Rick Wakeman Answers Your Questions

“I’m a techno producer and Rick Wakeman is my favorite keyboard player of all time,” wrote Wesley R. Dysart on our Facebook page.
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“I’m a techno producer and Rick Wakeman is my favorite keyboard player of all time,” wrote reader Wesley R. Dysart on our Facebook page. “I will never get tired of his music or his interviews. He’s a major influence on how I try to play!” We couldn’t have summed up the influence of Rick Wakeman better. While it comes as no surprise that the most memorable keyboardist from supergroup Yes is flagged as a hero by nearly every rock keyboardist we hear from, we’re continually impressed by the number of musicians working in electronica, hip-hop, and other genres you wouldn’t think have anything to do with baroque-influenced progressive rock, who say the very same thing. As we did last month with Wakeman’s colleague in greatness Keith Emerson, we wanted you, our readers, to do the interview. Since our original posts on the Keyboard Corner forum (forums.musicplayer.com) and Facebook (facebook.com/KeyboardMagazine) called for your questions for Keith and Rick at the same time, many of the questions will look familiar if you read last month’s issue.

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[As in last month’s cover story wherein Keith Emerson answered reader questions, we’ve identified questions by your user names, typed as you type them online. –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?

Rick Wakeman: The piano will always be the one I could never live without. On the piano, the true expression comes from the fingertips, and you have total control. I suppose that’s because it was the instrument I learned on from the age of five. So it’s bound to be the one I’m most attached to.

Of synths I no longer own, the answer would probably be the [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-10, with the double-manual keyboard. It was initially misconstrued as just a dual-manual Prophet-5, but this wasn’t the case. It was a different instrument in its own right. I wish I still had mine.

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?

RW: As with all technology, it’s a matter of you being in control of it, rather than it controlling you. I see all technological tools as items on my musical shelf, and when needed, I take them off the shelf to use them. Accordingly, the ’80s and some of the ’90s were, sadly, driven by technology rather than music, but hopefully, things are turning full circle.

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

RW: Political answer here: I’d name a different one every day! At the moment, it’s probably [the performance of] The Six Wives of Henry VIII at Hampton Court. It truly closed the book on this work for me in every way possible. But, ask me tomorrow, and you might get a different answer.

As to work I wish I could do over, no, to be honest. There are some things I wasn’t happy with, but they were what they were at the time. You can’t go back and try to repair.

16251: I remember when I first heard “Roundabout” and all those wonderful keyboard parts. When you soloed on the classic albums, how much of it was improvisation and how much was worked out beforehand?

RW: The solo on “Roundabout” was recorded in one take, and inspired by [drummer] Bill Bruford. He said to me to hold back during runthroughs in the studio, but when the red recording light came on, to “go for it.” And that was the take we kept—so thank you, Bill! I’ve kept to that rule ever since.

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?

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RW: I know lots of people who have had stage fright all their lives. Remember that the brain is “monophonic”—it can only concentrate on one thing at a time. So when panic sets in, take your brain back to the music itself. If your brain is enjoying making and hearing the music, it won’t have time to be afraid.

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

RW: I loved the man to bits. Keith Emerson and I did a three-man interview with Bob some years back in New York, and it was magical. The man gave keyboard players the respect—and the instrument—that we all craved.

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

RW: I’d love to work with Keith on a project. We’ve talked about it, and it’s certainly high up on my list. I’m not sure that what we might want to do would suit intimate venues, though.

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?

RW: I tend to play with my eyes closed, so honestly, I’m not sure which knobs I twiddle or which wheels I bend! [Laughs.]

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

RW: That’s like asking if a baseball player is better than a footballer. Different styles and different instruments make it hard to compare musicians who are all excellent. One standout as regards bass players, though, is John Entwistle. I miss him both as a player and as a friend. [The Who’s John Entwistle passed away in June of 2002. —Ed.]

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

RW: Ah—another question with different daily answers! Today, it would be John Entwistle on bass, Pete Townshend on guitar, John Bonham on drums, and Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone. The question didn’t specifically mention a singer, but if one was meant, then Janis Joplin.

