When Less Is More

June 17, 2016

An artist I work for came up to me at a recent soundcheck and said, “Clifford, I know you can play, but what I want to know is can you not play?” That’s a unique way of saying “I’d like you to take a less-is-more approach with my songs.” You’ve probably heard musicians say that it’s not what you play that defines your style; it’s what you don’t play. My early influence in the art of less-is-more was keyboardist, writer, and producer Don Grolnick. Don played the least amount of notes to create the most amount of feel.

Here are a few examples of voicings I might play when accompanying a singer or soloist in various styles with this kind of economical approach. In all of these examples, I am looking to play something that will give each song a unique harmonic and rhythmic identity.

1. Common Tones and Eighth Notes
Often when I show up for a recording session or rehearsal, I’m given a chart for a vocal song that has chord symbols and slashes, but no written notes. I look for an approach to support the vocal and create a mood. So instead of playing each chord that is written on the chart, I chose a pattern such as in Ex. 1, which has “common tone” notes that work with each chord to create less chordal movement and less voice leading.

2. Omit the Third
The chart in Ex. 2 has triads written but I’m playing voicings without thirds—just roots and fifths. In this register, the absence of thirds gives the song an airy, open feel. In a lower register it can add power and grit to a track. It’s a distinct color that sounds good on acoustic and electric keyboards.

3. One Hand Comping
In the rootsy, honky tonk shuffle seen in Ex. 3, I’m comping with my right hand only. My left hand is on holiday for this section of the song. Think like an arranger: Just because we have two hands doesn’t mean we always have to use them. (Bass players will become your best friends!) The written bass line is just a cue. I don’t play it.

4. Piano as Spice
Sometimes I play synthesizers and electric pianos for a basic track, then add piano sparingly to orchestrate it. In Ex. 4, the piano is tacet for most of the tune, then played exclusively in the bridge to bring size and drama; hard-hit octaves in the bass followed by big, block chord voicings. The piano is used as a condiment, giving the bridge a sound unlike any other section of the song.

5. Thirds and Sevenths
Ex. 5 illustrates a four-bar vamp for a solo section in a funk groove. In all the chords, I’ve decided not to play any upper extensions (such as 9ths, 11ths, or 13ths). In bar 1, I won’t play any thirds in the G7 chord, whereas in bars 2, 3, and 4, I only play thirds and sevenths in the right hand. This leaves room for other instruments (guitar, horns, etc.) to play different colors without clashing against the pianist’s dense voicings. As I listen to what others are playing, I may add notes to compliment them, but I start with less harmonic content.

Listening List When Less is More


Play It As It Lays

Fancy Pop

Walkin’ into the Sun


Keyboardist and composer Clifford Carter is best known for his work with artists such as James Tayor, Patti Scialfa, and others. In 2015, Clifford served as Idina Menzel’s musical director on her tour of the United States. 2016 sees Clifford hitting the road with Cyndi Lauper, performing concerts in the United States and Europe.  

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