The Keyboard Stylings of Prince

June 17, 2016

The keyboard parts featured in Prince’s songs were always catchy and unusual. This month, we examine the sounds and styles used in some of his biggest hits.

1. Analog Power
Ex. 1 is influenced by Prince’s iconic synth riff in the song “1999,” with a few similar (though slightly jazzier) chords and the same classic Oberheim/Roland Jupiter flavor. (In the audio example, I’m using a u-he TyrellN6 virtual-analog soft synth.) Our example is in the key of F with a fifth in the bass (C). Over this pedal point, we have alternating F6 and Ebmaj 7 chords. (The Ebmaj 7 chord makes an F7sus 4 sound when played in this way.) The rhythm is strongly syncopated. In your own riffs, experiment with combining a I chord and flatted seventh chord over a bass note of tonic or dominant quality. F Mixolydian harmony is implied in this example (F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F).

2. Short Synths
Ex. 2 is in the spirit of Prince’s hit “When Doves Cry.” It uses a short, buzzy synth with a little “glassy-ness” to it. The chords are diatonic in the key of C. The original song has no bass, as it was supposedly taken out in the final stages of mixing. The beat comes from the famed LinnDrum drum machine that Prince helped to popularize. Our first motif is on all downbeats. When the phrase is repeated, it has some sixteenth note syncopation that adds rhythmic interest. As an additional exercise, practice harmonizing major and minor scales in different keys in triads like these, up and down the scale. It’s a great way to come up with chord ideas for your own tunes.

3. Strings
Ex 3 salutes the cool string synth riff used in Prince’s hit song “Raspberry Beret.” This example is also in the key of C and adds a little more motion to the bass line. The right-hand melody is in the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) and has lots of tied notes that create mini-suspensions in the line. The bass line is diatonic with the exception of the Bb in bar 3. Our sound is a string synth. On the original track, Prince’s part sounds almost like a Mellotron sample.

4. Pads
Ex. 4 is in the style of the string pads on the classic Prince song “Little Red Corvette.” Like our previous example, we are in the key of C here but this time around we start on the IV chord (F). Also notice that in bar one we put a ninth (G) in our triad for a little color. Experiment with adding some subtle LFO to your pad sounds for a little motion.

5. Bells and Pentatonics
Ex. 5 uses different synthesized bell sounds to capture the flavor of Prince’s song “Diamonds and Pearls.” The exercise is in the key of G and dances around a G major pentatonic scale in the right hand melody (G, A, B, D, E, G). The left hand descends diatonically in the first two bars (and starts the same in the last two), but goes to a V to I cadence in the last bar. Bell sounds are great for dreamy synth parts and a very popular choice in Prince’s work during this period of his music.

Keyboardist and composer Brian Charette has performed and recorded with artists such as Joni Mitchell, Michael Bublé and Rufus Wainwright, in addition to leading his own jazz groups. Charette won Downbeat magazine’s “Rising Star Organ” award in 2014 and recently released the album Alphabet City. He also has a new book out entitled 101 Hammond B-3 Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use. Find out more at

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