5 Things Sam Barsh Has Learned About Playing Hip-Hop Keys

Music and career tips from a pro
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After studying classical music as a child and being immersed in the jazz scene for years, I began working in the hip-hop/R&B world. Though there is some overlap between genres, there are certain skills that are specific to playing modern urban music. Here are five of the most important ones

1. Know Your History

Hip-hop has been around for 40 years and R&B has been around for much longer, and both genres have gone through a number of distinct phases. Though today’s mainstream music may not resemble the earlier years of these styles, artists and producers still draw from the past to create their work. Familiarize yourself with funk, neo-soul, classic hip-hop, and R&B from the 1950s through today. The more you know, the more your value will increase in this crowded, competitive field.

2.Keep Current with Sounds

While Rhodes, piano and vintage synths remain a big part of the music, the computer-centric world of modern hip-hop and R&B production utilizes an ever-evolving palette of sounds. Study the work of cutting-edge producers and research what synthesizers and plug-in sound banks they’re using. If you can’t afford to upgrade your sound library, learn to emulate these sounds with what you already have, and build upon them to create your own unique patches.

3. Effects Are Your Friends

An effective way to get the most out of your sound arsenal is to utilize effects. Often times, I’ll do a gig using only a Rhodes and Wurlitzer, but by adding delay, reverb, and chorus, and tweaking the release and attack filter, I create the illusion of having used many different patches. These effects can add a ton of vibe to an otherwise uninspiring preset.

4. Feel is King

There are no notes, chords, or sounds that are specific only to hip-hop and R&B. The main thing that sets these genres apart is the feel. Laying back behind the beat while still keeping solid time, and in-the-pocket funk playing are absolutely crucial. You’ll know you’re doing it right when people in the audience are either dancing, doing the classic hip-hop head nod, or both!

5. Beware of the Seemingly Simple Song

Many modern hip-hop and R&B songs are based on simple loops or standard forms, but some are not. Often times, there will be little things like an extra bar or an important hit, and not knowing where they are can throw off the artist and waste valuable studio or rehearsal time. Learning songs that are the same 95 percent of the time, but have one small change, can be more challenging than songs that are constantly moving. Do your homework and come to every situation prepared. People will take notice.!

Sam Barsh is a keyboardist, songwriter and producer who has appeared on over 65 recordings to date, including recent releases by Anderson .Paak, Ty Dolla $ign, and Eminem. Barsh co-wrote Aloe Blaac’s Number One song “The Man,” and he worked on Kendrick Lamar’s multiple Grammy Award-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly. Find-out more at sambarsh.com.