5 Ways to Play Like David Sancious

A lesson from the April 2015 issue of KEYBOARD.
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David Sancious (read our full interview from 2013) has been one of the most in-demand live and session keyboard players in the business for nearly 50 years. Not only was he recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, but he has also played a significant role in the careers of Peter Gabriel, Sting, Stanley Clarke, and Narada Michael Walden. Let’s explore five ways to play like David Sancious.

1. Piano Solos

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Ex. 1 illustrates a typical Sancious piano solo. Here, the first half starts with some “down home” blues riffing, and then the solo moves into jazz-tinged, single-note line territory. This is a great example of how David fuses styles effortlessly. Keep in mind when playing this example that the first three bars are a hemiola:a sixteenth-note grouping of three between both hands that goes over the bar line and should be phrased as such to insure proper flow and feel.

2. Classical Chording

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Ex. 2 demonstrates Sancious’ command of chordal keyboard textures, which can be heard on some of his solo projects (David Sancious and Tone). Often described as “Symphonic Fusion,” these albums meld classical harmonic motion with expressive analog synth work. The keyboard sound of this passage is evocative of the massive Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer.

3. Organ Solos

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Ex. 3 is in the style of Sancious’ organ solo on Sting’s song “St. Augustine in Hell” from the album Ten Summoner’s Tales. Here we have a 7/4 groove and a chord progression highlighting the tritonemotion of Amin7 to Eb7. Note that the solo starts with a tried-and-true organ key mash/glissando up to the first note. Also pay attention to the fluidity of execution of the sixteenth-note run, which is easiest to achieve on a real Hammond B-3, or at least, a non-weighted waterfall keyboard.

4. Clusters and Syncopations

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Sancious is a master of playing deep-pocketed parts over shifting time signatures. In Ex. 4, note the syncopated, cluster chords that float over the alternating 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures. The 3/4 bars also incorporate a hemiola (as in Ex. 1) and should be played even and short, with the 4/4 measures serving as an instant release. Paying attention to the break of momentum in those bars will help impart the desired feel of this phrase.

5. Synth Solos

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Ex. 5 illustrates a typical Sancious synth solo. Pay attention to how smooth and flowing this line is, employing an analog synth sound with a slight filter sweep and portamento. Using a synth with non-weighted keys is essential for pulling off the barrage of 32nd-notes with clarity. Also, the pitch-bend wheel is being used for the bends in measure 2. With some practice, you’ll figure out the coordination needed. You can hear Sancious play similar synth parts on Narada Michael Walden’s Garden of Love Light album.