Guitar and Keyboard in a Band - Can They Be Besties?

Guitars and keys are a great combo but can also be a real challenge when it comes to making them work together in a band. Read on and learn how you can make the guitarist and keyboardist in your band best friends — musically that is.

Harmonic and Melodic

Guitars and keyboards are both melodic and harmonic instruments at the same time, meaning you can use either to play both rhythms and melodies. What’s more, both instruments are incredibly versatile, especially keyboards. A piano, for instance, supports pointed and rhythmic parts, while other key-based instruments like organs and synthesizers can easily lay down a bed of sound (see our blog on the role of the keyboardist in a band). Put a guitarist next to your keyboardist and the sound of your band is not only enriched, but quadruples in terms of options. Your keyboardist can back your guitarist and vice versa, and during long shows, you can easily add more variation to the sound, making your gigs more interesting for the audience. It’s no wonder that many bands would love to add a keyboardist to their line-up. Sadly, the truth is that keyboardists are hard to come by, especially in the amateur scene. If your band is lucky enough to have one, you’ve no doubt learned that the guitarist-keyboardist combo has duality to it in more than one way. On one hand, you get much bigger potential, but on the other, there’s a lot more thinking required regarding the way that you go about making music. It’s an underappreciated challenge that can easily turn into a headache, not to mention a sonic clutter.

The Risks

“The guitar-keyboard combo shares similarities with having two guitarists in one band,” says keyboardist, guitarist and drummer Joel Groen. “While it can enrich your sound, there’s also a number of pitfalls. Guitars and keyboards are both melodic and harmonic instruments that can get in each other’s way, since they both operate in the mid-range. The biggest risk — and this happens a lot, is that both musicians play the same accents or parts, basically thickening each other’s chords. Musically speaking, that’s just not very interesting. Another risk is that your guitarist and keyboardist fill the same gaps, like gaps between lyrics. This can easily make things sound messy, which only gets worse when both musicians feel the timing a little differently.” Before you combine guitar and keyboard, you’ll want to clearly define the role that both musicians have. This includes more general agreements as well as song-specific and even part-specific protocols.

Silencing One or the Other

In addition to working out how you’re going to make your guitar-keyboard combo work, there’s another choice you could make. “It’s often not even considered,” Joel continues, “but not every musician has to be a part of every song you play. With some songs, you might decide to ‘bench’ your guitarist or keyboardist during certain parts. I realise it goes against many-a musician’s instinct, but sitting out parts of a song can sometimes make it much more interesting. For example, having the keyboardist dip out during the verses can create a more distinct difference between the chorus and the verse.” Joel points out that ‘Rules’ by The Whitest Boy Alive is a great example. “I love the way that the guitar and keyboard take turns on that record.” You don’t have to go as equally minimalistic, but it’s worth a listen so you can figure out ways to approach your own songs in a similar way. Who knows, you might get some surprising results.

Ironically, doing nothing can sometimes make you stand out more. Joel: “It makes the contrast of joining in later on in a song much bigger. There are a lot of bands that could put in much less effort and yield the same results without losing any power or impact.” For a lot of musicians, being idle on stage comes with a certain sense of embarrassment, which explains why most would rather avoid it. “If you’re someone who struggles with this, you could play something very minimal or grab a small percussion instrument,” Joel suggests. “You can keep the sound uncluttered while still doing something. You could even play just a single note on your guitar.” Another option would be to pretend like you’re playing something. The only risk that comes with ‘instrumental lip-syncing’ is fooling your sound engineer, who might fully boost your volume slider to see if you maybe need more volume. When you then play for real moments later, you might blast through the speakers a bit too loudly.

The Division of Roles

Acknowledging that you need a proper plan as far as combining guitar and keyboard is concerned is just the first step. The next step is carefully considering the role you assign to each instrument, both in a general sense and per song. “As a band, you’ll really need to adopt a different approach when you’ve been playing with a guitarist for a while and then decide to add a keyboardist,” Joel says. “The guitarist can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing and will need to leave the keyboardist some room to do their thing, and vice versa.” Giving each other room can be done in a number of ways. As mentioned earlier, you’ll generally want to avoid playing the same accents and filling the same gaps, which is not to say that there aren’t moments when doubling-down is actually the right call. Joel points out that another thing you can experiment with is the position of your chords. “This goes for both the guitarist and the keyboardist. The guitarist can decide to pass up open chords, which are usually preferred when it’s just a guitarist alone because open chords sound nice-and-full. But in a band, open chords aren’t always fitting because the lowest notes in the chords can get in the way of the bass. Combined with keys, it’ll simply sound better when the guitar chords are played higher up the fretboard, where you can avoid playing the root notes. The keyboardist also has various options when it comes to playing chords in different positions, like opting for a higher octave. Go ahead and give it a try. While trying out different things with the band takes time and effort, it’s also a lot of fun and forces you to keep honing your band’s sound.”

Playing Rhythmically

Just like drums and bass guitars, keyboards and guitars are part of the rhythm section when it comes to accompanying vocals and leads. As such, the guitarist and keyboardist will need to play rhythmically from time to time. Joel: “Imagine the guitarist plays a fast, funky rhythm part composed of 8th and 16th notes. In this case, having the keyboardist play longer, out-of-proportion notes can work really well since it helps keep the music transparent. In other cases, like rock ‘n’ roll tunes, you might use both the keyboard and the guitar to play fast-paced rhythms. It all largely depends on the style and on the mood you want to create.”

Another good idea would be to make sure that every part is also worth listening to on its own. This adds more depth to your renditions, though it also comes with a bit of a risk. “A lot of songs demand that you stick to the same rhythm for the entire duration, but changing things up is an urge that every musician feels,” says Joel. “The power of music often lies in repetition, and hanging on to the same rhythm can really allow the audience to groove out. Just listen to Michael Jackson and how his music incorporates repeating patterns that build up, swing, and still keep things interesting.” Before wrapping it up, Joel shares one last piece of advice: “It’s always wise to have your guitarist and keyboardist practise the rhythm parts together, without your bassist and drummer. You want their sound to be robust without depending on the drums and bass. When the whole band gets together to rehearse and the amps are kicked up to ten, it’s just too difficult to tell how well your guitarist and keyboardist are actually working together, so practise at acoustic volume, record yourself and listen back to it.”

A Solid Left Hand

A well-trained left hand is essential for keyboardists if they want to be able to take on any role they can be assigned. In other words, you need to be able to play chords and melody lines with either hand. This can be tricky for keyboard players with a background in piano. After all, when playing the piano, you form the whole band by yourself since you’re using your right hand to play the melody and chords, and your left hand to play the bass. That left hand can be a problem in a band since it gets in the way of the bassist. That’s why it’s important that band-based keyboardists learn to play chords with their left hand, which can even be limited to small accents or just anything that doesn’t get in the way of things.

See also

» Playing Keys in a Band: What You Need to Know
» How To Sing And Play At The Same Time
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Playing the Piano: Correct Posture & Hand Position
» How to play basic piano chords

» Guitars & Accessories
» Keyboards & Accessories

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