5 Ways to Play Like Keith Emerson

I discovered the seminal prog rock group ELP and their renowned keyboardist Keith Emerson soon after hearing Yes.
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by Matt Beck

I discovered the seminal prog rock group ELP and their renownedkeyboardist Keith Emerson soon after hearing Yes. Like Yes, ELP was heavily influenced by classical music, but they still rocked like nobody’s business! I loved the fact that in the “power trio” format, each musician had plenty of space to demonstrate his own virtuosity. Emerson himself was a ferocious musical force to be reckoned with. Both his stage showmanship and his keyboard mastery—most notably on the Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer—were a deep influence on me as I honed my own skills. I practically wore out my copies of ELP’s albums Trilogy and Pictures at an Exhibition. Emerson and ELP were hugely responsible for bringing progressive rock music into mainstream appreciation. Here are five ways to bring Emerson’s classically-influenced style into your own playing.

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Audio examples and web extras:

1. Solo Lines
One hallmark of Emerson’s playing is his seemingly effortless reservoir of technique, which is especially evident in his fluid solo lines. Ex. 1 is an approximation of his blistering solo fill towards the end of the song “Karn Evil 9.” The entire line is played over an A tonality. This line starts off with a descending A Lydian scale, only to bounce back up halfway through with ascending arpeggio fragments implying a B tonal center (over A).


2. Chording
With a wellspring of harmonic choices at his fingertips, Emerson covers it all, from Jazz chording and rock riffing to virtuosic classical counterpoint. Ex. 2 approximates what Emerson plays on the intro to the ELP song “Tarkus.” Note that the example is in 10/8 time, with the left hand playing an ostinato pattern—an Emerson staple. The right hand implies an almost jazzy F minor 11th sound, voiced in fourths à la McCoy Tyner. This is also a good example of Emerson’s agility and hand independence.


3. Solo Pieces
On ELP’s Works Vol. 1, Emerson composed and performed an entire piano concerto with the renowned London Philharmonic Orchestra. It would turn out to be one of his most critically acclaimed efforts. Ex. 3 is similar to the unaccompanied cadenza Emerson played in the middle of the piece. Again, notice his use of the ostinato in the left hand with the melody in the right.


4. Outside Influences
Emerson continually covered a wide array of musical styles. An ELP song might shift gear mid-piece, going off into a seemingly unrelated musical interlude. A perfect example of this can be heard on “The Sheriff,” from ELP’s album Trilogy. Towards the end of the song, there’s a gunshot, followed by Emerson playing a blisteringly fast, honky-tonk stride piano motif. Ex. 4 approximates that piano break.


5. Left Hand Technique
Emerson is known to have a monstrous left hand. This is evidenced in the opening of “Tarkus,” as well as on many parts of his “Piano Concerto No. 1.” Ex. 5 is inspired by the third movement of that concerto.


Matt Beck is a multi-instrumentalist who plays keyboards and guitar with Rob Thomas, Matchbox Twenty, and Rod Stewart. His latest solo release Anything Which Gives You Pleasure is available now on iTunes and at cdbaby.com. Beck is currently working with U2’s Bono and The Edge on the Broadway musical adaption of Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man. Find out more at myspace.com/mattbecktwenty and twitter.com/mattymay.
Jon Regen