We keyboard players have access to an almost unlimited number of sounds, samples, and layers. From lush string orchestras to gritty analog synths, with the push of a single button we can fill an entire soundscape or live ensemble. But sometimes, the “less is more” approach is better. Taking a small section of music and not playing anything at all will show you how just how effective silence can be. The more you involve space in your playing, the more you will stick out when you do play. Let’s take an eight-bar chord progression in the key of G and examine a few ways to make more music by playing less on the keys.
1. Organ Lines
Ex. 1 takes a minimalist approach to Hammond organ. In fact, I don’t bring the B-3 in until the end of bar 4. Using a simple drawbar setting of 00 8000 025, the organ enters with a short upward gliss and the Leslie on fast. (This indicates to the listener that something is now happening in keyboard world). Once I settle on the high G, I switch the Leslie to slow and sustain the note, staying out of the way for a few more measures until switching the Leslie back to fast, and adding a few more notes to highlight the B-3 once again.
2. Organ Pads
Ex. 2 is as simple as they come. With a drawbar setting of 04 8400 024, I tacet most of the first half of the phrase, swelling in the B-3 in bar 4 in order to sustain a pad in bars 5 through 8. (Notice how in bar 7 my pad creates a Dsus chord while some of the other instruments play a straight D chord. I love that sound!) This pad stays out of the way of the rest of the instrumentation while lending some “glue” to the mix. The key is finding common tones between chords that you can hold throughout a moving progression. This allows you to make minimal moves while still making the chord changes. In bar 8, I switch the Leslie from slow to fast to indicate the end of the phrase.
3. Organ Stabs
In the first half of the phrase in Ex. 3, I use sparse organ stabs to set up the sustaining high notes in the second half of the phrase. My drawbar setting is 00 8000 000 and I start with a C2 chorus setting and the Leslie on fast to give these stabs a little more punch. Leaving room for a lot of space in the first half of the phrase allows for the sustaining B-3 notes to create more of a build later on.
4. Wurly Fills
Ex. 4 looks at Wurlitzer electric piano fills. Here I play simple fills in between chord changes, making sure to leave space in between them. The fills themselves include a little syncopation, which helps give them a little more attention in the mix. Again, the less you play, the more it means something when you do play a fill.
5. Wurly Comping
Ex. 5 demonstrates minimal comping on the Wurlitzer. Leaving space while you comp helps you stay out of the way of other instruments while still adding drive and syncopation to the mix. Here, a measure of whole notes leads to a measure of comping, which makes your more complex passages stand out.
“Knowing when not to play as well as when to play minimally can be one of the best tricks to have up your sleeve,” says Nashville-based keyboardist and vocalist Billy Nobel. Nobel grew up in Baltimore and studied piano performance and conducting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He currently plays keyboards and sings with country superstar Tim McGraw.