5 Things I've Learned About Covering Classic Keyboard Parts

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As gigging keyboard players, much of our time is spent figuring-out classic keyboard parts. This often involves finding sounds that work, and then using them to play parts with the correct “feel” along with other musicians. In most situations, we balance honoring the keyboard parts on the original recordings while making them our own at the same time. Sometimes we have to do all of this in a very tight time frame. When I joined Elton John’s band, I had to learn a full concert’s worth of material in just a few weeks to perform it with Elton and the band in Moscow, Russia. Here are five things I’ve learned about covering classic keyboard parts.

1. Understand Synthesis

Don’t be the guy that just turns the knobs until some accident happens. When I bought my first Minimoog in 1971, I also bought a book on analog synthesis, and really studied it. That exercise has paid off in spades over the years. When I got my ARP 2600 a few years later, I already knew how it worked. To this day I can go to any soft synth, see how it’s laid out, and get pretty close to whatever sound I am hearing in my head. 

2. Spend Time With Classic Keyboards

There is nothing like playing a Hammond organ with a screaming Leslie 122 speaker, or a Clavinet with a fuzz tone and a Wah-wah through a Twin Reverb amp. These were real instruments with personalities that you had to have a relationship with. Most of us do gigs with soft synths or one keyboard that has to cover everything. Having a tactile experience with the instruments you are emulating will help you approach the sounds with the spirit that these original instruments inspire. There were many nights when I almost got a divorce from my first Wurlitzer electric piano. It was a volatile relationship. I had to be in therapy, I had to grow, and in the end we worked it out. Now when I play a Wurly patch, I know what that girl wants!

3. Chart It Out

This sounds obvious, but there are just so many distractions and stressors on any gig (like the lighting, some drunk tapping you on the shoulder, etc.), that having a chart to fall back on is a good thing. When you’re learning a bunch of tunes, get a system going, like marking patch changes in highlighter, a second keyboard part with a different color highlighter, etc. When you take the chart away, it gives your brain something to hold on to. For me nothing helps me learn material like charts and endless repetition. 

4. Be Flexible

You are there to play your parts, but always remember the bigger picture: you are there to make the artist look and sound great. Say your artist decides he is going to play blues guitar all over your keyboard part, the nice part that was on the record. Do you stick with your precious part? No way! You let him tear it up, and play something that had the same intention as the original part, but that gives space for the artist to do what they do. You have to leave room for what makes live music a magical experience. 

5. Shut Up and Simplify!

When I worked with Art Garfunkel, he used to marvel at how musicians always thought they had to be playing all the time; they got nervous when their hands were not busy. This is a great point. A valid tool to reach for in your tool kit should be NOT playing. If you put together your own music, you will see that playing all the time is kind of ridiculous. Great arrangements are when things happen and then they go away. Similarly, if you are lucky enough to playing bigger venues, all of your groovy, warm pads (that might even be on the record) are going to do nothing but add muck to your sound guy’s already impossible job. Most of the time simple, punchy sounds just work better when you are battling a four-second reverb cloud over everything. Be open to the concept that a less complex patch might actually sound better in the front of house than your multi-sampled, super rich mega string library mess that sounds amazing on its own.

Keyboardist, singer, songwriter, arranger and producer Kim Bullard has worked with storied artists like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Yes and Tori Amos. He has played keyboards for Elton John since 2009.