Grammy-winning keyboardist, composer and producer Matt Rollings is one of the most sought after session players in modern music. He's worked with luminaries like Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler, Alison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter and countless others. Rollings is hard at work on a new solo release due out soon. Find-out more at www.mattrollings.com
I've been playing piano and keyboards on records for over 25 years, and have played on over 600 recordings. Throughout it all, certain things have become universal for me. My goal has always been to play intelligently and with integrity, to make the music feel good, and to be professional, inspired, and a nice guy. Here are some of the things I’ve learned that I hope will help you succeed on your next session.
1. Improvisation Can Equal Inspiration
During the recording of Lyle Lovett’s song “North Dakota” from his album Joshua Judges Ruth,we were in between takes and I was very much in the mood of the song and inspired to play a little. I began experimenting with a moody little pattern, and a few seconds later Lyle asked, “What’s that Matty?” I replied that I was just “making it up,” and he immediately suggested we try my riff as an intro. It ended up becoming a signature part of the song.
2. Use Simple Voicings
I'm a huge fan of 3-note chord voicings. These allow the piano to sound both orchestral and streamlined in a rhythm section setting. I use a technique that I call “drop 3rd,” based on the way chords are often voiced on a guitar. Take a triad in any inversion and drop the middle note down an octave. In root position, the middle note would be the 3rd, (minor or major), hence the term “drop 3rd.” If you start with a root position triad with a dropped 3rd and then go through the circle of fifths, the 3rd becomes the root of the next chord, then the 5th of the next, and finally the 3rd again. So with the chord sequence F-Bb-Eb-Ab, the first dropped note A moves up to Bb, then stays on Bb for the next chord, and then moves to C. This technique makes for very smooth voice leading, and helps build a warm foundation in a track while still leaving room for other instruments. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Jericho” offers a nice glimpse into this style of playing.
3. More is Less When Accompanying Singers
Accompanying singers requires big ears and careful choices. In general, simple is best, and playing even less than think you should play usually ends up being the right move. Sometimes, however, it’s good to lead as well. As an accompanist, you are not simply supporting the singer, you are also creating a dynamic platform for them to launch from. Try playing an emotional chord sequence or lick leading into a new section of the song. You might just create a moment that inspires the singer and lifts their performance into an entirely new place.
4. In Solos, Feel Wins!
Back when I was in college, a teacher once said to me “play the feel not the solo, and the solo will take care of itself.” What this means is that first and foremost, you need to groove when you solo. When I’m “dealt” a solo, that’s where I go first - to rhythm, and energy. I usually start by playing something rhythmic, like a pattern that’s easy to “pocket” with the band. Once I'm grooving, I relax and get out of my head and into my body. At that point, whatever comes out generally works, because the feel is intact.
5. Be Prepared, Be Relaxed & Be Early!
If your session involves a fair amount of sight-reading, ask for PDF’s of the charts ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the music. Know the names of the producer, artist and engineer before you walk into the studio, and never arrive hungry. It’s also important to walk into the studio relaxed and in good spirits. This sets a positive tone and allows you to maximize your prep time before the downbeat. Finally, be early. When you’re early to a session, you have time to prepare and get your mind in the right space for the work that lies ahead of you.