Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know

Keyboard instruments can really help thicken up and enrich the sound of a band and inject some diversity. But, being the key player in a band isn’t always easy. Standing behind a keyboard, how can you pull the best out of yourself? In this blog, we gain the wisdom of a seasoned professional and take a short tour of all of the most stage-worthy keyboards, digital pianos, Hammond organs, vintage models, synthesizers and even accordions you could play with.

Ronald Kool

“A keyboard player can bring colour to the band by making a track sound much broader, by adding extra layers or by adding some edge. Basically, any keyboard player in a band has the opportunity to vary the sound and atmosphere of a song. Of course, the sound a key player uses will depend on the kind of band they’re in and the style of the specific song but often, it can take just one specific sound to complete a song. It can act like that sonic cherry on top.” This is the potential of the keyboard player according to Ronald Kool: teacher and keyboard department head the Pop Academy in Rotterdam. Ronald is the on-staff keyboardist for prominent European artists and is the regular band leader on a prime-time Dutch TV show. He also composes film soundtracks, produces his own work and collaborates with his wife on original music and videos.

Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know
Ronald Kool (photos: Jelmer de Haas)

More Than Just Black & White

Keyboards in general present some pretty broad subject matter. Yes, any keyboard-based instrument will have black and white keys, but the sound and way that an instrument is played can be dramatically different. An acoustic piano is played in a completely different way to a Hammond organ, and a Moog synthesizer is played completely differently to a Fender Rhodes. Every instrument will give its own shade of colour and timbre to the band sound. For this reason, a lot of bands will have someone on the keys, but that doesn’t mean that every band can handle the addition of a key player or know exactly what to do with them. The same is true the other way around: some key players don’t always know the best way to contribute to the sound and have no real sense of their role in the band. Neither situation is great, either for the band or the key player. In this blog, Ronald Kool offers some tips to help bands as well as keyboard players.

Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know

Expensive Matter

First, we’ll take a close look at the keyboard players empire: their gear. In some genres, the keyboard player will need nothing more than a good digital stage piano, but most of the time, they’ll need more. Even the average keyboard player will be lugging around a hefty amount of gear, so much gear in fact, that they easily compete with the drummer on van space. As such, playing the keyboards in a band can be an expensive undertaking. For the same money you’d spend on a really high-grade guitar, you’d get a less-than special stage piano. A good keyboard (or a keyboard connected up to some good sound modules) can get really pricey really quickly, and most of the time, a key player will need a few of them. On top of that, you might need your own stage monitor, a mixer and all of the necessary cables. Add it all up and the keyboard player could set up their own shop with the amount of gear they need to set up on stage. “Even then, you’re never really done,” admits Ronald. “The gear involved is always developing so there’s always some new innovation that you can’t avoid having to invest in. For me, the cost comes in waves.”

Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know

The Basic Setup

What can a keyboard player get away with? What does the basic setup look like? According to Ronald: “In the very least, you can get away with something with a vintage sound, like a good Hammond, Rhodes or Moog sound. This might be the real thing or a really good digital emulation. A real acoustic piano or grand piano would be great too, of course, but isn’t exactly practical if you’re playing the band circuit, so you need to make sure to have a really good basic piano sound.” Ronald also advises having a few good digital sounds, like strings and pads so you can create those more woolly background sounds. Simulations of some acoustic instruments are also useful. But, as well as the sound, the gear matters too: “Piano parts need to be played on a keyboard with weighted keys,” insists Ronald. “These are keys designed to have the same feel and playability of an acoustic piano. You just can’t play piano parts well on a light set of synthesizer keys. It’s just not possible. On the flip side, if you’re playing a Hammond organ part, you can’t get away with playing it on weighted keys – you need a lighter set of keys.” The number of keys is also important. A lot of keyboards will have a five octave range (61 keys), but that’s actually not enough according to Ronald. “You need at least an extra octave, so a model with 76 keys. In principle, that’ll be enough, but if you want a full piano-style keyboard, then you’ll need 88 keys.” For live shows, Ronald also prefers to take his own mixer so he can make a personalised mix of all of his instruments before sending the main output to the sound engineer as one stereo or mono signal. He then connects the control room output of his mixer to his own personal monitor. “This gives you the most control over your sound. Some sound engineers prefer to connect each individual keyboard or synth up to their mixer, which is fine, but it needs to be a sound engineer that’s already really familiar with your repertoire. Personally, I like to control everything myself.” A common frustration among a lot of key players is being unable to hear themselves in the final mix. “That’s true of every circuit,” says Ronald. “The focus is often on the bass, the drums, guitars and vocals, so the keyboards can feel a bit overlooked. One of the standard arguments for this is that the keyboards clog everything up, but in my opinion, it’s all about choices. A guitar number will need more guitar and a ‘keyboard’ number will need more keyboards. In both cases, all of the other instruments still need to have presence. Of course, this is assuming that the band has thought about the arrangement and instrument levels.”

Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know

Buttons & Menus

Many key players will recognise this: spending more time fiddling with buttons and scrolling through menus than actually playing any music. “The beauty of digital keyboards and synths is the unlimited options for making sound, for programming, for splitting the keyboard into different zones – the list goes on,” explains Ronald. But the downside of all of those options is that you’re often left spending a lot of time figuring all of it out.” Digital keyboards and sound modules can communicate with each other via MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Via MIDI, you can do things like use a master keyboard to control a sound module or control one keyboard via another keyboard. MIDI is a really useful tool, but it takes a lot of studying to really get the best out of it. “When using MIDI there are a lot of accidents that can happen,” says Ronald. “You think you’ve set everything up perfectly for a specific song but there’s still something hidden in there from the previous song. One of my own MIDI related cockups is burned forever in my brain. We had just finished playing a really big song filled with orchestral hits, which we then followed up with a ballad where I played this delicate little harp-sound. I switched everything over for the next song but what I didn’t know is that one of those orchestral hits was still assigned to one key. I made it to the end of the song and in the very last bar, I hit that key and this absurd orchestral hit blared out of the speakers. Time literally seemed to stop.” But MIDI blunders like this one is just something that can happen to any keyboard player. “You have to just trust that all of the buttons and programs are correctly set before every song and you can’t check it, because that’ll just mess everything up. Every now and then, things go wrong, especially if you’re having to work quickly.” Digital keyboards also have what’s called a transpose button, so you can quickly play in a different key. “I’ve trained myself not to use that button,” says Ronald. “It’s just not worth it. You can easily forget that you have it on and start playing the next song in the wrong key which, mid set, is just horrifying.”

Tone It Down

With the technical side of things out of the way, we’ll dive into the musical role a keyboard player has in the band, starting with the keyboard player itself. A lot of keyboard players come through music school and bring a lot of knowledge and experience with them, but they also have one handicap when it comes to being a band member: they’re used to making their own music. As a pianist, you essentially have a whole band under your fingers. With your left hand, you control the bass and with your right hand, you control the chords and melodies. Piano pieces often have a rhythmic element to them as well. “A keyboard player in a band needs to let all of this go,” says Ronald. “Otherwise, they’re going to be in the way of all the other band members. So avoid automatically playing all the bass notes with your left hand, because the bassist is doing that already (unless, of course, it’s actually part of the arrangement and actually works). Also, don’t just follow the same rhythm and chords that the guitarist is playing because you’re not there to just thicken up the guitar chords. Sometimes, this is the effect that you want, but usually it’s just a waste of time. With the instrument you’re working with, you can add some real colour and atmosphere to a song, but you won’t achieve that by just backing up guitar chords. Often, just one or two notes sounds far better than full chords, especially if you play them at the right moment. You could also play with some counter melodies and returning motifs.” It can be pretty tough for key players to find their spot in the band, as Ronald knows only too well: “If you’ve just started working with a band who have been together for a long time, that’s especially true. If a keyboard player has just joined your band, then don’t just stack their sound on top of the guitars, bass, drums and vocals you’ve already got. With the addition of keyboards, it makes no sense to continue playing your full parts. Instead, you need to give something up to make room for the new element and make the overall sound better. As the keyboard player, you actually need to be pretty firm on this, either through your playing, by talking to the other band members or both. There’s never any room in a band for big egos.” So, how can you be firm with the other band members as a keyboard player? “By picking your moments and, for example, not playing all the time, ” advises Ronald. “That will already give the sound some variation and make the total arrangement more layered. By not playing all the time, what you do play is more likely to reach the attention of your other band mates. I know that a lot of musicians find it harder not to play, but when I’m not playing, I spend the time listening to the rest of the band and focusing on the part I’m about to play. Not playing is also a part. It’s part of the whole keyboard arrangement. Seek out the perfect moments and then do something that the rest of the band would really miss if it suddenly wasn’t there any more.”

Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know

Listen to Each Other

The other musicians in the band could also get a lot from listening to the same advice: pick your moments and, sometimes, just don’t play anything. Sometimes, guitarists and keyboard players can get in each other’s way. “If the keyboard player is doing something special, then the guitarist needs to pull back for a moment. You need to listen to each other and actually respond to each other with your playing. This does so much good for the total sound of the band.” Of course, there are moments where the guitarist and key player can let loose at the same time, “But if you need both instruments to have a clear place in the mix, then the keyboard player should play above or below the frequency range of the guitars,” says Ronald. If the guitarist and keyboard player are battling with each other, then the guitarist usually wins, simply because they can get so much louder and the guitarist can literally walk to the front of the stage and get in the faces of the audience. When a keyboard player is playing long notes and chords, they’re playing a more subordinate, less rhythmic role by simply adding colour. But as soon as the notes get shorter, say, during a piano part, then the keys immediately get more rhythmic and it’s here that things can get more difficult for them because, within the ‘rhythmic hierarchy’ of a band, the keyboards often come last – after the drums, the bass and the guitars. However, according to Ronald:” …that’s the result of a very limited view because actually, each of the four instruments have a specific function in the rhythmic whole, where the force of every sub-combination is equally important.” He underlines his statement by naming those sub-combinations: “Drum-bass, drum-guitar, drum-keys, bass-guitar, bass-keys, guitar-keys, drum-bass-guitar, drum-bass-keys, bass-guitar-keys and drum-guitar-keys.”

Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know

Practical Tips

Ronald has a few more practical tips for keyboardists: “A good playing technique is really essential. Make sure that you know all of the standard scales and can play in any key smoothly. You need to know all of the major, minor and blues scales and so on. The tricky thing about playing a keyboard is that playing in one key is different from playing in another so you can’t simply shift up like you could with a guitar or bass. This is why keyboard players need to drill a lot of scales. Another good one is the II-V-I exercise, which actually comes from jazz. In music, timing is also incredibly important so practise your scales with a metronome. It’s better to practise playing to a specific drum beat using a metronome rather than a drum machine, that way you’re forced to let the rhythm swing yourself. Practise these beats at a low BPM at first. If you can add some swing when playing at a really low tempo, then you can definitely do it at a high tempo. It’s also worth being able to play something convincingly at a low tempo and from there, you can add variation. By doing that, you’re giving yourself note placement options when things speed up.”

Good to Know

The Ancestors

The oldest ancestors of the modern keyboard are the harpsichord and pipe organ. The harpsichord was invented during the 16th century and, like the modern acoustic piano as we know it, is a string instrument played via a set of keys. Unlike the modern piano, the strings inside a harpsichord aren’t hit with hammers but plucked by little pens. The pipe organ is also often referred to as a church organ, since a church is where you’re most likely to find one. Pipe organs produce sound by literally blowing air through a set of pipes.

