Derek Sherinian just may be the keyboardist laureate of hard rock. His touring and recording career, which began after just three semesters at Berklee College of Music, has included stints with Alice Cooper (who dubbed Derek “the Caligula of keyboards”), Billy Idol, Dream Theater, and Kiss. His last solo album, Molecular Heinosity (see Keyboard, Aug. ’09) featured metal monster Zakk Wylde on guitar. Now, he’s one-fourth of roots rock supergroup Black Country Communion, whose eponymous CD dropped September 21. It’s a confluence of rock greats—his bandmates are (left to right) bluesman Joe Bonamassa, who at age 12 played with B.B. King and has since matured into one of the most tasteful and critically acclaimed powerguitarists in rock; bassist and lead vocalist Glenn Hughes of post-Glover Deep Purple fame; and Led Zeppelin progeny Jason Bonham on drums.
How do you use keyboards differently than most bands that have a keyboard player?
Keyboards have a bad reputation in hard rock music for adding a cheese factor. I place great importance on using ballsy sounds that are timeless and contribute to the music. A distorted Hammond B-3 will always be cool. I’ve also been running my Nord Electro 3 through my hot-rodded Leslie 147 using Mellotron and Wurlitzer sounds. It sounds killer.
How should keyboardists who aim to be taken seriously as rockers avoid this cheese factor?
You want to stay away from anything that sounds like it could be from a video game. Always exercise quality control. For example, I cringe every time I hear someone play an organ patch on a synth and use the modulation wheel for the Leslie effect. Also, if you’re going to use piano sounds, make sure that they’re quality samples if you can’t mike up and play the real thing. I’m also not a big fan of gadgets such as keytars.
Who were the first players that made you see keyboards as a legit instrument for heavier rock?
Jon Lord’s Hammond sound on “Highway Star” by Deep Purple was a big ear-opener for me. Jan Hammer inspired me with his guitaristic approach. Also, there’s Jens Johansson’s playing on the early Yngwie Malmsteen records.
Describe a skill, way you use keyboards, or other type of approach that fans of your music might be surprised to find out you use.
Zakk Wylde gave me one of his MXR Signature overdrive pedals. I run my Nord Lead 3 through it for unison leads, and to beef up the low end when I’m doubling the rhythm guitar. I’ve also run my Nord through Zakk’s Marshall stack, which sounds pretty massive. Keyboards, especially digital ones, are cold instruments. I do everything I can to humanize and ballsify them.
You’ve been playing alongside wall-of-guitar artists your entire career. What was distinct about fitting your sound and style into Black Country, as opposed to, say, Alice Cooper or Billy Idol?
Alice and Billy are established artists, so there’s pretty much a script to follow with them. Black Country, on the other hand, is a band that I’m in from ground up, so there’s a lot more freedom. The band is very rooted in classic rock, with some progressive moments. I hope on the next record to push the envelope a bit more and widen the range of keyboards that I use.
What were the main synths and sounds used in this project?
On the Black Country Communion record, I used 95 percent Hammond B-3. There were two songs for which I used a vintage Mellotron from the ’60s—I’m not sure of the exact model. I also used my Korg M3 for some textures, but it was nice to really squeeze as much juice out of the B-3 as possible to make it the primary color of the keyboards.
What are your suggestions to fans and aspiring keyboard shredders for how to practice— and what material to practice?
I think the most important thing is to practice the style that you enjoy the most. It’s important to have a command of your instrument by learning the rudiments. Try always to surround yourself with musicians that are more developed than you are. You should also place great emphasis on your sounds.
We’ve talked before about the reverse-tilt stands that give people a better view of your hands. Any luck bringing those to the mass market?
No, but I have noticed a lot of keyboardists using similarly customized stands. I saw a guy rocking the tilted stand on Soul Train recently.
What’s your personal favorite “shred moment” in your career?
Most of those moments are on any of my solo or Planet X records because I had complete creative freedom there. There are some ripping moments from my tenure with Dream Theater. BCC is a guitar-dominated album, but we really wanted to fill the available spaces with oldschool B-3, so I’m mainly gluing things together in that respect. Live, though, I’ll make sure to get some extended solos so I can vent.
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