Keith Emerson is the reason I play keyboards. When I first
started playing music, someone gave me a cassette of Emerson, Lake
& Palmer’s album Brain Salad Surgery and my life was changed
forever. Emerson is undoubtedly one of the most influential keyboardists
of the last 50 years. Here are a few exercises to give you a taste of
his dizzyingly diverse keyboard style.
Click images for larger versions. Scroll down for audio examples.
Ex. 1 illustrates some of Keith’s killer organ
work. Bar 1 begins with a descending bass line and Lydian arpeggios
moving in minor thirds. By bar 4 we see another typical Emerson device:
triadic shapes over unusual bass lines moving in parallel. The example
ends with rhythmic prog hits. Emerson played mostly Hammond C-3 and
L-100 organs, but regardless of your organ rig, set your top manual to
“888” (just the first three drawbars, all at maximum) with percussion on
short decay and vibrato/chorus set to C3. Set the bottom manual to 00 8800 000. Check out ELP’s track “Endless Enigma” for an example of how Keith employs these techniques.
2. Five To Stay Alive
Emerson routinely sets up ostinato riffs in his compositions. Ex. 2
is influenced by the ELP tune “Trilogy” and is in 5/4 time. Often after
a long cadenza, Emerson plays four bars of a vamp similar to this one
before drummer Alan Palmer enters with fervent force.
3. Mano y Mono
Another sound associated with Keith Emerson is the
monophonic Moog synthesizer. Keith would often play sweeping modal lines
with a fat monophonic sound employing crazy amounts of pitch-bend and
portamento, as in Ex. 3. This example uses the Mixolydian mode
(major scale with a flatted seventh). When you get to bar 3, channel
your inner prog rock star and turn that modulation wheel up.
4. From Rags to Riches
Emerson loved ragtime-esqe piano parts and often used an
out-of-tune piano for tracks featuring them, like on “Benny Was a
Bouncer” and “The Sheriff.” Ex. 4 approximates this style. Here
the left hand plays a standard ragtime accompaniment while the right
hand plays melodies voiced in sixths and other unusual intervals. The
exercise ends with a right hand fugue-like line.
5. Go Fourth
Emerson often employs fourths in his melodic lines. The notes in Ex. 5 all come from the C
Dorian mode. In your own melodic explorations, instead of playing the
mode simply straight up and down, try to “see” it in fourth shapes. The
ELP albums Brain Salad Surgery and Trilogy both feature extensive use of fourths.