Keith Emerson Interviewed by You

What can we say about Keith Emerson that hasn’t been said already? Nothing.

What can we say about Keith Emerson that hasn’t been said already? Nothing. That’s why this time, you’re asking the questions. This isn’t your typical Keyboard cover story. No lengthy intro, no gear diagrams, no author trying to be erudite. Just the father of progressive rock keyboards answering questions you posed via our Keyboard Corner forum ( and Facebook page ( As you’ll see, Keith had a lot to say, and we think this may be our best—make that your best—story about him ever.

[We’ve identified questions by your user names, typed as you type them online. Occasionally and briefly, editor Stephen Fortner (SF) interjects to keep the conversation flowing. Originally, we’d planned on Emerson and Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman being in the same conversation, but were unable to schedule Rick in time for this issue. He’ll answer these questions and others in the January 2011 issue. –Ed.]

tonysounds:Of all the gear you’ve owned and played, which is your favorite instrument, bar none? And of the synths you no longer own, which one do you miss the most?

Keith Emerson: I’d always want a piano around. I’ve actually got two Steinways, one nine-footer and one seven-footer, in storage in London. At the moment, I don’t have any place to put them unless I moved into the nine-footer, you know, closed the lid down and lived in it [laughs].

Also, I really enjoyed the Yamaha GX-1, and do miss it a great deal. It looks impressive, like a real instrument. Anything that takes such a large number of roadies to move should be impressive, don’t you think? [Laughs.]

Stephen Fortner:Do you still have a working version?

KE: No. Back when I had it, a truck lost its steering and drove straight into my barn recording studio. It was lucky I wasn’t there at the time, because I would’ve been playing away and the next second I’d have a tractor with a whole trailer of logs behind it go into my back. Somehow my nine-foot Steinway avoided being hit, but the tractor had shoved the GX-1 to the other side of the studio—it was bad news.

johnchop: Which recent developments in music technology excite you the most as a means to musical expression? For example, soft synths? The resurgence of analog?

KE: Personally, I’ve always liked analog because it’s hands-on and it makes the keyboard player look very active. When people see you twiddling knobs and putting patch cables in, and they immediately hear the result of your activity, I think it adds to the performance. With digital or pushing buttons or little display screens that keyboard players can see in front of them, it’s all well and good, but I don’t think the audience responds the same way—they’ve come to say, “Well, of course he can get that because it’s all there.” But the activity of a keyboard player is as important as seeing a guitar player fling his arms around or play it with his teeth.

I think the great thing about the big Moog modular system is that it’s very theatrical—it has its own light show and you really have to fight your way around it. Here’s this guy playing away and when he takes a jack plug from here and places it there, the audience hears the change and it’s obvious it’s not pre-recorded. I’ve always felt that keyboard players are situated behind a piece of furniture from the audience’s point of view, apart from classical pianists where you’ve got a grand piano onstage and there’s no doubt that that guy is actually playing what he’s playing, but these days a lot can be sequenced. I have used sequences to a certain degree in my time, as a means to an end, but it’s not something I’m proud of.

SF: You’ve certainly used them less than just about anyone. . . .

KE: Well, it’s much better than Madonna being criticized by Elton John, like, “She’s a performer? She mimes!” People can get very bitchy in this business, and I have to be careful because people just dive on me: “What do you mean you use sequences?” So I’ll just say categorically: I hate sequences!

johnchop (continued): How does it make you feel when you see a “Lucky Man” preset on nearly every synth made?

KE: It’s very flattering, and sometimes, rather funny. You need at least four octaves to play it properly, and I remember about 15 years ago I was on the Howard Stern show, and they gave me this little two-octave keyboard! I think everyone sort of jokes about that “Lucky Man” solo now— you know, oo-ee-oo-ee, oo-ee-oo-ee, “Thank you, goodnight!” [Laughs.]

Joe Muscara:Do you do pick-up gigs in smaller venues anywhere?

ProfD:. . If so, what sort of monitoring rig do you personally carry to the gig, if any?

