Crumbling stadiums, failing record labels, missing body parts -- Bon Jovi outlasts them all, and David Bryan has the secret. From the 2000 KEYBOARD Archives.

London's Wembley Stadium is rocking -- literally and figuratively. 72,000 people are swaying back and forth in perfect time, singing at the tops of their lungs (on pitch), and clapping on two and four (gotta love an English audience). It's one of the loudest sounds imaginable, and an emotional experience to behold. Not unruly in the least, the crowd is hyped up for two reasons. First, their favorite band, Bon Jovi, is onstage, though at times barely audible over the hubbub. Second, this is one of the last shows to be held at this venerable venue before the years, and so has the crowd. They're losing an old pal. But who's going to be there to help open the new Wembley in a couple of years? Bon Jovi, of course.

Similarly, the band weathered the re-organization (or destruction) of Mercury Records, their long-time label. It took a lot of work, according to keyboardist David Bryan -- but then, this band was founded on hard work. "When Polygram was sold, Universal came in and fired everybody we'd worked with for 16 years," he says. "They were just gone. So we had to re-educate the label. We put together a tape showing them what we'd done -- which was to sell 80 million records. Then we did a show in Chicago, and flew everybody from Universal [the parent company of the new label] out to show them what we're about -- live. Island Def Jam is a rap label. That's good news and bad news: The good news is that we're the only rock band on the label; the bad news is that we're the only rock band on the label. [Laughs.] But that's why we went there, because we knew we'd either get all of the attention -- or none of it. Once we did the show, the label was like, 'Wow!' Our shows aren't choreographed, they're not done to tape; it's rock 'n' roll, it's about feelin' it, and goin' for the emotion. Once they saw that, they converted."

Digit Disaster

But long before the label obstacle, David had a personal setback to overcome: A slip of a circular saw took the pad of his right-hand index finger off, right down to the bone. "Yeah, in two seconds, I thought it was all over," he says. "I looked at my hand, bleeding all over, and I thought, 'It's over. I f***ed up.' It was real bad. That first year... a year is forever... and at the end of that year of surgery and reconstruction, they said, 'You won't be able to do anything with that finger.'

"What kept me going? I just kicked myself in the a** for a year straight, looked upstairs and said, 'Okay, look. I've done a lot of good things, please give me some back, I need it now!" [Laughs.] I went through every prayer there is.

"After that first year, I started physical rehab, and the lightest touch made my finger feel like it was gettin' slammed in a car door. It was complete pain. They had to reset the nerve, which they do by poking and prodding, and by jamming your hand in sawdust, rocks, Legos, and ice. And by giving it shocks. Three hours a day, five days a week. For a year. It was torture, but -- it worked. I wanted to do whatever it took to get it to work again."

Doctors originally thought that David's finger would recover as much as it was going to at 18 months after the injury. But when the time came, the finger had recovered perhaps 10% of its former abilities. "I thought I was screwed," recalls David. "But then it started to heal. The doctor was amazed. Every day it got better and better. My fingers moved real slow when I started in with scales again, and every once in a while the hurt one would give me a real zing. But it's basically back to normal. So the finger that wasn't supposed to work is workin' perfectly," he laughs, "and the rest of me is fallin' apart."

David's damaged digit wasn't the only reason behind the five-year gap between These Days, which came out in 1995, and the arrival of Crush, Bon Jovi's new record on Island Def Jam. The band had planned to re-unite the production team with whom they'd created their biggest hits, Bruce Fairbairn and Bob Rock. But unexpectedly and tragically, Fairbairn passed away, leaving the band stunned. "That blew everything up," David laments, "and set us back even more." After auditioning several likely candidates, they hit on Luke Ebbin, who brought to the table not only many good ideas, but an up-to-date knowledge of production techniques.

Bon Jovi with drum loops? Well, yes and no. "Luke's younger than us, so he's more into that stuff," says David. "I've always shied away from the electronica angle in our music, because no one in the band ever wanted to hear it from me. The cool thing was that Luke could bring that in and we could try it out. But it never replaces the real drums, it just enhances them. It makes the record sound like a 20th-century production [laughs]." Besides an overall airtight sound, Ebbin's contribution to the mix is more along textural lines, making loops into a transparent overlay on the live drums, reversing the drum sound, or fattening up the keyboard sounds with filters. He also upheld the band's tradition on paying tribute to their own musical idols: You can't miss the occasional George Martin-style orchestrations as well as some Lennon and McCartney-like hooks. "For 'Next 100 Years,'" says David, "we asked David Campbell to do as Beatle-esque an orchestral arrangement as he could. And why not? There was nobody better than them."

