Creative Concepts for Funky Keys

Image placeholder title

[Editor's Note - This lesson originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of KEYBOARD]

I got my first organ when I was nineteen years old, primarily because it was an instrument of convenience. (If you can call a nearly four hundred pound instrument convenient)! The organ allowed me to play bass, chords and lead lines on one uniquely dynamic axe. It’s important to note that I consider myself a keyboardist first - it just so happens that the organ is an instrument that I've played publicly for many years. I listen to all kinds of music, from James Brown and Jimmy Smith, to Pete Rock, the Bad Brains, French Kicks, Caveman, Broadcast and more. If my playing is considered “funky,” it’s most likely due to the fact that I’ve never limited my musical scope, drawing ideas from as many great musical sources as I’ve been able to encounter along the way. By absorbing many different styles of music, I'm able to express the feeling of them with my own musical voice and vocabulary. Here are some examples to unlock the creativity in your own keyboard excursions:


Listen at: /Portals/2/Bass Ex. 1.mp3

Image placeholder title

Ex. 1 is something that I like to do when trying to find ways to creatively expand a great bass line. In this example, I try to stretch the keyboard bass line over the bar, creating subtle variations while still keeping it tight and consistent. To hear the interplay between the bass, piano, and the drums in a group setting, listen to /Portals/2/Band Ex. 1.mp3I performed all keyboard parts and played the drums as well.


Listen at: /Portals/2/Bass Ex. 2.mp3

As a keyboard bass player, my left hand bass method allows me to use a chromatic approach to creating bass lines. Ex. 2 demonstrates this technique. Notice the slight rhythmic variations. To hear the interplay between the bass, clavinet and drums in a group setting, listen to /Portals/2/Band Ex. 2.mp3I performed all keyboard parts and played the drums as well.

Image placeholder title


Listen at: /Portals/2/Bass Ex. 3.mp3

Image placeholder title

Ex. 3 illustrates two challenges of adapting bass lines to the keyboard. The first is the opposite of playing chromatic bass lines. Here we see the classic leap of over an octave to reach the major 3rd and finally the dominant 7th, which is a fairly easy fingering on a real bass but requires much more athleticism and precision on the keyboard. The second half of this example incorporates a slide technique that I've developed over the years. It uses the outer and bottom inside of my left palm while playing bass with my left hand. In this example, the bass line is only being played with fingers 5-2-1-2-1. Once the slide begins, it is played as 5-slide-2-1-2-1.


Listen at: /Portals/2/Clavinet Ex. 4.mp3

What a great instrument the Clavinet is! But often times, I find that players don’t create distinct parts on it and simply noodle around aimlessly. One thing I always try to pay attention to on clav is the creation of distinct rhythmic and melodic comping parts, as illustrated in Ex. 4.

Image placeholder title


Listen at: /Portals/2/Piano Ex. 5.mp3

When accompanying on piano, I always like to think about ways to build energy (when appropriate), through tone and voice placement on the keyboard. In Ex. 5, I start in a lower register of the piano, using a slight pedal variation in my left hand. I then move up the keyboard one octave in both hands, finally jumping between the lower and middle registers on the keyboard.

Image placeholder title

Practice Tip

“Whoever it is I play with, I always try to be the most creative musician I can be at that moment in time,” says acclaimed keyboardist Neal Evans. A founding member of the band Soulive, Evans and Co. have opened for the Rolling Stones, been joined on stage by Stevie Wonder, and recorded with artists like Chaka Khan, Talib Kweli and John Scofield. Find-out more at and