The Piano

The piano was first invented in around 1700 when it was more commonly referred to as a pianoforte or fortepiano. During the centuries that followed, the piano evolved into the instrument that we are now familiar with, but was initially intended to overcome all of the shortcomings of the harpsichord, which you could only play at one fixed volume level, meaning it had zero playing dynamics. This was solved by designing a mechanism that struck the internal strings with hammers rather than plucking them – hence ‘pianoforte’ which literally translates from Italian as ‘quiet-loud’. Later, this was obviously shortened to just piano which is now used to refer to upright pianos as well as grand pianos. Upright pianos are the cabinet-style instruments you see in living rooms while grand pianos are the large, table-like instruments you’re more likely to see in concert halls. Grand pianos have a bigger and fuller sound, not just because of their size, but because they have a better repetition rate (so, the rate at which a single key can be repeatedly struck). One of the biggest downsides of all acoustic pianos is that they need tuning quite regularly, which can be quite a job. They’re also notoriously awkward when you want to move one. This is exactly why bands prefer to stick to digital stage pianos.

Hoe maakt een piano geluid?

Vintage Keys

The struggle to come up with a variation of the piano that’s easier to work with has produced some pretty interesting instruments that, these days, are affectionately termed ‘vintage keys’. Here’s a round up of the greatest hits:

  • The Rhodes is an electro-mechanical piano that was developed by the American inventor, Harold Rhodes in the fifties. From 1959, the Rhodes was produced by the well-known guitar manufacturer Fender and from that point on, was known as the Fender Rhodes. Instead of piano strings, the Fender Rhodes has a set of tuning forks that are struck by a hammer. The vibration of the tuning forks is then registered by a pickup (just like an electric guitar) and then amplified. The Fender Rhodes has a really specific, warm and woolly sound that’s entirely unique.
  • The Wurlitzer is, just like the Fender Rhodes, an electro-mechanical piano that was invented in the fifties. Inside the Wurlitzer, a set of little hammers hit a set of steel reeds and the vibration of each reed is then captured by a pickup, giving the instrument a sound that comes close to that of a Fender Rhodes, but with a more funky flavour to it.
  • The Hohner Clavinet came out towards the end of the sixties and had a set of rubber caps that hammered against internal strings, the vibration of which were, again, captured by a pickup.
  • The Yamaha CP70 and CP80 from the seventies are electric grand pianos with internal strings and pickups and both have their own unique sound.

Find out more about vintage keyboards in this blog.

Vintage toetsinstrumenten: nooit weggeweest

Vintage Keys: The Hammond

One of the most well-known of the vintage key-instruments is the Hammond organ – also commonly known as just the Hammond. The original Hammond was a tone-wheel organ and was first developed in the thirties by Laurens Hammond. Inside, the sound was produced by rotating tone wheels and magnetic pickups. The idea was to build an alternative to the pipe organ, but when it was combined with a Leslie speaker, the Hammond quickly found its way into pop, rock, blues and jazz music and the archetype of the Hammond was to become the Hammond B3. While no tone-wheel organs have been built since the seventies, the digital age has brought forth some outstanding Hammond clones, which are not just more affordable but much easier to carry between gigs. Find out more about the Hammond in this dedicated blog.

The Synthesizer

The technical side of the synthesizer is a whole story in itself, so we don’t really have the space to go into it here. Instead, we’ll offer a short introduction to the instrument that helped reshape the pop landscape. The sound of a synthesizer is generated (usually electronically) inside the synth itself before being processed to result in some of the most bizarre sounds the human ear has ever experienced but these sounds can really work in music. As well as generating unique sound, some synthesizers can also mimic the sound of other instruments. The very first synthesizer appeared in 1876, but didn’t really ‘break through’ until the sixties when Robert Moog developed the first commercially built synth: the Moog, which quickly found its way into pop music. A broad array of synthesizers have followed in the wake of the Moog and the tech is still evolving today. A synthesizer can now generate sound via a number of different methods. You can get synthesizer modules, which are essentially sound-generating boxes without a keyboard that can be controlled by hooking up a master keyboard via MIDI. Using special software, computers can even serve as synthesizers, especially when coupled with a master keyboard via USB.