Creative Frenzy

Tons of work had gone into the tunes before Ebbins [sic] arrived on the scene, however, most of it communal, and much of it done at Jon Bon Jovi's home studio in rural New Jersey. "It's great because it's only about 15 minutes from my house," says David. "We don't have to worry about another band needing the studio, so we can work at our leisure. We take the demos that Jon and Richie [Sambora, guitarist] have done and have a frenzy -- everybody throws in idea after idea.

"We usually have a greoove, and Jon will sit there and play, and we'll all say, 'Okay, I see what you're goin' for.' Then we try different things. We'll throw different chord changes into it. Tico will have ideas, maybe a keyboard idea, and maybe I'll have a drum idea. There's complete freedom; nobody feels like we're stepping on each other. An important part of creativity is not being embarassed to say something stupid. Sometimes you have to go down a lousy road to get to a beautiful place. It's those stupid ideas that sometimes lead you to think about something better."

When David gets down to creating his keyboard parts, he's guided by principles gleaned from years of songwriting and recording. "It's not about competing with the guitars," he advises. "It's about finding the right place to put your part. If they're going to play on two and four, you play in a hole between that. Create an overall pattern where you might leave a space, then fill two, then leave two, then fill the next. I learned a lot about this from Tony Levin, the bassist who played Richie's first solo tour." Until the finger debacle, David was Richie Sambora's keyboardist as well. "He was playing these bizarre bass lines, just the sort of lines that you shouldn't play -- and they worked. He played it all wrong, and it was all right [laughs].

"It's about adding melodic riffs: You're always trying to add melody, not just voicings. Even when you've got a wall of guitar sound in a tune, you've got range to work with -- you can go above the guitars. If you go above and make it airier, then your part will stick out.

"And when you get right down to it: Big sounds sound small, and small sounds sound big. That's how it is on records. Every synth stck you do sounds tiny. The more you pile it on, the less it is -- unless you're alone and it's a solo keyboard record. Then, sure, put on everything you've got in the whole house!"

For Crush, David kept to classics: Wurlitzer, Rhodes, Hammond B-3, Yamaha CP-80, Hohner Clavinet, Mellotron, and an assortment of vintage synths, including a couple of Roland Juno-106s and an ARP Solina. "Mostly," he says, "I played Hammond, Wurly, and Clav: The old keyboards that sound good -- it's a new sound now, y'know [laughs]. I always try to match the tone i play to what the song is saying. On the intro to to 'It's My Life,' I've got the CP-80 with a Memorymoog and a Juno-106 on the first part of the first bar, and two Juno-106s layered, with a filter sweep, on the second part. On 'Say It Isn't So,' I put my Wurly through a little Fender Vibrasonic, which pedal steel players used to love, because it's got a 15" speaker that can handle a lot of bottom end. We just dialed in the sound real quick, and recorded it. That's the great thing about old stuff: Just plug it in, turn it on, and go.

"We got a lot of weird sounds from a [Korg] Kaoss Pad that Luke brought. He had a couple of filter units, like an Electrix Filter Factory. So I played my old ARP Solina string machine through one of those, and it doesn't even sound like an ARP anymore, it's got such an underwater sound."

One of David's favorite parts on Crush is the odd woodwind and percussion intro to "I Got the Girl," a mambo-ish combination he came up with by playing multiple tape loops simultaneously through his Mellotron. "I found that if I played the loops together, I could make a song out of the songs on the loops. I made this groove, it was so cool, like some kind of lounge music. I was like, 'Jon, I know this is weird' -- and that's what we are, keyboard players are weird -- and I played it for him and he loved it."

Songwriting Secrets

David has always been an avid songwriter, penning many of the tunes for Richie Sambora's solo projects. Since recovering the use of his finger, though, he's undertaken the composition duties for not one, but two Broadway-bound musicals. "It's a whole new foray for me," he says. "It's interesting trying to make part of a story line into a verse/chorus/verse structure. I went to a lot of musicals to check it out before I started in on these projects, and I noticed that with most of them, you don't walk away feeling like you heard songs. It's fun to put my song ideas into this new direction, and the producers are looking for something new, too.

"One of them is the story of Dewey Phillips, the first guy to put black music on white radio -- way before Dick Clark. He just loved the soul of it. It's his life story. It's the best script I've ever read, and the lyrics are great. As I read the lyrics, I knew exactly what each song would be. I'd never worked backwards from completed lyrics before. It was like doing a puzzle.

