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.
My favorite thing about a piano is how incredibly dynamic an instrument it is. From a delicate intro to pounding, relentless chords, pianos can do so much. When I hear a musically sensitive pianist choose the perfect part, whether restrained or all-out, it takes a song over the top. I love to cover a lot of sound with my guitar but I will gladly play rhythm to a creative piano part.
Synths are great for setting a mood and holding things together, though they can do much more. The right pad or filtered string patch are like glue to a song – filling in the cracks between the rest of the instruments. It’s all about appropriate use of a powerful instrument. But, synth players need their own form of restraint. Most synths come with what seems like a million sounds. They are fun to play through in a music store but the reality is that in a band setting you’ll be better served knowing your ten best sounds really well and sticking to them (as well as learning to edit and tweak them to create a more lively and organic sound).
Finally, there have been a lot of classic piano/keyboard sounds throughout pop music history – pianos from grand to spinet, Rhodes electric pianos of every era, B3s, clavinets, Yamaha CP70s, Wurlis, and on and on. Pianos players are smart to learn how these instruments really sound and are used as well as how they were played so they can authentically recreate not just their sound but their vibe.
Pianists and synth players, you have a huge instrument. Play it with restraint and your band members will love what you bring to the music. Bang every key from 1 to 88 without regard for your bandmates and you’ll soon find yourself back in your practice room playing alone!