I was raised on classical music by Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Chopin, and Satie, but I started discovering progressive rock and jazz in the 1980s when bands like Yes, Genesis, and the guitarist Pat Metheny crossed over into popular music. “Prog” (progressive) rock couples virtuosic playing with long-form song structures, and also incorporates extended solos and a healthy dose of instrumental interaction. Below are several musical examples of mine that I hope will help influence your own sonic explorations.
1. Synth Leads
I like to create leads that are angular and raucous, bringing focus to the underlying chord progression or riff while soaring over it with a ripping lead, as in Ex. 1. The solo keyboard doesn’t always have to be a synth; sometimes an organ with overdrive or a Wurly works just as well. A fluid, relaxed right hand helps with any solo leads, as does using proper crossover fingering. On the web audio example, I play it on piano for clarity’s sake.
2. Left-Hand Parts
The left hand in progressive rock is often misunderstood. Many people think that the bass player in prog covers all the low-end parts, but this isn’t always the case. The trick is to always complement the bass line with your left-hand keyboard parts. Ex. 2 demonstrates this, with the left hand’s ostinato pattern acting as the “melody” while the right-hand chords support it.
3. Classical Influences
Since progressive rock is influenced by classical and jazz, it’s essential to know and understand the music that came before you in order to create your own compelling originals. As the composer Igor Stravinsky is a hero of mine, Ex. 3a and Ex. 3b shows how I took a snippet of his “Firebird” melody and re-harmonized it two different ways. I then put a melody of my own over both of those new harmonies.
4. Piano Intros
The bold piano intro is a staple in prog. Often, a song’s structure includes a preface or introduction before the main body of the song kicks in. Ex. 4 illustrates an original idea that sounds best when played on acoustic piano. Powerful piano intros grab the listener and pull them further into a song. Remember to keep your left hand slightly softer here so that the chords in the right hand are the focal point.
5. Comping Chords
Ex 5 illustrates how you can go from a blues-inspired piano lick into open chords that support additional melodic lines played by other musicians or vocalists. I find that the biggest comping challenge is choosing chords that are unique and unexpected, yet still tonally centered enough that additional melodies can find their place alongside them. Always remember that the left hand needs to be slightly quieter so that the right-hand chords can “sing.” Sometimes a left-hand ostinato pedal point pattern helps brings more attention to the right hand’s chord changes, as shown in measures 15–22.
“When comping, always remember that the left hand needs to be slightly quieter so that the right-hand chords can sing properly,” says Christopher Buzby, who has played keyboards with the acclaimed band Echolyn since 1989, and is Director of Instrumental Music at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, PA. Find out more at echolyn.com.