Learn more about the Moog Minimoog in this blog.

Wat zijn virtueel-analoge en hybride synthesizers?

The Keyboard

In essence, all key-instruments are keyboards but the general term ‘keyboard’ usually refers to an instrument that comes loaded with a lot of different sounds and often has some form of automatic accompaniment function. Sitting at their keyboard, the musician can select a specific style, play a chord and a ‘full band’ is triggered that will play a loop in the same key as the chord so the musician can follow with the melody. Keyboards like this are perfect for home musicians and solo performers, but they don’t work so well for bands. If you want an instrument that has masses of different sounds but is a better match for a band, then you’ll probably do better with a digital synthesizer with 61 or more keys.

See our other blog, The Difference Between a Keyboard and Synthesizer.


The Accordion

Very occasionally, you’ll hear an accordion featured on a pop track but it’s more commonly found in folk music. The accordion produces sound in the same way as a harmonica – which is why they have a fairly similar sound. Rather than blowing through an accordion, air is generated by billows and pushed through a set of reeds inside the body. When one of the keys or buttons of the accordion is pressed, the air is pushed through one or more of the reeds making them resonate. Recently, Roland changed the game a bit by bringing out their own digital accordions.

Find out more about the accordion in this dedicated blog.

De accordeon

A Deeper Dive into Playing Technique

For various reasons, playing the keyboards in a band is harder work than many other musicians realise – even some keyboard players themselves. So, what can you do to make life easier for yourself? We ask one of the professionals for some experienced advice.

What’s Your Role?

We’ve already mentioned that, if you’re playing keyboards in a band, then you’re probably playing with a bassist. Basically, whether or not your band includes a bassist will have a big impact on how you can play, which we’ll cover in more detail when discussing chord voicings later. Here, we have a chat with the keyboardist and teacher Hilvert Roorda, who insists that: “As the keyboard player in a band, you have one of the following three roles. The first role is that of a pianist, so you play piano parts or maybe Rhode piano parts that include bass notes or chords played by the left hand. The second possible role is ‘everything but the pianist’, where you only play synthesizer or Hammond parts next to the basic piano parts. This is an entirely different way of playing than the ‘pianist’ role. But, most of the time, you’ll take up the third role where you simply play all of the possible keyboard parts.” This last role is the toughest, apparently, because it means you have to be able to constantly switch between different ways of playing. The piano, a Rhones, a Clavinet, synth strings, a Hammond organ and so on. All of them are played via a black and white set of keys but that’s where the similarity ends. “Every one of these instruments and every different sound will demand a slightly different playing approach.” says Hilvert, “Playing a Hammond is an entirely different story to playing the piano. Those differences alone can make playing the keyboards in a band really hard work.”

A Pianist’s Training

“To be able to play every possible role, you need to have a well-trained left hand,” according to Hilvert. “You need to be able to play chords and melodies with both hands and, actually, you need to be able to play everything with your left hand that you can play with your right hand.” It’s this point that’s often the problem and the root usually lies in the musician’s background. Most keyboard players started by playing the piano and are often classically trained. With a piano, you essentially have a full band since you can play the chords, the melody and rhythmic bass. There are a lot of motor skills involved in playing like this and those motor skills become ‘fixed’ over time, which is what makes it hard to suddenly stop your left hand from playing the bass part, because automatically, that’s what it has the urge to do. But if you’re playing those bass notes at the same time as the bassist (whose job it actually is), then you’re going to get in each other’s way. When doubled, low pitched notes don’t mix well and often mess with the rhythm. This is why a lot of bands feel the urge to tie the left hand of the keyboard player behind their back. Luckily there is a more humane method, which is also musically sound. “It looks weird if a keyboard player is doing nothing with their left hand,” says Hilvert. “They need to do something with it, but that something actually needs to be functional. What any good keyboard player really needs to master is playing chords with their left hands. Organists can already do that, so pianists need to kind of unlearn and relearn if they want to play in a band. If you play chords with your left hand, you can play a melody with your right hand or you could double the chords by playing them with both hands and maybe with different sounds, whether it’s via a split keyboard or two keyboards.”

