Pop Session Keyboardist Cheat Sheet

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This lesson originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Keyboard.

Growing up in Southern California, I was acutely aware of its session scene, with guys like David Paich, Steve Porcaro, Greg Phillinganes, Victor Feldman, and other heavy hitters covering every conceivable keyboard gig. It’s tough to encapsulate what makes a successful session in just a few quick examples because being a “supportive player” truly depends on your surroundings and how you artfully react to the artist, the melody, the lyrics, and the other musicians. Here are some tips and tricks I employ on a regular basis that I hope help you on your next session.

1. The “Jonathan Cain”

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Ex. 1 references Cain’s brilliant piano part on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which redefined pop piano. The pulsing quarter-note “open B5” motif is the constant here. You probably notice that the “B fifth” continues through bar 2 over the F# chord. B shouldn’t work in an F# chord, but here it provides a nice consistency, and that open fifth doesn’t usually clash in pop music. (We do hint at the A# in the latter half of the bar.) The eighth-notes in bars 2 and 4 provide motion. With this open fifth pulsing being so simple, there are many ways the player can subtly provide basic motion that don’t get in the way but still sounds interesting. You could request a nice quarter-note delay in the DAW, or otherwise treat it like a guitar player might treat her sonic options.

2. The Hook

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Sometimes an artist or producer will want to hear some sort of “hook” from the keyboard department; something “catchy” that adds to a simple chord progression. You’ll want to make sure it neither clashes with the guitar part (or anyone else’s) nor steps on the melody. In Ex. 2 the hook is repeated with variations through bars 1-3, with a change on bar 4 to build the end of the phrase. I chose notes for the hook motif that are as neutral as possible while navigating through all the chords in the progression. I think of this as finding the “lowest common denominator:” Find whatever notes work through the whole chunk of music and milk ’em! In pop music, simpler is usually better.

3. The Driving Pulse

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Ex. 3 is a driving eighth-note idea that gives the chorus a pulse and a sense of forward motion. Many variations are possible. Remember to stay neutral, find your “lowest common denominator” notes, and drive through the progression under (but not against) the melody.

4. Drop the One

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In Ex. 4 we’re just leaving out beat 1. Again, we employ a simple motif where the rhythm repeats, but the notes and inversions vary a bit.

5. The “Singer-Songwriter”

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Sometimes I’ll ask a session’s producer if I should be playing the piano as if I wrote the song. This can get murky with a band, as often singer-songwriters that write at the piano are used to playing their songs solo. This means that the piano solely provides the rhythm, bass, and basic propulsion for the music. When playing with a band, sometimes this can be too much information and clash with the bass and drums. But that “songwriter” vibe is distinct, as proven by John Lennon’s “Imagine” and most of Elton John’s and Billy Joel’s work.

Join the Click Clique

“Locking to the click, or even laying on the back side of it, is of paramount importance when keyboard players want to make a track feel good. Keyboardists have a tendency to rush. Your ability to lock with a click immediately defines your maturity,”says Jeff Babko, best known for his spot in the house band on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He has recorded with Frank Ocean, Jason Mraz, Sheryl Crow, and Alanis Morrisette. Babko’s new album Crux is out now. Find out more at jeffbabko.com.