KE: They’re coming up with loads of wonderful amps that a keyboard player can just carry around. I just saw P. P. Arnold, the lady I started off backing in the ’60s, and I was intrigued by her keyboard player. He had a very presentable Hammond B-3 sound, augmented by his speaker system, which simulated the Leslie’s Doppler sound.

SF: Was it a Motion Sound? Sort of a mini-Leslie with physical rotors inside?

KE: Yeah, I think that was it. It really helped the B-3 sound he had on this other keyboard. Anyway, if I want to sit in with a band, I may just use their keyboards and their monitors. Else, I’ll bring along this little Behringer amp I have. It’s great to carry for sit-ins and house gigs.

SF:How did you settle on the Behringer?

KE: In Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to sit in with a local jazz unit, so I went into [retailer] West L.A. Music and asked, “What amp do you recommend?” They said, “This one.” I said, “Fine, put it in the car.”

Bill H.:What work are you proudest of? And the flip side of the coin: Is there any session you wish you could do over?

KE: I’m probably most fond of my Piano Concerto and Tarkus, because these pieces are now performed all over the world by some great orchestras and keyboardists. I’m very proud of the Tokyo Philharmonic’s version of Tarkus because I never thought I’d see the day where an orchestra would actually play that stuff. It’s like 90 people playing—it just blew me away.

As to things I wish I could do over, no, not really. Because I’ve always put a lot of pre-thought and construction into all of my work. There were possibly things that happened when you want other people to play your music, though. Maybe there’s one wrong note in the score somewhere. I’ve come across that when I’ve been in the audience and there’s this one note! I’ve called publishers and said, “Hang on, what’s that at bar 500-and-something?” It’s like writing an autobiography, which I’ve actually done. When you read through the proof, occasionally there’s going to be one word that puts everything out of context. The same happens with music, even more so when writing for an orchestra. You’ve got to be vigilant. If there’s a horn playing a flattened B and it should be a natural, simple stuff like that can throw the whole piece totally.

16251: When you soloed on the classic albums, how much of it was improvisation and how much was worked out beforehand?

KE: Well, Pictures at an Exhibition was recorded live, with no editing or overdubbing. What you hear is exactly what happened on that particular night. Going on to Trilogy, those solos were all improvised. Tarkus? Pretty much all improvised. On occasions, I’d have a leaping-off point in my head: “Okay, this bit is obviously a keyboard solo, so if I dry up on a recording session I’ll use this launching pad to inspire me to go on.”

Of course, when you play a classic tune live, people want to hear the same solo, so sometimes I’d have to re-learn what I’d improvised in the studio. It was especially funny in the case of “Lucky Man,” as I’d played that solo many years before but knew what was expected of me. I actually got help from your magazine! I called up [then editor] Dominic Milano and said, “Dominic, you might think this is very funny, but I need a transcription of the “Lucky Man” solo, because I’m damned if I can get it off the record!” [Laughs.]

Jeff Klopmeyer:I’m a seasoned live performer and inexplicably run into random episodes of stage fright, even after hundreds of live shows. What do you think triggers that, and what can be done to prevent it?

KE: Butterflies! A very good friend of mine once called while driving his daughter to her first piano recital. I was in California but he was in England so the phone call is at about 8 A.M. for me. My friend says, “She’s very nervous. She’s got butterflies.” He hands the phone to her, and I say hello to this little six-year-old. “So you’ve got butterflies? You’ve got to keep those butterflies inside you,” I told her. “When you get up on the stage to play your piece, which you know very well, all those butterflies will just fly out of you.”

The story comes full circle. ELP recently played the High Voltage Festival in the U.K., and I was very apprehensive about the delay in getting the gear onstage. All the vintage Moog stuff is very sensitive, and as at many large festivals, there’s no sound check—you just haul everything on. We were shooting a DVD there, and I was wondering if anything would work at all, let alone be recorded. My friend’s daughter, who’s now about 14, was there, and could see how upset I was. She told me, “You have to let all those butterflies fly out of you.”

The Real MC: What are your memories of Bob Moog?