A Manual Metronome

Besides playing chords, your left hand can do a few other things. According to Hilvert: “During rhythmic parts, you can use your left hand to play ghost notes and help with your timing. This way, you can use your left hand to serve as a sort of manual metronome when you’re playing something with a specific groove. You can play maybe the root note or the fifth to keep time. Just don’t play it too far down the keyboard, otherwise you’ll start getting in the way of the bass.” If you get a keyboard solo, then you’ll really need your left hand for some harmonic support. Here, the left hand can take care of the chords while the right hand plays the melody. The key player in a band is there to add colour and depth and, if they’re good, can vary that colour and depth in real-time. So, while playing, the tone of a synthesizer chord can be tweaked by twisting a filter pot or things can be switched up mid-riff by playing with the drawbars of a Hammond or shifting up the speed of the Leslie speaker. You can do all of this with your left hand, unless you have pedals, of course. Is playing the bass absolutely against the rules? “No,” says Hilvert. “In some genres it’s actually necessary, like in gospel music and gospel inspired music where the bass is often doubled or a different bass part is played on the piano.”

Playing Covers

In a lot of music, the keyboards don’t take the leading role. The drums, bass and guitar make up the musical foundation while the keyboards add depth and colour. Colour can be added by hitting short notes and chords (with a piano or Rhodes sound) or by laying down a carpet of long chords and notes. These could be strings, pads (which are thick and woolly synthesizer sounds) and other synth sounds, an organ or even the sound of a brass section. “A lot of bands play covers, including the bands I play with,” explains Hilvert. “Not every song we cover actually has any keyboards in it, but you can often add some keyboards in a creative and smart way. With one of my bands, we play With or Without You by U2. The original has no keys on it all, but I’ve found three different pads that fit really well and play them really subtly, underneath everything and fade from one pad to another at just the right moment. I also shift the chord location for each pad and tweak the cut-off filter at the same time to add more colour. So, there’s plenty to play around with for keyboard players. The only possible condition is to resist the urge to come up with an extra part for a cover song, at least a part that has a function in the song, so you make sure that the song remains recognisable.”

Guitar Bands

“If you’re playing in a heavier guitar band, it can be tough to figure out keyboard parts that work,” admits Hilvert. “You could maybe play a rhythmic piano part, but you have to be careful not to get in the way of the guitar riffs, which are usually the song’s signature. In a standard rock song, some big Hammond chords often work better and are easier to fit in than rhythmic piano parts. What I also often do is choose a guitar sound and then play a sort of ‘second guitar’. In the mix, you barely notice that it’s not a real guitar and the value of doing something like that is that you start thinking and playing a bit like a guitarist.” Hilvert also uses a similar trick when playing with small brass sections: “Of course, you need to figure things out with the other musicians first, but I sometimes pick a brass instrument sound and play along with the brass section. You need to stick close to the phrasing of the brass musicians and play seriously tight, otherwise it can sound pretty messy.” Some music is already really full enough without the addition of keyboards. So, what do you do then? “That’s another tough one. I have that problem a lot with genres like funk and disco. Take Kiss by Prince. Every band member does their own thing to slot into the groove which is based on sixteenths. That’s really full, so I keep things as minimal as possible. Every two bars I play a Clavinet on the first count, or just before it. But the timing has to be super tight. To be honest getting the timing bang on gives me enough of a kick, even if I am only playing one note every two bars. Ultimately, timing is the most important element for any musician, including key players. Everything depends on it. Timing is the number one priority.”

