Playing keyboards in a rock band was always a thankless job. That is, until Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers made it cool.
Before Petty, keyboard players were generally afterthoughts in rock bands – underutilized and largely unnecessary. Who needed a synth solo or an extra piano part when guitar players could cover just about everything themselves with attitude to spare?
(I still remember dragging my gear to band rehearsals and dances as a teenager, standing aimlessly next to my keyboard stand when I wasn’t playing the odd synth stab or solo).
For many of us, the first time we discovered the sound of a Hammond organ or a Wurlitzer electric piano was on a Tom Petty record. With his keyboardist Benmont Tench, Petty found the perfect musical foil – an ace song player who could find just the right part to elevate a riff, punctuate a lyric, and make a chorus soar. And when it was time, he could rock as hard as anyone with a guitar.
When he guested last year for the column “5 Ways to Play Your Hammond Like a Heartbreaker,” Tench told us, “You can be just as effective by where you don’t play. Ask yourself, “What if I just waited?” Rock keyboards, previously known for pyrotechnical displays of virtuosity, now had a new, more nuanced champion who thought before he ripped!
Examples of Petty’s reliance on Tench’s artistry are everywhere in his recorded catalog - the Wurly part on “Breakdown,” the searing organ solos on “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That,” all a testament to Petty’s musical generosity and near symphonic sense of orchestration. His songs rocked harder when everyone got a chance to shine.
Time after time, when I’ve interviewed musicians for Keyboard and asked them what their overarching philosophy on playing is, more times than not they've answered with, “What would Benmont play?” For sure, the concept of playing in service to the song didn’t start with Tom Petty, but it was elevated to new, more rocking heights because of him and fellow Heartbreaker Benmont Tench.
So, as we mourn the passing of rock icon Tom Petty this week at the age of 66, let’s celebrate the myriad of musical gifts he left us with. And the fact that because of him, all of us who play keyboards rock a little harder.