One-Handed Keys

November 20, 2012

WHETHER YOU’RE A KEYBOARD-PLUS-HORN PLAYER LIKE ME, or you're just looking for lean, mean parts to play on the fly, there’s a one-handed keyboard part for just about everyone.

I concocted the following strategy out of necessity. I found myself onstage without a horn section behind me, and at times I needed to transition seamlessly from playing my sax to soloing on keys. When I was playing songs with memorable melodies and hooks (like the violin line from Dave Matthews’ “Ants Marching”), I discovered it was effective to comp the strings on a keyboard with my right hand while playing harmony on a sax with my left. This let me fill out the song as a single instrumentalist. Horn players have a limited number of notes to work with when playing with just one hand, so I always try to make the most out of everything I play. Of course, you don’t have to play two instruments at once to benefit from one-handed keyboard parts. Here are three effective ones for doubling lines your bandmates play—or for playing with layered patches on your own.

CLICK HERE for audio examples, and click each sheet music thumbnail to enlarge it.

.1. Clavinet Doubles Horn Lines
Ex. 1 is a funky lounge groove where I double my sax line with a wah-wah Clav sound. Doubling a horn or other instrumental line in this manner imparts a sonic punch to any riff you want to fatten and accentuate. You can also try filling out a melodic line by comping chords around it using just one hand. This adds flavor and depth to single-note lines.

.2. Synth Doubles Horn Swells
Doubling horn swells on keyboards is another effective way to add interest and intrigue to a musical passage. It helps to pick a patch that has ample sustain, and to make sure to use a volume pedal to swell in and out with the horns. This can be seen in Ex. 2.


.3. Unison Lines with Keys and Horns
Unison lines, riffs, and motifs played by an entire ensemble are a great way to draw attention to a particular point in your music. They can also help a band strengthen its groove and communication. Often times, I like to create unison lines that are doubled between horns and keyboards, as in Ex. 3. When placed over a bass part that plays the same rhythmic riff, this takes on an old-school life of its own!

Practice Tip
“Sometimes just a few notes played in the right place can create an unforgettable musical mood. To me, this is one of the foundations of improvisation,” says Michael Ghegan, who has performed with Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Michael Bolton, Colin Hay, and Cirque du Soleil, among others. “Simple but searing one-handed parts can often be more effective than full two-handed structures.” Ghegan is currently working on a plethora of projects both for both the stage and studio. Find out more at

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