock band on guitar because we were playing the songs off of piano music and I was the only guitarist handy that could read piano music on the guitar. The funny thing is I was a lot better piano player than I was a guitarist. The keyboard player in that first band was fabulous and I was a mediocre guitar player but good enough to fill in the spaces that were left for me which is backward of most rock bands. It all clicked well and the band got popular enough locally to play some good gigs. My parents saw that we were having some success and I was able to convince them to buy me good guitar setup. So that, in a way sealed my fate and with my new-found love of the guitar I went on to become a very accomplished guitarist.

   That first band was ideal for our keyboard player who could use his entire piano training to play as many parts on the keyboard as he could to fill in the bands sound. As time went on and I got more familiar with how rock music is played I began to better understand how the keyboard and guitar were being used in a rock band setting. I’m sure we all know that guitar is king in Rock-N-Roll. Although there are some exceptional keyboard playing stars in the genre. So I grew into the lead guitar spot and I’m fully capable of carrying a band on the guitar with or without a keyboard player. But I never lost my love of playing keyboards or my appreciation of a great keyborad player. I bought a good synthesizer as soon as I had enough money to buy one.

   Which brings me to my topic of the Delicate Art Of Playing Keyboards. At one point in my career I did get into a gigging band as a keyboard player. I learned that keyboard playins is a really tricky art in a band situation because of all the competition in the frequency ranges. If you play too much left hand, you’re treading on the bass player. Playing big chords puts you right in the way of the guitarist and as a keyboard player you hear about that one really fast. The blessing and the curse of the keyboard is that you can play as low as the lowest instrument or as high as the Glockenspiel. So your potential to create a big mess is extremely high. Remember, we were trained on the piano as a solo instrument but you can rarely play that way in a band situation. That’s where the art of being a good keyboard player begins.

   As I learned to be a good keyboard player I learned to listen for spaces in the music that would benefit from a well placed keyboard part. Some of the time I found myself playing two note chords, usually a first and a fifth note in a rhythmic pattern that supported the beat of the song. Sometimes I was laying down an ambient atmosphere below the bass and above the guitar ranges with a synth pad sound. Sometimes a good Leslie Organ sound was called for and I could really let it rip. The point is, being a good keyboard player means listening to the needs of the song. Usually the parts you end up playing are simple but they work to better the music.

   Another challenge that keyboard players are faced with is having to emulate other instruments. The song needs a horn part, so the keyboard player plays the horn part. The song needs some extra rhythm guitar so the keyboard player plays the rhythm guitar part. The challenge is to play those synthesizer parts like the instrument you’re emulating and not to play like a piano player. It’s another facet of the delicate art or keyboard playing. You have to phrase your horn parts like a horn player. You can’t play two notes at the same time if you’re playing a trumpet solo on the keyboard. It kills the illusion that the audience is hearing a trumpet solo. If you’re playing a guitar part on keyboard you have to build the chords low to high like a guitar would. That means some strange chord inversions on the piano. Again, you’re being part illusionist on the keyboard. A lot of piano players don’t take the time to understand how other types of instruments are played, so when it comes time to emulate them, they fall short. I enjoyed my time as a keyboard player but eventually did find my way back to the guitar. I still program all the sequenced keyboard parts that my band uses live.

   The piano is a fantastic instrument capable of so much expression that we just want to lay into it and let it rock. In a band you can’t do that very well without stepping on some toes. As keyboard players we’re really lucky that our biggest challenge is choosing what not to play. But having a well thought out keyboard part can really take the music to a much higher place than if the keyboard wasn’t there. It’s still a critical rock-n-roll instrument.

Keyboard at Music123

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