Chord Voicing

For keyboard players, it’s important that chords are played with just the right voicing. Voicing a chord means choosing which notes you leave in and which notes you leave out. It doesn’t often work all that well to leave every note in a chord, especially when you’re playing with a band. The chord can get too thick – too overbearing, so most of the time, it’s best to just cut one or two notes out. Besides choosing the right notes for your chords, it’s also important to spread the chord. In other words, whether a note of a chord is played further up or down the keyboard. By spreading the chord you can dictate the colour and openness.

Triad Voicing

With triads (normal three-note major or minor chords) you generally need to play all three notes of the chord. However, it’s better to avoid placing the lowest root note in the lower register, anywhere below the middle C. Why? If the root note of the chord is played in the lower register, then you’re playing in the same octave as the bassist, who is usually playing the root note. This can make it sound like the note is being doubled and, when it comes to the bass, that tends not to sound too nice. As such, there needs to be at least one other note underneath the root note of the triad. For example, if you’re playing a C-major chord (C, E, G) below the middle C, then rather than voicing C, E and G, choose another variation of the chord like G, C and E or E, G and C. You could also consider just dropping the root note of the triad altogether, like you often would with four-note and multi-note chords (see above). This really works with sus2 and sus4 chords, for example.The root note is played by the bass so doesn’t really do much to a keyboard chord – or guitar chord. But for most triads, the root note does actually need to be played, otherwise it just won’t sound like a chord.

Four-Note & Multi-Note Chords

While you can sometimes get away with dropping the root note of a triad chord, you can always get away with dropping the root note of four-note, five-note or six-note chords – actually, it’s recommended. As we’ve already mentioned a few times in this blog, the bass is probably already playing the root note and, to be honest, five or other multi-note chords usually just sound better when you leave the root note out. If you leave it in and the keyboard and bass are playing the same root note at the same time, the chord can sound too heavy. Sometimes, it can also be a good idea to drop the fifth from a chord, which is closely related to the root and kind of emphasises the root, especially if it’s a perfect 5th. If the chord includes a diminished or dominant 5th then you will want to leave it in. Here’s a quick example to make things clearer: the C7 chord (dominant 7th) is made up of a C, E, G and Bb. In this case, you can drop the root note and the pure 5th, so the C and the G, and play just the 3rd and the 7th, so the E and Bb. These are the notes that give the chord its distinct colour. However, it’s not against the rules to play the 5th, and it’s done a lot, but try not to just do it automatically. Think about the structure of the chords you’re playing and what sounds best in context. If you play a C7 chord with the 5th left in, then a G, Bb and E note placement (the 5th, 7th and 3rd) sounds better than an E, G and Bb placement (3rd, 5th and 7th). With four-note chords like a 9th, you can drop the root note and easily drop the pure 5th, like you can with a 7th. So you only play the 3rd, 7th and 9th. From here, you should be able to figure out what to do with 11th and 13th chords with no problems.

Note Placement

A C9 is usually played Bb, D, E, G (with a 5th) or E, Bb, D (without the 5th), but you can actually broaden the chord by playing E, Bb, D, and G. C13 is often voiced as follows: Bb, D, E, A (7th, 9th, 3rd, 13th) but actually sounds broader by placing the 9th on top, so: Bb, E, A, D (7th, 3rd, 13th, 9th). In place of the 9th, a root note is often played on top. This is really recognisable in a dominant 9th chord, which is almost always played with a 3rd, a perfect 5th, a minor 7th and a ninth: E, G, Bb, Eb. It’s a little less common, but this chord can also be varied to Bb, Eb, E, G. “In jazz in particular, the aim is to move your fingers as little as possible when transitioning between chords,” explains Hilvert. “So, it’s best to choose your chord placements so that you can change your finger position as little as possible when moving to the next chord. This approach plays much smoother and the movement from one chord to the next will sound much more logical and calm because you’re not having to jump up and down the keyboard. This is also done a lot in pop music, but it’s not a set rule. Just try things out to see what sounds best.”

