Strategies for Supporting Singer-Songwriters

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FEW GIGS ARE MORE CHALLENGING AND REWARDING FOR A KEYBOARDIST THAN PLAYING BEHIND singer-songwriters. More often than not, my goal in this role is to add richness and texture to the music, while remaining simple and unobtrusive. Whether I’m playing in an intimate venue or on a giant arena stage, I’m always trying to answer the same musical question: “How can I best serve the song and support the singer?”

Let’s look at several ways of answering this question. The first two examples are particularly useful for ballads and mid-tempo tunes, where an important job of the pianist is to make chord changes flow seamlessly, and where appropriate, to expand the harmonic structure of the accompaniment. You can practice these concepts with almost any chord changes. The second two examples are more appropriate to upbeat, rhythmically driven tunes. Listen carefully for places in a song where accents can help propel both the singer and the song forward.

1. Seamless Changes

This example illustrates a short chord progression typical of many singer-songwriter-style songs. Ex. 1a shows each chord played in the same inversion, which can feel blocky and disjointed behind a vocalist and band. Ex. 1b shows one way to glue the chords together and make things feel more connected. Here, I keep the top and bottom notes of my right hand voicings relatively consistent, placing leading notes in between them to connect the chord changes.

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2. Richer Chords

Ex. 2a is a short chord progression built with triads. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good triad, but when you’re playing the main comping instrument in a ballad, it’s a good idea to add harmonic interest by using color tones like sevenths, ninths, and 11ths in an inversion next to the root or third of the chord. This is shown in Ex. 2b. Tip: On chords like the Amaj9/C# in bar 1 and the Esus and Eadd4 in bar 2, I play the bottom two notes of the right hand with the outside of my thumb, hitting both notes at once, at a nearly right angle to the keys. It’s a great technique for bigger chords with two adjacent white keys on the bottom.

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3. Left-Hand Drum Lock

On funkier or more rhythmically driving tunes, I often lock my left hand in with the kick drum pattern for extra punch, underneath a right-hand quarter-note pedal, as in Ex. 3.

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4. Rhythm Piano

If there’s no rhythm guitarist onstage with you, guess what? You’re it! I actually love playing this role. I’ve developed a “bouncing” technique for this kind of situation, as seen in Ex. 4. The focus here is on varying the off -beat, sixteenth-note accents while keeping time completely even across two hands. Try putting the accents in different places in the beat to change the feel subtly. This works well for choruses or at the ends of tunes to bring the energy level up a notch.

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Rhythm Role

“The key to supporting singer-songwriters is to think about what a rhythm guitarist would do, and what the kick drum is already doing,” says Josh Dodes, who has toured and recorded with Marc Cohn and Toby Lightman, as well as with his own Josh Dodes Band, featured on VH1’s Emmy-nominated series Bands on the Run. Find out more at joshdodes.com.