KE: What a sweetheart. He felt this eternal wonderment that his creations could be used to such entertaining effect all over the world. I’ll always remember the time he came to an ELP show at Gaelic Park in New York City. I situated him somewhere onstage, and he couldn’t believe the confidence I had in his synthesizer, and the fact that so many people in the audience marveled that it was being used to such wonderful effect in a live concert.

I came into [the Moog synthesizer] after I’d heard it on Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach album. Up until that time, Bob’s creation had been used purely in studios. Then, he saw a lot of the early ELP performances we did in America, and heard “Lucky Man.” I think that was the turning point when he realized the Moog was not only a studio extension, but could be marketable for live musicians.

I don’t think Bob had any idea that it would come this far. In fact, every time I play my big Moog modular, I can hear Bob laughing up there. I’m so pleased that his daughter Michelle is looking after things, and the Moog name is to synths as Steinway is to pianos and Hammond is to organs. I also think Korg synths are wonderful, but the Moog is the synth in the same way that the Spitfire—for those of us in England—is the airplane.

Tim Wat:What still drives you to create? What still excites you about playing after accomplishing so much in your career?

KE: Exploring other compositional and harmonic directions and new sonorities while using a very limited scale of 12 notes. I remember when I was writing the music for the Emerson Lake & Powell album, and Cozy Powell came down to my Sussex barn studio along with Greg Lake. I had this magnificent old house, which had a very squeaky gate. Every time I swung the gate, it would “sing” four notes, and I thought that was absolutely marvelous. Using these four notes, I wrote what became “Learning to Fly.” I pick up on different things. I had a parrot that was very vocal. One evening, he was singing all these lovely melodies, and I ran to the keyboard and added chords. I actually had to record that. Sadly, Smokey has now died but I think while he was living, he was looking for his BMI royalties.

SF: Do you often find inspiration in “found sounds” or ambiences like that?

KE: I do. It makes me rather boring at parties. I’m slightly deaf so I don’t really discern the difference between T and S sounds, for example. So all the chatter becomes rhythmic, so I’ll just sit there on my own and chart a rhythm. I started off this way when I wrote for the Nice. We were flying back from some gig in Ireland, I put my head against the window, and the roar of the aircraft engines prompted a fifth and a fourth and kept changing. I actually drew some bar lines and wrote out a theme on an airsick bag, which became the beginning of The Five Bridges Suite. I still have that airsick bag. It might be interesting to put on eBay—I could say, “Will trade for Yamaha GX-1!” [Laughs.]

Bryan Eyberg: How actively and how much do you still practice ragtime piano?

KE: I’ve always been into ragtime. In England—and I’m sure Rick Wakeman would concur—we loved Winifred Atwell, a fantastic honky-tonk and ragtime player. She was very popular in the mid-’50s, and her style was taken on by pop performers such as Russ Conway. Every pop song of the ’50s had to have some sort of piano. When you speak to Wakeman, he’ll have something to say about a lot of these players, because ragtime affected us quite a lot.

So, my style of playing came from my father’s influence. He wanted me never to become a “one-handed piano player.” That’s why I concentrated on Bach early on. Ragtime also has a lot going on in the left hand. When I was 14, I couldn’t stretch [my hand] to a tenth, so . . . say you’re playing a C major stride thing. I’d play the lower C of the octave, then leap up to the E above the next C. In ragtime, you either strike up from the C to the E, or you can go backwards—you strike down from the E to that lower C. I normally went up, because at least if you state the root of the chord first, but fail to hit the tenth, you can be slightly forgiven.

ELP71:Keith, did ELP ever think about scaling down, exploring jazz, and playing smaller venues?

KE: I think Spinal Tap put it very well: If you’re a jazz musician, there are no wrong notes. And if you do make a mistake, play it over and over so it looks intentional [laughs]. Seriously, I’m personally very fortunate to have played with Oscar Peterson, Brother Jack McDuff, and others in the field. I don’t know what ELP would sound like because we haven’t tried it. Carl Palmer is a very technical drummer, and he has played with big bands as I have, but I think that what draws out the jazz aspects of my playing is playing with other people who are themselves schooled jazz musicians. And as much as I could be tempted to bring the Moog in and make it roaring loud, that’s not the route I’d go if I were to play in a smaller unit.

