Building Energy

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By Brian Culbertson

Growing up, I was heavily influenced by Earth, Wind & Fire; Tower of Power; the Brecker Brothers; David Sanborn; and others who had a strong funk component. Here, I'll demonstrate different ways to play a piano melody over a funky track, approaching melodic development verse by verse. As you'll see, I sometimes play piano melodies with no comping at all in the left hand. This has to do with my production style--I prefer to fill up the tracks with lots of other keyboard parts (Rhodes, Clavinet, and so on). I've included four different ways of playing a melody; two incorporate comping, and two leave it out.

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Ex. 1: Midrange Melody, Right Hand Only

In Ex.1, I play the melody in a range surrounding middle C with just my right hand. This states the melody without too much other stuff going on. If the first verse's range is too high, there's nowhere to grow. I'm also not adding any ad-lib licks here so as to let the track breathe, since it's early in the song.

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Ex. 2: Two-Handed Octave Melody

In Ex. 2, I bump up the second verse's energy by playing the melody with two hands in octaves, still with no comping. This strengthens the melody. I'm playing the more intricate licks or turns with the right hand only, so as to make them more "solo-istic."

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Ex. 3: Left Hand Comping

In Ex. 3, we come back for another verse, making it even funkier with the left hand adding rhythmic comping. Since the Rhodes is holding down the meat of the chords, I use the left hand on acoustic piano to play stripped-down chords that bounce off the melody with syncopated rhythms, adding excitement to the overall track.

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Ex. 4: Octave Melody Over Left Hand Comping

In Ex. 4 on page 50, the most adventurous way to play our melody yet uses octaves in the right hand and rhythmic comping in the left. While the melody won't be as fluid due to the fact that it's played in octaves with one hand, it will be aggressive and therefore perfect for our funky track. Again, the left hand adds syncopation that converses with the right.

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Mix Tip

"When mixing piano on a funk or R&B track like this, pump up the high end," advises Brian Culbertson, who has been causing a stir since his debut CD Long Night Out in 1994. "If the piano is the lead instrument, it should be as bright and punchy as a vocal, sax, or guitar. Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire once told me, 'Man, you've got to sizzle!' So don't be afraid to add 15dB at 10kHz if that's what it takes. Also, a good amount of compression helps ensure that the softer notes are heard."

***Play along with audio examples.

***Watch video of Brian on the Roland V-Piano Grand.