"Normally, when I write a tune, I'll look for a lyric that's got a title in it. Then I'll work out a groove on the piano or organ. Then I have a little Yamaha PSR keyboard, and it's got the coolest R&B kind of grooves in it. You don't have to dial up anything complicated, it's just, 'Here's Groove 27, here's the tempo, here's a bass sound for the left hand, and an organ sound on the right.' It's like a scratch pad. I've written about a hundred songs on it, a lot of them for Ritchie [sic]. There are just enough grooves so it works."

David's publisher, John Titta at Warner Chappell, encourages him to collaborate with other songwriters, and when asked one time who he'd most like to partner with, he answered immediately: "I said right off, 'I wanna work with Dr. John.' So he put Mac [Rebennack] and me together, and we wrote a bunch of songs. Hopefully some will come out on his next record. We became pretty good friends. But the best part was just sitting next to him at the piano, and I could just say, 'Stop! What did you just do?' and he'd show me. So I learned a lot of cool voicings from him. I wrote a song for him, a real New Orleans-style thing, called "Love Is So Easy to Lose, but So Hard to Find." It was right up his alley, and after I played it for him, he said [imitating Dr. John's gravelly drawl], 'Hey, dat's a cool sawng.'"

Back in the Saddle

The ordeal(s) behind him, David seems free to enjoy life on the road with Bon Jovi, of which there is a great deal. Having toured Japan and Scandinavia by the time Keyboard caught up with them in London, the band had pretty much warmed up to the nightly chore of playing to 50,000-plus crowds across Europe. After that, it's back to the States, then down to South America, and then across the pond to South Africa.

"We space our tours out so we're out for a couple weeks, then home for 10 days or so," explains the father of two. "We're here for five weeks, and all our families came out too. They'll be here for ten days, then go home to start school. You don't want to give up on your life, as much as we wanna do this. We don't tour constantly anymore, we make time for the families."

After all he's been through, David says, "It's fun as hell to be back with Bon Jovi. I think we've reached that next level. We've been playing as a band for 16 years, and I've been with Jon for 22 years. It's always an emotional experience to play for this many people. You look at 72,000 people going mental and you just feel this energy. So you can see why we do what we do.

"You can't just turn left on your audience. You can push the envelope, but you can't leave it. I think 'It's My Life' is a seriously great song, it can touch everybody, from our old fans to kids -- are there are a lot of kids at our shows now who weren't alive when we started. That song is one of my favorite songs to play, it's one of those feel-good songs that you never get tired of playing. We're a live band, we love to play songs you know that make you feel good. That's why people stand up for the whole two and a half hours we play.

"And it seems to work. So far, we're at five million records sold with Crush. You never know if you're going to be current -- you just keep doing the best that you can."


In the old days, you could count on a Bon Jovi show to display a veritable warehouse of keyboard gear. "I used to haul around stacks and stacks of synths," admits David. "Now I just have two Akai S6000s -- and one of those is a back-up. I've got all my vintage gear and analog synths sampled on them. Me and my tech, Marty Galheart, sampled it all. With 256MB of RAM, I could do more sampling and less stretching [chromatic stretching up and down the keyboard]. On most sounds, I didn't even loop them, it's just a long sample.

"There's a lot going on onstage," he explains, "especially with the new tunes. My main keyboard is a Yamaha P-500. It doesn't have the usual MIDI delay or disconnect that I often feel with MIDI keyboards. It really plays like a piano. Then I have two Yamaha S80s, although even with the piano expansion boards installed, there's still too much delay when I play the piano sounds. That's why I keep bringing along my P500. The S80s mainly trigger the Akai. For organ sounds I use an Oberheim OB5 double-manual organ, run through a real Leslie. I need to have the two manuals; I'm too used to the real thing."

Besides just saving wear and tear on the vintage gear, David's all-MIDI rig helps with another aspect of Bon Jovi life. "We tune all our songs down a half-step, mostly to help out Jon having to sing night after night. So I transpose all the keyboards -- after all these years of playing these tunes in one key, it would drive me insane to have to play them in different keys. That always feels broken to me: It's wrong in my mind as a player. I had a real Hammond with me on our last tour, and it was drivin' me crazy playing in one key with one hand and another key on another keyboard."

As for the loops and bizarre sampled sounds on Crush, "I trigger those live myself from the Akai," says David. "[Drummer]Tico's time is great, we don't need a click. I just map those samples to one of my S80s and play them."