3 Ways to Craft Groovy '70s Keyboard Parts

January 3, 2014
The 1970s were a time where the hair was long, safety belts were not required, and keyboard-playing rock stars ruled like thundering T-rexes. Piano parts were front and center, with octaves in the right hand and rolling rhythms everywhere. The trick to nailing this period’s piano parts is to take the chords and break them up in away that is both rhythmic and yet still accompanies the melody of the vocal. Go for busy, bold, and flashy, and remember that if trying to nail this retro style authentically, you will typically be filling up your arrangement more than you would in most modern pop contexts Here are some of my favorite ways to add that super ’70s vibe to your keyboard tracks.
Click sheet music images to enlarge. Scroll down for audio clip player. 

1. The ’70s Piano Part

Let’s look at a typical pop piano part and then take it back in time to the ’70s! Ex. 1a is a modern piano progression in the key of C:
Now, putting that part into our tonal time machine, we arrive at Ex. 1b.
How do the two differ? Our period piano part in Ex. 1b features octaves in the right hand, broken up rhythms, counter-melodies and wide shifts in dynamics. It’s bolder and more dramatic, much like the ’70s were!

2. The One-Person Keyboard Band

Ex. 2 below shows how in the 1970s, the keyboard player could be nearly the entire ensemble. Step one is to lay down some funky bass. Use an analog synthesizer bass patch that has some motion to it. The envelope closing down on a resonant filter is a classic ’70s sound. Make sure to use both glissando and well-placed pitch bend. Interlock the bass with the drums. The bass doesn’t have to be busy; you can use the spaces in the music to make it breathe. Next, lay down a rhythmic Clavinet part. If you like, add some wah-wah or phase shifting as well. Play busy, use passing notes and don’t necessarily follow all the chord changes on the beat. Alternate the rhythm of the left and right hands to create a feeling of motion.  The Clavinet generally takes well to playing short notes and chords with less than full voicings.
Next up we want to add a string ensemble (e.g., vintage analog string synth) sound.  It will sound too thick if you play it with full chords so try playing single lines above the range of the Clavinet. The string ensemble is a lead instrument that takes up a lot of room. Adding phase shifting and reverberation will add motion and depth as well. Your track should sound full, funky and beautiful now.

3. The Steely Dan Rhodes

The Rhodes electric piano is a fantastic instrument for laying out the harmonic framework of a song, and nobody used it more effectively than Steely Dan. Ex. 3a shows a plain Rhodes piano part, with jumpy chord motion and long sustained chords. Note that the left hand is simply playing chord roots:
Ex. 3b recreates the EP sound made famous by Donald Fagen, with an expanded chord palate that includes jazz voicings and leading tones, a chromatically infectious left hand part, and a conversational, two-handed approach. Adding stereo chorus and/or phase shifting processing adds yet another layer of ’70s-style sound scintillation!

David Baron is a New York-based composer and producer who has appeared on records by Lenny Kravitz and Michael Jackson. He makes his own records on vintage analog gear and plays keyboards in the band Media. Visit him at edisonmusiccorp.com.
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