5 Things I've Learned About Playing Keyboards in a Major Act

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1. Be Generous

Being a generous musician is key to fitting in with any band. Remember, music is not a competition. There’s nothing worse than a group that sounds like a loose confederation of warring tribes. Don’t be tempted to play your super hot licks all the time—you’ll just get on everyone’s nerves! Try to see yourself as a cog in a well-oiled machine and refine your parts to fit in perfectly and complement others.

2. Play Less

Imagine yourself in a studio playing on a great record. How much would you want the keyboard player to be doing? Probably a lot less than many players end up playing at a live show! A great rock or pop band knows this and arranges their songs to complement the vocals. When you play less, the odd occasion when you play a little something extra becomes really special—as long as you pick the right moment. Another tip is that when you’re given a solo trying not playing straight away. A couple of bars of silence will impart a little tension to the mix. People are really listening now, wondering why you aren’t playing! Now you have a chance to create something special. Make your first few phrases really minimal, and the rest of the band will get into a vibe.

3. Watch the Singer Like a Hawk

You should always be sensitive to how the singer is feeling. If you can see he or she is struggling, don’t bash away selfishly. Instead, try to think of the best thing you can play to help him or her through it. Keyboards are usually the most important instrument for a singer, as they provide the pitch. So always be aware. Sometimes you can really inspire a singer by playing something unexpected, but you need to use your ESP to get it right.

4. Timing Is Everything

Focus more on your timing than what notes you’re playing. It’s better to play simple and grooving than interesting and sloppy. If your timing is super tight, you will encourage others to play the same way.

5. No Presets Allowed

Making your own sounds makes what you do unique. I hear a lot of players who just use a Rhodes preset all night, and while they play nicely, it’s boring. Keyboardists are lucky to play instruments that are capable of a wide range of sounds. Learn programming and be as “compositional” with your sounds as you are with your notes. Sometimes an ambient or dissonant sound can be so much more exciting than just a piano or Clav part. Any modern synth can make great sounds if you invest the time to truly understand its architecture. Make your sounds easily tweakable as well. For example, if you can add a big reverb or filter sweep by turning the mod wheel, it can really make a simple sound come alive.

U.K.-based musician and producer Matt Johnson has played keyboards for Jamiroquai for the last 12 years. He has also written and performed with Duffy, Newton Faulkner, and Will Young. Johnson is currently writing songs for a new Jamiroquai record with lead vocalist Jay Kay, as well as writing and producing for a new artist named Laura Doggett. Find out more at jamiroquai.com/jamiroquai/biography/matt-johnson.