Kimmel's Keyboardist on Playing to a Click

April 2, 2014

Vince Maggio, my jazz piano instructor at the University of Miami School of Music (and mentor to Bruce Hornsby), always stressed the importance of “locking in” with a drummer’s ride cymbal. Vince’s lesson still resonates with me every time I record, where one always must lock to a click, drummer, or rhythm section. Truth be told, “time feel” is one element that truly separates the pros from the amateurs.

As pianists, we frequently have trouble laying back, and often end up “on top” of the beat, rushing. I’ve attributed this part of this tendency to the fact that unlike other band members, pianists often spend years playing by themselves. When playing solo, the pianist provides his own internal clock, which often (especially in classical music), wavers a bit. Most bass players and drummers have played with other musicians since early on in their musical development, and have therefore learned to lock in from the very beginning. Here are some exercises that may seem simple at first, but will soon show the level of discipline it takes to stick to the click and even play even a little bit behind it—the importance of leaning on the “back end” of the beat can’t be emphasized enough.


1. Modern Pop/Rock Ballad

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Ex. 1 is a typical piano part for a modern pop/rock ballad. This may seem simple at first, but in a song like this, the piano’s eighth-notes are often the “clock” of the song.

So as the keyboardist, you’re actually the song’s metronome, but you still need to sound human and expressive while providing an even pulse. As this is a ballad, you need to exercise control both dynamically and intensity-wise. When playing parts like this, I’ve found that the biggest trick is not to rush beat 1 of bar 1 on the repeat, as one’s tendency is usually to rush the downbeat.


2. Pop Ballad

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Ex. 2 illustrates a moving piano part for a pop ballad. Here again, you’re providing a pulse, but this time with a line instead of repeated eighth notes. This may seem like beginner piano music, but even I realized while playing it that it’s tough to not rush the anticipation as well as the left-hand part that answers it in bar 4. (Alas, another lesson in Zen and the art of ballad piano playing!) 


3. Steely Victor

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Oh, the late, great Victor Feldman and his legendary pocket! One of the most revered, unsung session keyboardists of all time, Feldman was also a session percussionist, which perhaps explains his relentless groove. Ex. 3 is in the style of a celebrated Steely Dan track on which Victor was both swinging hard and laying way on the backside of the beat. Pulling off such a sexy and relaxed feel takes a lot of discipline. If this is rushed even slightly, it loses all its vibe.


4. Mid-Tempo Rock

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Ex. 4 is another exercise in pulsing eighth-notes, where the piano provides the drive of the song. It’s difficult here to accent the anticipations without rushing them. Also, on a more rocking song, the piano will most likely be played at a louder volume, and the tendency can be to rush or “push” when playing harder. So lay back, even while laying into it!


5. Sixteenth-Note Ballad

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In Ex. 5, each sixteenth-note must hopefully “breathe” in feel while still maintaining metronomic time. The pianist should sound relaxed, but I assure you when the red recording light is on and the spotlight is on you, relaxing and sounding “ballad-like” isn’t that easy.

 

Your DAW as Practice Partner

In all of these examples, try recording ‘on the grid’ to a click track in Pro Tools, Logic, or your software of choice, without quantizing. (Also, recording actual audio, not just MIDI). Then check yourself, both visually on the grid and by listening. Then, mute your DAW’s click and listen to see if your piano performance alone feels good,” says Jeff Babko. Best known for his longtime spot in the house band on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he has also recorded with Jason Mraz, Sheryl Crow, and Alanis Morrissette. Babko’s latest album Crux is out now. Find out more at jeffbabko.com.

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