Play Hip-Hop: A Hip-Hop Keyboard Primer

Learn to play keyboards that fit into a hip-hop context
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I played my first hip-hop gig when I was in college, at a club on the south side of Chicago with the trumpeter Maurice Brown. A few years after that, I began making beats at home and soon progressed into working regularly on the NYC hip-hop and R&B scene. Here are five key aspects to learning how to play keyboards that fit into a hip-hop context.

1. The Laid-Back Eighth Note Pattern

Ex. 1 illustrates a classic eighth note pattern that can add swagger to any groove. Though not an exact science, it can be played anywhere from just slightly behind the beat to all the way around a 32nd note behind it. This pattern sounds best using triads in the range of one to three octaves above middle C.

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2. Melodic Voice Leading

One of the ways I’ve been able to add interesting jazz chords into more commercial music is by sneaking them into a song’s progression by way of melodic voice-leading, seen here in Ex. 2. To experiment with this on your own, treat the top note of your chord progression as its own melody, and let it guide you to fresh harmonic passing chords.

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3. Adding Ninths

There is a fine line between playing thick, lush voicings and not altering the quality of a song’s chords. Adding the ninth to major triads or major seventh chords almost always works, providing a thickening agent without making a progression sound different. Fit it between the root and third on triads, and try adding it in-between and on top of major seventh chords. Ex. 3 shows the basic chords in the first half, and the chords with the added ninths in the second half.

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4. Key-Bass Technique 1: Passing Notes

Key-bass is an essential part of today’s hip-hop and R&B. Ex. 4 demonstrates how to utilize passing notes to capture the laid-back feel that fits in perfectly with many drum patterns. The passing notes here happen on beat 3 and the “a” of beat 4, just before the root notes. This is also a good technique for giving subtle motion to a simple bass line.

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5. Key-Bass Technique 2: Emulate an 808

In hip-hop, an “808 bass” refers to a tuned, electronic kick-drum sound with long sustain, originally introduced in Roland’s TR-808 drum machine. There are many variations of this sound today, and it is ubiquitous in urban music, often replacing the bass or acting as both bass and kick drum. Ex. 5 illustrates a typical 808 bass part. Find a “subby” synth-bass sound with a strong attack and long release to execute this in live settings.

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Practice Tip

“Though hip-hop was historically based around drum machines and sampling, live instrumentation is a big part of the music today,” says Sam Barsh, a keyboardist, songwriter, and producer who has appeared on recent releases by Anderson .Paak, Ty Dolla $ign, and Eminem. Barsh co-wrote Aloe Blaac’s Number One song “The Man” and worked on Kendrick Lamar’s multi-Grammy Award-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly. Find-out more at

Listening List—Hip-Hop Keys