SF:I think that reader ELP71’s question came from the natural curiosity of, “What if ELP did something totally different?”

KE: It is an interesting question. Once, we tried to record Booker T.’s “Green Onions.” I don’t know whose idea it was, but there’s only one “Green Onions,” and that’s Booker’s version. Even the great Jeff Beck said it’s one of the most difficult tunes even though it’s such a seemingly simple riff. You hear every bar band play “Green Onions” and you’re like, “Oh, get out!” But if anyone shouldn’t go there, it’s ELP! [Laughs.]

Bosendorphin:Is there any possibility you and Rick Wakeman would tour together in more intimate settings?

KE: We’ve spoken about it. I think the last time was at the MoogFest at B.B. King’s club in New York, and Rick reckoned that he might bring some financiers to bear. I went on his Planet Rock radio show [] and we had a great laugh about it. We’ll see what happens, but yeah, we’re up for it.

McGoo:I’ve noticed you’re not big on using pitch and modulation wheels— at least not in the sense of players such as Jan Hammer. Can you discuss?

KE: While I’ve used pitch and mod from time to time, I find them to be unnecessary ornaments. I’d rather cut right to the bone and hit you hard with straight notes. Ornamentation is fine—Bach and Mozart have an awful lot of mordents and inverted mordents and cadenzas and the like— but for me it’s a bit superfluous. I prefer to be adding my own chords, stuff for my right hand to paint over. If you’re the keyboardist in a trio, you’ve got two hands. If there’s a guitarist or sax player soloing, you need to supply all the chords, which you can’t do if you’re pre-occupied operating all these controls.

tarkus:Outside of your bandmates in ELP, who was the best musician you’ve played with?

KE: It depends what instrument—that’s a difficult question. I’d love to say Oscar Peterson, but I can’t say we’ve collaborated, except that I was in awe when he said, “Will you conduct ‘Honky-Tonk Train Blues’ and let me know when you want me to start playing?” That blew me away. Obviously, I’m still in awe of all the heroes I grew up worshipping, and I’m very fortunate to have met most of them and, on some occasions, played with them. As a keyboard player, you can’t go much farther than Oscar Peterson. I still watch that BBC TV thing we did, which I think is probably on YouTube, and onscreen I look like I’m facing Armageddon. But Oscar was a real sweetheart—just great.

Tom A.:Please expound on the pluses and minuses of the digital revolution on music and the music biz, e.g. low-cost, high-quality recording equipment on one hand, piracy on the other.

KE: I’m all for encouraging young talent—even if it takes sequencers and modern-day equipment to make them realize what they’re capable of. I do think the new generation coming up wants immediate satisfaction. This is dangerous in one way: If you have to work at something, then you appreciate it a hell of a lot more at the end of the day. It’s good that technology allows someone with even a rough knowledge of music to go, “Wow, I did that!” But what they have to learn after that is how to make it presentable to an audience, whether parts they’ve sequenced or recorded can be played live . . . and then, where to take it next.

Tom, your question also concerned piracy. Most artists like ELP reinvest their profits into future recordings and touring—yet pirates are the first to complain if tours are cancelled! Because of downloading and piracy, the next generation of musicians will find themselves denigrated to the level of the 17th-century minstrel, going from tavern to tavern, playing for food, beer, and a bed for the night, maybe selling a song here and there.

SF:If you’re an up-and-coming band in America and you sign a “360 deal,” it’s already like that!

KE: Exactly. Piracy is more the reason that real players are a dying species. It’s not because some kid can make a sequence on a computer.

wjk:Is there a piece of music from Rick Wakeman’s catalog you wish you’d recorded?

KE: “Elizabethan Rock.” I think some people tend to regard us [British rockers] as not very humorous, and Rick’s humor and Englishness come across wonderfully in that piece. Another piece of Rick’s I really like is “The Palais,” which borders between melodic and ragtime.

wjk (continued): What keyboardists out of your contemporaries do you feel should have received greater recognition?

KE: Without a shadow of a doubt, Brian Auger and the Oblivion Express.

wjk (continued): You get your pick of four people for your dream band— living or deceased, but no one that you’ve played publicly with before.

