Country music is constantly evolving and incorporating new influences, but its focus still first and foremost about the song. As a keyboardist, it’s important to think about how to add to what the rest of the band is playing, and how to support the vocalist without overplaying or detracting from the overall ensemble’s sound. Having had the opportunity to work with and learn from some amazing musicians and vocalists over the years, here are some examples of approaches I might use in different parts of a song.
1. Piano Intros
Piano parts in Country music are becoming more streamlined and hook oriented, especially with regards to right hand parts. You hear more of this than the traditional Floyd Cramer style in Nashville right now. Ex. 1 demonstrates this stripped down approach using octaves. You can also try building sparse piano intros using single note figures either in the same register or even an octave down. There aren’t many notes in this example, but the challenge is to play them right in time with the drummer. This example is played with straight eighth notes.
2. Wurly Turnarounds
Ex. 2 incorporates Benmont Tench style “hammer-ons,” and sounds great on the mighty Wurlitzer electric piano. Whether you are playing a real Model 200A through a combo amp, or you’re using a plug-in with modeled effects, make sure to dial in some overdrive to break the sound up a little. This feel should swing a bit.
3. Organ Verse Pads
Often times, the simplest part is exactly what a song calls for, as in Ex. 3. For a ballad or a verse that is mellow, use just one or two drawbars on your B3 or clonewheel. You can pull-out the 8' and 4' stops with your Leslie on slow, and use open voicings, especially as you play in lower registers. Use hammer-ons and the expression pedal to help emphasize the beat.
4. Organ Chorus Pads
Ex. 4 is more Procul Harum than traditional country, but it works! Always listen for a space to play in that complements but doesn't conflict with the other instruments in the band, especially the lead vocal. This is something you might play in a chorus or an “up" part of a song. As you play higher on the keyboard, the voicings become closer with first and second inversion triads. Pull out more of the drawbars for a fuller sound. Turn on the chorus and change the Leslie speed to keep things interesting.
5. Organ Solos
Instrumental breaks give you the opportunity to step out. If you are doing a song with a more traditional Country feel, you can change things up with some Gospel influenced Hammond organ, as in Ex. 5. Use your left hand for the glissandos. For left hand chords, don’t be too concerned about which notes you are hitting. The duration should be short enough to create a percussive sound without actually spelling out a key center. Turn your percussion ON and alternate Leslie speed on the sustained notes.
“Playing compelling Country keyboards takes practice and experience, but most importantly, it involves listening,” says Nashville-based keyboardist and producer Jonathan Hamby. Hamby studied music at Belmont University and received his Master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University. Over the last decade, he has worked with acclaimed artists like Amy Grant, Peter Cetera, and Carrie Underwood. When he’s not on the road touring, Hamby spends his time writing and recording.