We keyboard players have access to an almost unlimited
number of sounds, samples, and layers. From lush string orchestras to
gritty analog synths, with the push of a single button we can fill an
entire soundscape or live ensemble. But sometimes, the “less is more”
approach is better. Taking a small section of music and not playing
anything at all will show you how just how effective silence can be. The
more you involve space in your playing, the more you will stick out
when you do play. Let’s take an eight-bar chord progression in the key of G and examine a few ways to make more music by playing less on the keys.
1. Organ Lines
Ex. 1 takes a minimalist approach to Hammond
organ. In fact, I don’t bring the B-3 in until the end of bar 4. Using a
simple drawbar setting of 00 8000 025, the organ enters with a short
upward gliss and the Leslie on fast. (This indicates to the listener
that something is now happening in keyboard world). Once I settle on the
high G, I switch the Leslie to slow and sustain the note,
staying out of the way for a few more measures until switching the
Leslie back to fast, and adding a few more notes to highlight the B-3
2. Organ Pads
Ex. 2 is as simple as they come. With a drawbar
setting of 04 8400 024, I tacet most of the first half of the phrase,
swelling in the B-3 in bar 4 in order to sustain a pad in bars 5 through
8. (Notice how in bar 7 my pad creates a Dsus chord while some of the other instruments play a straight D
chord. I love that sound!) This pad stays out of the way of the rest of
the instrumentation while lending some “glue” to the mix. The key is
finding common tones between chords that you can hold throughout a
moving progression. This allows you to make minimal moves while still
making the chord changes. In bar 8, I switch the Leslie from slow to
fast to indicate the end of the phrase.
3. Organ Stabs
In the first half of the phrase in Ex. 3, I use
sparse organ stabs to set up the sustaining high notes in the second
half of the phrase. My drawbar setting is 00 8000 000 and I start with a
C2 chorus setting and the Leslie on fast to give these stabs a little
more punch. Leaving room for a lot of space in the first half of the
phrase allows for the sustaining B-3 notes to create more of a build
4. Wurly Fills
Ex. 4 looks at Wurlitzer electric piano fills. Here
I play simple fills in between chord changes, making sure to leave
space in between them. The fills themselves include a little
syncopation, which helps give them a little more attention in the mix.
Again, the less you play, the more it means something when you do play a fill.
5. Wurly Comping
Ex. 5 demonstrates minimal comping on the
Wurlitzer. Leaving space while you comp helps you stay out of the way of
other instruments while still adding drive and syncopation to the mix.
Here, a measure of whole notes leads to a measure of comping, which
makes your more complex passages stand out.
“Knowing when not to play as well
as when to play minimally can be one of the best tricks to have up your
sleeve,” says Nashville-based keyboardist and vocalist Billy Nobel.
Nobel grew up in Baltimore and studied piano performance and conducting
at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He currently plays
keyboards and sings with country superstar Tim McGraw. Follow him on Twitter at @pianobel.