Concepts for Creating Keyboard String Parts

Clifford Carter's lesson on playing string parts on keys
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A string section can add so much to a song—soul, emotion, beauty, express ion, dynamics, as well as melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic interest. It’s true that, just as Aretha Frankin sang, there “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” However, because of practical issues such as economics, keyboard players are often asked to be the string section. Sample libraries and factory presets in modern synthesizers offer a lot of possibilities when keyboardists need to add strings to a track. Actually, even when there are real strings playing, synth strings can be a great addition. From the ARP String Ensemble in 1974 to the Audiobro LA Scoring Strings library today, keyboard players have a plethora of options at their fingertips to provide great string arrangements. Let’s take a four-bar melody with chords and look at the various ways you can add string parts from your keyboard.

1. Starting Points

Ex. 1 is a 4-bar melody with chords and lyrics that I’ve created to start building our keyboard string parts around.

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2. Background Pads

Ex. 2 illustrates two versions of whole note pads with diatonic triads. Bars 1 through 4 have close-position chord voicings. The notes are close together with no note in the treble clef more than a fourth away from the next note. Bars 5 through 8 are open-position voicings. All of these bars have roots in the bass clef. Playing those roots is optional, depending on how full a sound you want. The choice of register will depend on the sound you are looking for, given the section of the song you are playing. For example, you may want the closed voicings in the lower register early in a song and the open position voicings later in the arrangement. Note that using ties between the common tones is important if you want to create a realistic string performance.

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3. Solo Accompaniment

Let’s say you want to introduce strings to a song but in a more intimate way. Try using one instrument instead of the section. Ex. 3 demonstrates a solo cello playing a melodic bass line. This could be introduced in the second verse of a song or in a pre-chorus and precede a chorus that has a fuller chordal arrangement. You can also combine ideas: For example, you could play the treble clef triads from Ex. 2 and the bass clef ideas from Ex. 3, either by splitting your keyboard using two different sounds or by finding one sound that works well in both clefs.

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4. Rhythmic Identity

I also use strings to add to the rhythmic identity of an arrangement. Ex. 4 has the string section playing syncopated, driving eighth notes. I’ve found voicings and figures like these to be effective on synths. Sometimes a keyboard player can play a time feel that is hard for live strings to match unless you have players who appreciate pop music and are experienced playing it.

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5. Common Tones

Playing notes that sustain through a section of a song is simple but widely used and very effective, as seen in Ex. 5. This works because the sustaining tones function differently in each chord. (For example, the G is the fifth of the C chord, the root of the G chord, the seventh of the A minor chord, and the second of the F chord).

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6. Just High Strings

It’s not uncommon for a string arrangement to have just high strings (e.g., violins or violins with violas), as seen in Ex. 6. Here, the string melody sustains while the vocal is moving, and becomes more active when the vocal sustains (just like the cello part in Ex. 3).

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“Sometimes I think of string parts that real players would play, and other times I experiment with all that is possible with just a keyboard,” says keyboardist and composer Clifford Carter, best known for his work with James Taylor, Patti Scialfa, Idina Menzel, and others. Find out more at