Growing up in Southern California, I was acutely aware of
its session scene, with guys like David Paich, Steve Porcaro, Greg
Phillinganes, Victor Feldman, and other heavy hitters covering every
conceivable keyboard gig. It’s tough to encapsulate what makes a
successful session in just a few quick examples because being a
“supportive player” truly depends on your surroundings and how you
artfully react to the artist, the melody, the lyrics, and the other
musicians. Here are some tips and tricks I employ on a regular basis
that I hope help you on your next session.
1. The “Jonathan Cain”
Ex. 1 references Cain’s brilliant piano part on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which redefined pop piano. The pulsing quarter-note “open B5” motif is the constant here. You probably notice that the “B fifth” continues through bar 2 over the F# chord. B shouldn’t work in an F# chord, but here it provides a nice consistency, and that open fifth doesn’t usually clash in pop music. (We do hint at the A#
in the latter half of the bar.) The eighth-notes in bars 2 and 4
provide motion. With this open fifth pulsing being so simple, there are
many ways the player can subtly provide basic motion that don’t get in
the way but still sounds interesting. You could request a nice
quarter-note delay in the DAW, or otherwise treat it like a guitar
player might treat her sonic options.
2. The Hook
Sometimes an artist or producer will want to hear some
sort of “hook” from the keyboard department; something “catchy” that
adds to a simple chord progression. You’ll want to make sure it neither
clashes with the guitar part (or anyone else’s) nor steps on the melody.
In Ex. 2 the hook is repeated with variations through bars 1-3,
with a change on bar 4 to build the end of the phrase. I chose notes for
the hook motif that are as neutral as possible while navigating through
all the chords in the progression. I think of this as finding the
“lowest common denominator:” Find whatever notes work through the whole
chunk of music and milk ’em! In pop music, simpler is usually better.
3. The Driving Pulse
Ex. 3 is a driving eighth-note idea that gives the
chorus a pulse and a sense of forward motion. Many variations are
possible. Remember to stay neutral, find your “lowest common
denominator” notes, and drive through the progression under (but not
against) the melody.
4. Drop the One
In Ex. 4 we’re just leaving out beat 1. Again, we
employ a simple motif where the rhythm repeats, but the notes and
inversions vary a bit.
5. The “Singer-Songwriter”
Sometimes I’ll ask a session’s producer if I should be
playing the piano as if I wrote the song. This can get murky with a
band, as often singer-songwriters that write at the piano are used to
playing their songs solo. This means that the piano solely provides the
rhythm, bass, and basic propulsion for the music. When playing with a
band, sometimes this can be too much information and clash with the bass
and drums. But that “songwriter” vibe is distinct, as proven by John
Lennon’s “Imagine” and most of Elton John’s and Billy Joel’s work.
Join the Click Clique
“Locking to the click, or even laying on
the back side of it, is of paramount importance when keyboard players
want to make a track feel good. Keyboardists have a tendency to rush. Your ability to lock with a click immediately defines your maturity,” says Jeff Babko, best known for his spot in the house band on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He has recorded with Frank Ocean, Jason Mraz, Sheryl Crow, and Alanis Morrisette. Babko’s new album Crux is out now. Find out more at jeffbabko.com.