Gregg Rolie’s keyboard playing is a blueprint for how to play keyboards in a rock band. As a founding member of the bands Santana and Journey, Rolie has done just about everything. This month, let’s explore some key elements of Rolie’s playing with exercises that delve into his unique keyboard style. For further mastery of these concepts, try transposing the following examples into all 12 keys on your own.
1. Afro Blues
Afro-Cuban music and blues meet in the middle in Ex. 1. Rolie’s organ riffs often cover maximum ground with just a few simple ideas, which this example in the style of his work with Santana demonstrates. This solo begins with a bluesy crunch with notes from the D blues scale (D, F, G, Ab, A, C, D). Bars 2 and 3 have a simple melody coming from the D Dorian mode (D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D). Rolie keeps the D minor sound by arpeggiating the triad as the harmony changes to C minor. The triad creates nice chord tones (such as the 9th, 11th and 13th) when played over the C tonality.
2. “Como” Chameleon
Ex. 2 illustrates more of Rolie’s signature Hammond work on songs like Santana’s “Oye Como Va.” This example begins with another blues shout, this time in a higher register. Pull all of your drawbars out here and dial up the distortion. Bar 2 has a fast A minor pentatonic riff (A, C, D, E, G, A) with a six-note motif that repeats as the scale descends. You don’t need to be super-precise with these kinds of lines; a little “smush” sounds great on the organ. Add some fast Leslie at the end of the line here as well.
3. Blues Piano
Ex. 3 illustrates some stylistic elements of Rolie’s piano work. In the left hand, simple triads outline the harmonic motion of F minor to Bb. Over the ostinato, the right hand spins bluesy fills. All the notes in this exercise come from the F minor blues scale (F, Ab, Bb, Cb, C, Eb, F). As an experiment, try catching the sustained left hand chords with the pedal, and play light and sensitively.
4. Journey Piano
Ex. 4 is another example of Rolie’s piano parts, this time from his days with the rock supergroup Journey. Here, the right hand plays a simple triadic shape that dances between the minor third and ninth chord tones. As the bass line descends, the right hand part stays where it is creating additional harmonic interest. Notice bar 3 where the C minor over Ab creates a nice Abmaj7 chord. In the last bar, the C in our right hand part slips down a half step to B to outline the G chord.
5. Synth Pads
Rolie is as convincing on synthesizers as he is on the Hammond organ. Ex. 5 illustrates a synth pad progression typical of some of those he played on his solo projects. Dial up a fat analog pad on your synth or laptop. Set the cutoff frequency not too high, with a lowpass filter for some nice gentle pads. I’ve put a few unusual notes in this example just for fun and to demonstrate additional harmonic possibilities. In last bar, there a suspension resolves to the third of D, which is the V chord here.