Two-Hand Voicing

Returning to triads again, you can also play these chords with a broader note placement. In fact, you can play such a wide placement that you sometimes need two hands to play them – a two-hand voicing. Here’s an example of how to broaden the voicing of a triad: root note, 5th and 3rd, where the 3rd is an octave higher. C-major then becomes C, G and E. You can also need two hands when you want a triad chord to sound thicker by adding more notes like a 9th or a 13th. You won’t do this so much in pop and rock music but it’s a regular trick used by jazz pianists. In pop and rock, keyboard players tend to just double some of the notes of a chord, so with a triad, you could double the root and the 5th. There’s actually nothing to stop you from doing this all the time but, usually, doubling the 3rd can make a chord sound less open. So watch out for that because the 3rd is a pretty strong note within any chord. A pretty good example is a lot of ABBA’s music, where the doubled 3rd plays a big role in creating their signature sound. To illustrate the point, you could double a C-major chord as follows: C, E, G, C, G, C, where the last G and C are an octave higher. The 7th? You can double that as well. Just be careful, because doubling the 7th can have the same effect as doubling the 3rd.

Raise the Profile

“In the underground circuit in particular, keyboardists can often be underestimated by their bandmates,” admits Hilvert. The keys are often just considered an add-on, but as a keyboard player, there’s actually something you can do about this. The first thing you can do is to really master your instrument to the point where you’re always able to see the bigger picture and respond as needed. This way, you automatically interact more with the rest of the band and aren’t just doing your own thing. You can’t achieve this by playing as much as possible but rather, by leaving a lot out. You’ll score way more points by playing just the right thing at just the right moment than you would by playing all over everything. That involves always being aware of the effect that your sound has on the total sound of the band.”

A Volume Pedal is a Must

“A volume pedal is an absolute must for any keyboard player,” insists Hilvert. “Since your job is to add colour, you need to be able to fade your sound in and out while playing with both hands on the keys. The volume can also vary when you switch between different sounds, and this can be quickly corrected with a volume pedal. As such, it’s really worth picking out a good volume pedal with a really good volume curve, like the Yamaha FC7 pedal, which is what I always use. It’s also a good idea to get a volume pedal for every keyboard you play. However, I don’t advise combining piano sounds with a volume pedal because it just sounds unnatural. With piano sounds, like a Rhodes, you control the volume with the key pressure, so you’re playing dynamics.”

Always Have Enough Keys

You always need to make sure that you’re never short of keys. With the five octaves of a standard 61 note keyboard, you just won’t be able to do much in a band. Instead, you’ll need a keyboard with 88 at least 76 keys. Hilvert: “A keyboard player often splits their keyboard into different zones, each with a different sound. Each zone needs to be wide enough so you actually have enough room to play with. That just can’t work with a small keyboard. A larger keyboard is also essential for playing piano parts that include the bass. I actually also recommend playing multiple keyboards. I always take at least two models on stage with me.”

See also…

» Stage Pianos
» Synthesizers
» Digital Organs
» Keyboards
» Accordions
» Keytars
» Melodicas
» All Keyboard Instruments & Accessories

» The Magic of the Minimoog
» The Hammond Organ: A Classic
» Vintage Keyboards: Here to Stay
» The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!
» How To Sing And Play At The Same Time
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Playing the Piano: Correct Posture & Hand Position
» What is Velocity Sensitivity?
» How to play basic piano chords
» Here’s Everything You Need to Learn to Play the Keyboard
» What’s the difference between a keyboard and a synthesizer?
» Help! My MIDI keyboard isn’t making any sound!
» What’s the difference between a keyboard and a digital piano?

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