Tony Beliveau of Crash Kings could be regarded as a keyboard hero right off the bat. Not only does his keyboard-fronted power trio rock your face off on their self-titled debut album, but their chops and songwriting are mature and memorable. Did we mention that he plays a rare Kawai EP- 308 piano (Kawai’s answer to the Yamaha CP series of electric grands) topped by a Hohner Clavinet he modded with a wicked whammy bar on top? Although Crash Kings has no guitar player, Tony gets a big-guitar sound out of that Clav you might expect from any of the other bands in this issue. We spoke with him and found out how.
How do you use keyboards differently than most bands that have a keyboard player?
I’d consider myself more of a piano player and less of a keyboard player. Most keyboard players I see in bands are usually not the frontman, and the keyboards aren’t the featured instrument. Since Crash Kings doesn’t have a guitarist, we have some space to fill. I love playing big spread chords on the piano, with octaves in the bass. I try to find melodies inside the chord progression that can be subtle yet help support the vocal melody. In many ways, I’m very interested in making the piano sound more like a guitar than a piano! I try to stay away from too many seventh chords, instead using pleasant tensions like ninths, 11ths, and 13ths on basic major and minor chords. Rhythmically, I love to try to push myself to play these chords in ways that aren’t as common.
You’re also known for making a Clav sound like a wall of guitars. . . .
My use of the Clavinet is much different since I’m using a whammy bar, then running it through pedals into a vintage tube amp. Since a Clavinet is essentially an electric guitar controlled by a piano keyboard, with real strings and pickups, I visualized playing it to make it sound just like a guitar. The idea of bending notes on a keyboard wasn’t foreign, since you can do that on most synths. But there was a bit of a learning curve to playing this modified Clavinet. Once I got the hang of it, it was the most empowering feeling!
Who or what was the first player or song that made you see keyboards as legitimate for heavy rock?
Jon Lord fromDeep Purple takes it on this score.Not only was he a monster keyboard player, his tone on the organ was so bad-ass and heavy. Emerson, Lake, & Palmer—and King Crimson—were other huge bands that made me see keyboards as a serious rock instrument. Keith Emerson was just a madman on the keys. He had more of a classical background, but these guys were just epic. Frank Zappa had some gnarly, heavy keyboard and piano stuff going on. As “jazz” as they may be, Medeski, Martin, and Wood created some heavy-sounding instrumental keyboard rock. I was introduced to Ben Folds Five in the ’90s, and got really intrigued with how Ben played piano. His approach was heavier than most pianists I’d seen, yet he definitely infused a lot of jazz into the band. When we were creating Crash Kings, we wanted to keep away from obvious “jazz chords” and riffs, and stick to more simple rock while still infusing certain tensions to make the chords sound tastier.
What do you think it is about your keyboard technique—piano and Clavinet—that rocks so hard no one misses the guitar player?
I love using octaves in the left hand for rock piano. Sparingly, I’ll use the fifth in there, but it gets a bit muddy at times. I love playing four- or fivenote chords using a simple sixteenth-note pattern, but accenting certain beats. Doing this consistently and in good time took awhile for me to master. On my Clavinet, it’s about thinking like a guitarist. When you play an E, bending the whammy bar up can get you to an F or F#, so you have to think ahead. For guitar players, that’s built into learning the guitar. It’s not something most piano players need to think about, since they can’t bend piano strings—yet! Something people may not know is that I fix most of my own equipment. When I got my Clav, I did a ton of research, ordered new strings and hammer tips, and installed them. There were no instructions on how to do this whammy bar mod, so I just had to figure it out. I break strings all the time, so I have to replace them all the time. I also break low bass strings on the piano I travel with, and I replace those as well! I used to tune and repair my Fender Rhodes and some of my friends’ Rhodes, so I was no stranger to fixing vintage keyboards.
What are your suggestions for how to practice?
I’d say just play what you love—and visualization is key. Always visualize what you want to play, how you want to play it, and how you want to look when you’re playing it. I practice just as much in my head as I do physically on the piano. In college, I’d play until my wrists and fingers hurt, then stop. It’s very important to stop playing when you feel any pain. I’ve seen friends injure themselves and have to drop out of music school for awhile because they kept playing even when in a lot of pain. You can build up your strength with time as long as you don’t hurt yourself.
At the same time, I think it’s important to push yourself to play things beyond your technical ability. Learning everything I could about jazz piano helped me with writing and performing rock piano. By no means am I a great jazz pianist—I know so many amazing cats who can walk all over me! But using subtle aspects of jazz and blues in rock has helped me discover chords that make our sound a bit more sophisticated than other rock bands. Another huge benefit is to learn every inversion for every chord you know. Try to master every song you know in every other key. These are things I’m still working on. That’s what keeps me going: knowing that I’ll never be as good as I want to be.
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