Mark Zeger: What piece of work do you consider to be the high-water mark of your compositional life so far? What single piece most says, “This is who I am”?

RW: If I was really put on the spot, then (as I’d answered Mr. Bill H.) it would have to be The Six Wives of Henry VIII at Hampton Court.

Tom A.:Please expound on the plusses and minuses of high-quality, cheap home recording equipment having lowered the bar for performers to create high-quality recordings.

RW: Well, since anyone can make a record nowadays, that means you have millions of songs out there on different websites, 99 percent of which will never get listened to. It’s true that high-quality recordings can be achieved quite cheaply, but that doesn’t mean the music is high-quality— in many cases, it isn’t.

wjk: If you could pick one piece of music from Keith Emerson’s catalog that you wished you had written, which would it be?

RW: I’m a huge fan of all of Keith’s work, so again, it might be a different answer every day. That said, Tarkus is certainly right up there.

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

RW: Not that I can put my finger on. Although, drawing from history certainly was important to my work.

Jimmie McClure:How do you personally handle song recall undefined?

RW: I use a device that’s very old called a Sycologic. I’d like to buy at least one more as a spare, so if anyone knows of one for sale, please let me know.

Wesley R. Dysart: What inspires you, and how do you connect with the source of your creativity?

RW: Honestly, I have no idea. It’s the true unknown. I do believe though, that if you look for it, you’ll actually lose the source of your creativity. So don’t look!

Brian Burgon:When you first started playing synthesizers, did you ever imagine that synths and workstations would be able to do the things they can now?

RW: Believe it or not, I did foresee what was going to happen. I worked closely with Korg in Japan, as, indeed, Keith Emerson did. Even then, you could see [the synthesizer] was the ideal instrument to develop. I mean, there wasn’t much more people could do with guitars and drums.

Ron Cholfin:If you could only have two keyboards to use onstage, which two would you pick, and why?

RW: It depends on the type of show. For a big rock show, I’d pick a Korg M3 and a Minimoog. For a more intimate show, acoustic piano and either the Roland Fantom-X8 or the Korg OASYS—both with 88-note weighted keyboards.

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

RW: The Mellotron. It had a great sound, but disastrous build and design.

Rey Gonzales:Do you use software-based synths?

RW: Only when doing demos or when working on specific orchestral tracks. Never live onstage. I feel that they’re too fraught with problems.

Thalia Stevens:In classical music, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, and most of the greats all had students to commemorate their technique. Any plans to join their ranks by offering master classes or other methods of study for modern-day keyboard students?

RW: I always said I never would, but I am an honorary professor at the London College of Music, and have also gotten involved with my own old college, the Royal College of Music, so who knows? I always said I wouldn’t, but the way you put your question has set me to thinking.

Roger Dale Huff: With regard to playing keyboards in rock and using synthesizers in interesting ways, do you ever feel like “it’s all been done” and there are no more worlds to conquer?

RW: That’s like saying no more books should be written because all the words have been used before. I’ve never felt like that and I never will. There’s tons of stuff to be done.

Juan Oskar JayMaynes:How do you develop your modal riffs? And how do you create alternative chord changes to standard songs?

RW: [I develop modal riffs] by not thinking about what I’m doing. As to alternative chord changes, I studied composition and arrangement at college and this was one of the regular exercises we did. So it’s sort of inbuilt in me now.

Tim Wat: You and Keith Emerson have influenced more than one generation of keyboard players, and the way rock music thinks about keyboards. With that in mind, what still drives you to create? What still excites you about playing after accomplishing so much in your career?

RW: I was asked once what inscription I wanted on my gravestone, and I answered, “It’s not fair—I haven’t finished yet!” That says it all, really. I have so many musical things that I want to do, and I know that time is running out. Music is so exciting, and every day it’s a joy to know that there’s more music to be made. New thoughts, new melodies . . . the day I lose that feeling will be the day I stop. But that won’t happen.