KE: Rick Wakeman, Louis Armstrong, Spike Jones, and P.D.Q. Bach. Apart from having wonderful senses of humor, they’re all great musicians.

Wesley R. Dysart:How do you connect with the source of your creativity?
It’s more as if it connects with me. It gets back to a previous question about listening to squeaky gates, a parrot that sings silly tunes, et cetera.

Brian Burgon:What would you like to see happen with the next chapter of keyboard technology?

KE: Programmable roadies, with mind-to-MIDI interfaces! [Laughs.]

Ron Cholfin: Are there any keyboards you’ve regretted using? What was the worst gear nightmare of your career?

KE: Though you’re always at the mercy of electronics, I once played a piano ELP had asked for that, to my horror, had several notes missing. I had to play a piano solo, so I used this, hopefully to great humorous advantage. I pointed out the notes to the audience: “Okay this A here and the B next to it—the hammers are missing so whenever you see my fingers go up to the top end of the keyboard, I want you to sing these notes!”

SF:Facebook friends Tom Bitondo and Thalia Stevens ask related questions: Have you ever thought about publishing a volume of rock études? Or offering master classes so that students can pass along your technique as they did for Mozart, Beethoven, and other greats?

KE: Quite honestly, I think Rick [Wakeman] is the guy to get that going. I don’t really want to sit down and analyze what makes what I do happen. A lot of what I write comes after much torturous self-examination, and the idea of an étude is a bit anomalous in rock, where more than half of what happens is accidental. When I practice, I tend to play the usual exercises—like Hanon.

Juan Oskar JayMaynes: How do you create alternative chord changes to standard songs?

KE: I love this challenge, particularly Hoagy Carmichael—I came up with some great changes to “Skylark” recently. It’s encouraging; you keep playing but you disguise it in all these colorations above and below. It’s like England at Christmas, where choirs sing standard carols, but then they get into descant and sing above and underneath the main melody.

Hammodel AV:Was there an underlying social or musical culture that made English musicians essentially create the genre of prog rock?

KE: I once asked [Deep Purple keyboardist] Jon Lord this, and he said, “Man, there must have been something in the water we were drinking!” [Laughs.]

SF:We’re going to close with a question I know is sensitive. Given your arm surgery in the early ’90s, too many readers to name have inquired about the health of your hands.

KE: At this point, it hasn’t made too much of a difference in the way I approach music. I had this operation that I now know was unnecessary because I’ve seen a lot of other neurologists since. It destroyed a few nerve endings. I’ve had a long battle to overcome it, and for a time thought I was going to end up like João Carlos Martins, who had to give up playing with his right hand. I think where the original problem came from was a motorcycle accident where I got whiplash, as the ulnar nerve starts at your neck and goes down your arm. I’m getting better because I’ve learned to drop my wrists and relax my thumbs, and the good news is, I think my composition has actually improved. I may look awkward, but all musicians have their “stances”—Horowitz had very flat fingers, and Monk looked so awkward when he played that he felt embarrassed. When people at concerts ask me, “How’s your arm?” I usually respond, “Well, how did it sound?” If it sounded good, that’s all that matters. I’ll always find some way to get the f***ing music out!

Keith in Keyboard: Previous cover stories on Keith Emerson can be found in our October 1977, April 1988, June 1992, and April 1994 issue

How Keith Felt about Your Questions
I bought my first Hammond organ, I think, when I was about 15 or 16. It was the L-100, on “hire purchase”—what you’d call rent-to-own in America. But it just didn’t sound like Georgie Fame, a singer and keyboardist who was then quite popular in London. The main music paper was the Melody Maker, and they had a question-and-answer section. So I wrote to them asking Georgie how he amplified and miked up his Hammond—and I actually got a reply, which I have in a scrapbook. I haven’t met Georgie Fame but I’ve thought of going up to him and saying, “Do you remember me? I wrote you in 1950-something!” If I hadn’t gotten that reply, well . . . who knows? So I think these sorts of questions are very wonderful. --Keith Emerson