On Time And In Tune: Piano and Keyboard

Even though it’s been quite a while, I want to finish this series up with my thoughts about piano and keyboards in a band setting.

Guitarists and pianists have always had a complicated relationship. When describing a band, we’ll often call it “guitar-driven,” “piano-based” or even “synth pop,” as if a band can’t exist which relies on both equally. And there’s good reason for this. While drums and bass have well-defined and unique roles, guitar and piano occupy the same space – harmonically and timbrally. These two instruments define not just the root of a chord but the quality and color – major or minor, 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths. So it’s easy for them to get into each other’s space.

Often, the biggest challenge for pianists in a band is showing restraint with regard to the sheer number of notes at their disposal. Having 88 keys spans a LOT of sonic space. And if they aren’t careful, pianists and keyboardists can quickly find themselves stepping into and on other band members’ roles. There’s a time to explore the full range of a piano – but not all at once in every song. So, pick your spots, find your parts, and realize that you’re part of a larger sound, even though a piano is fully capable of playing everything at once.

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On Time And In Tune: Bass

“In the beginning there was a bass. It was a Fender, probably a Precision, but it could have been a Jazz – nobody knows. Anyway, it was very old … definitely pre-C.B.S. And God looked down upon it and saw that it was good. He saw that it was very good in fact, and couldn’t be improved on at all (though men would later try.) And so He let it be and He created a man to play the bass.”

History Of The Bass by Tony Levin

Bass players are often the unsung heroes of the band. What, and more importantly, howa bass player plays his or her part is often the difference between a forgettable band and a band that is totally locked in. Here are a few tips for bass players that will help make that difference:

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On Time And In Tune: Drums

“It’s better to have no drummer than a bad drummer.”


There’s a lot of truth about the importance of drummers in that video. Here are a few more tips that I think make the difference between good and great drummers:

Just lay down the groove. It’s not the fills that will get you noticed. It’s the groove. If people’s heads aren’t bobbing that’s a problem. This means being okay with playing simply. Simplify your kit. If the groove won’t happen with kick, snare, and hi-hat, it won’t happen with 4 rack toms, 3 floor toms and 5 crash cymbals either (unless of course you are Simon Phillips, but he could groove with a trash can and lid I’m sure). And groove will never happen with roto toms.

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It’s The Little Things

This is part 2 of my series On Time and In Tune – practical tips to set you apart as a musician. Check out the first post and introduction here.

Yesterday I told you that some of the best advice I got before moving to Nashville was to be on time and in tune. Those two rules seem pretty obvious, right? You would think so, but I got my first gig in Nashville by following them. I had just moved to town and was recommended for the acoustic guitar spot in an artist’s band. The guy they were looking to replace was a really great player but he’d not really taken the time to learn the parts from the record and was just playing what he felt like. On top of that, he never brought his tuner and was always having to borrow one from the bass player and going out of tune during shows. I knew all of this information beforehand so I learned all the parts straight off the records. I also had my tuner, of course. I arrived early, had all my stuff set up, and by the third song when I nailed a signature intro that the other player had never bothered to learn, I had the gig.

The other guitarist wasn’t a bad player. Quite the opposite. He lost the gig simply because he wasn’t doing the little things. Being in tune is about as basic as it gets. Even though your guitar was in tune when you bought it, it’s probably gone out since then. When you are supporting an artist or playing in church, nobody in the audience or congregation wants to hear your out of tune instrument or listen to you tune by ear. Having a good tuner in line with your rig, one that you can use to get back in tune quickly and quietly, is essential to being professional.

Here are a few other little tips that apply to all sorts of musicians and will set you apart:

Have all the gear you (might) need ready to go. Were you told you wouldn’t need a DI box? Bring one anyway. How are your cables? Singers, do you have a favorite mic? Buy it and carry it with you. Will you be using in-ear monitoring? Then I’m sure you have a few of those 1/8″ to 1/4″ adaptors, right? Are you ready if you break a string? They said there would be guitar stands but you brought one anyway, I’m sure. A keyboard player friend of mine always carries a second power supply for his main keyboard just in case his dies. That’s what I call prepared. Don’t be the guy asking around for gear, be the guy offering to loan it.

Be attentive and engaged. We recently got a dog. She is always aware of where we are in the house and if I get up and walk over to her, she sits up and looks up at me with a look that says, “Wanna play? Do you want me to go get my ball? Wanna pet me? Did you perhaps bring me a biscuit to eat?” I think that’s the kind of attitude we should have when we are in a band- always aware, looking for a way to contribute ideas and displaying interest even when the attention of the director isn’t on us. I wouldn’t, however, ask a music director or worship leader to pet you. That would be weird.

Don’t noodle. Have you ever tried to talk to a guitar player who is playing while you’re talking? You know that zoned out look you got? My wife knows it all too well and calls me on it all the time. Playing (even with your volume off) while someone is talking is no different than talking while someone is talking. And our moms taught us about that one. I’m convinced noodling is a brutal disease that is killing musicians daily.

One last tip about the “on time” thing. We’re musicians. We don’t like being on time. It’s cool to be fashionably late. Except if you want to be professional. Being on time means being early and that includes your set up and warm up time. As a music director and worship leader, I’ve always given my times in “downbeat time,” meaning the time we will start to make music. That way it’s up to each player to know at what time she should arrive in order to be ready to start. Sometimes, the music director or worship leader will be the worst offender. It doesn’t matter. Your job is to be ready to play!

Pretty basic stuff, right? I’ll continue this series with some instrument-specific tips next. Let me know in the comments what experiences you have had with these and if you haven’t subscribed, subscribe via RSS or email so you’ll know when the next set of tips is up!

On Time And In Tune

Before moving to Nashville in 1999, I asked a lot of musician friends what skills I would need to improve my chances of getting work in Music City where everybody is a guitarist. I had a music degree and I knew I could play well enough to hang with other guitarists but I wanted to know what separated the guys who worked from the guys who worked… at a pizza place.

The best answer I got was from my friend Richard Aspinwall who had lived and worked in Nashville for years as a sound engineer and player. He put his pants on just like the rest of you — one leg at a time. Except, once his pants were on, he made gold records with Garth Brooks.

He had a very short answer for me when I asked about going to Nashville. He just said, “You’ll do fine. You’re always on time and you’re always in tune.” And the wisdom of that little statement helped me to work consistently alongside some of the best players in the world. I never made any gold records, but I rarely was hurting for work. I got gigs because of following simple rules that I didn’t necessarily learn in music school.

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