Keith Emerson is the reason I play keyboards. When I first started playing music, someone gave me a cassette of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s album Brain Salad Surgery and my life was changed forever. Emerson is undoubtedly one of the most influential keyboardists of the last 50 years. Here are a few exercises to give you a taste of his dizzyingly diverse keyboard style.
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Ex. 1 illustrates some of Keith’s killer organ work. Bar 1 begins with a descending bass line and Lydian arpeggios moving in minor thirds. By bar 4 we see another typical Emerson device: triadic shapes over unusual bass lines moving in parallel. The example ends with rhythmic prog hits. Emerson played mostly Hammond C-3 and L-100 organs, but regardless of your organ rig, set your top manual to “888” (just the first three drawbars, all at maximum) with percussion on short decay and vibrato/chorus set to C3. Set the bottom manual to 00 8800 000. Check out ELP’s track “Endless Enigma” for an example of how Keith employs these techniques.
2. Five To Stay Alive
Emerson routinely sets up ostinato riffs in his compositions. Ex. 2 is influenced by the ELP tune “Trilogy” and is in 5/4 time. Often after a long cadenza, Emerson plays four bars of a vamp similar to this one before drummer Carl Palmer enters with fervent force.
3. Mano y Mono
Another sound associated with Keith Emerson is the monophonic Moog synthesizer. Keith would often play sweeping modal lines with a fat monophonic sound employing crazy amounts of pitch-bend and portamento, as in Ex. 3. This example uses the Mixolydian mode (major scale with a flatted seventh). When you get to bar 3, channel your inner prog rock star and turn that modulation wheel up.
4. From Rags to Riches
Emerson loved ragtime-esqe piano parts and often used an out-of-tune piano for tracks featuring them, like on “Benny the Bouncer” and “The Sheriff.” Ex. 4 approximates this style. Here the left hand plays a standard ragtime accompaniment while the right hand plays melodies voiced in sixths and other unusual intervals. The exercise ends with a right hand fugue-like line.
5. Go Fourth
Emerson often employs fourths in his melodic lines. The notes in Ex. 5 all come from the C Dorian mode. In your own melodic explorations, instead of playing the mode simply straight up and down, try to “see” it in fourth shapes. The ELP albums Brain Salad Surgery and Trilogy both feature extensive use of fourths.