If you have had a listen to some of the recent albums, you may have noticed that the “approach” to keyboard playing is somewhat different to a few years ago, where most of the albums were heavily reliant on the piano driving a lot of the worship songs, and even praise songs. In the last few years there has a been a bit of a shift to our approach to keyboards, and the way in which parts are written, the sounds that are used, and the context for which the keyboards feature in general. I hope in this article to give a bit of insight and help in your own approach to your keyboards and sounds.
1. PARTS: (play with purpose) Rather than constantly using the piano to drive the songs, we’ve taken an approach of writing specific parts for each song, similar to the other instruments…. I.e. If someone hears the bass riff to “take it all” it is quite signature, and one immediately picks up what song is about to be sung, or the drum intro to “run” etc. The same goes for keyboard players. We aim to write specific parts for songs within the band setting that make the song recognizable and put a signature feature on each song, i.e. The Synth line in “Freedom is Here,”(Latest United Album: Tear Down the Walls) or the piano riff in “His Glory Appears” (Latest Hillsong Live Album: Faith Hope Love)
First step to writing a great part is to listen to the song itself. Listen to the melody, the feel, dynamics, the “possibilities” of what the song could sound like. For example, if you hear the intro to desert song, the kick intro, the 3 note piano riff, and the guitar line, it automatically sets the lyrics up with a great platform to go off of. Once you have had a listen to the song, have a listen to what other ‘riffs’ or ‘parts’ are in place. If we are in a new song workshop, and the guitar player is already playing a great guitar riff, my approach would be something more background and supporting of that, out of the way of whatever register it is in, something that aims to cause the riff to feature and gives it good support, even a constant sound like a pad, harmonium, or organ.
2. SOUNDS: (not just piano playing) Many keys players see themselves as ‘piano’ players. Piano is one of the sounds we use, but to think of yourself as a ‘piano’ player might inhibit your thinking with regards to the rest of the sound spectrum available to keys players. Synths, leads, pads, moving pads, rhodes, electric pianos, organs, harmonium, effects, delays, overdrives, filters, and many more sounds and tools are available for you to browse through in your approach to a song and playing, rather than just strictly bashing out a piano sound with all your strength. A few examples of different sounds below…
-“Tear Down the Walls” off the latest United Album, … Verse 1 has a fat pad supporting everything, and once the drums/bass kick in, the same sound is played in a rhythmic pattern with delay, which gives a totally different vibe and actually provides a platform for the rest of the song.
– “For Your Name” off the latest Hillsong Live Album, has a keys intro line that is a synth bass line with 2 different types of distortion on it that runs through the intro/verse line
– “Freedom is Here” – already referred to previously, but has a constant synth line that runs the entire way through the song that the rest of the arrangement ‘hinges’ around.
– “King of All Days” – the repetitive rhodes line with delay throughout the song (intro/verse/bridge) Then, if you do a piano line, make sure that it is with purpose, rather than just chugging out the chords –
– “You Hold me Now” – United Album version – piano line the whole way through – “Its Your Love” – Hillsong Live Album – piano lines in intro & bridge etc. – “His Glory Appears” – Hillsong Live Album – piano based song with chords as well as specific parts/riffs.
3. CONTEXT: (what is needed from me?) One of the best ways to approach different settings of playing is to ask yourself the question, what is needed from me for this song, with this band? Adapt playing to the musical setting you are in. If you are in a setting with a full band (2 electrics, drums, bass, 2 keyboards), the way in which you will approach your playing, sounds etc, will be very different than say if you are in a setting with a keyboard and 2 acoustics. If you are playing in a ‘full band’ setting, there is room for different sounds/parts as you might not be relied on as much to cover the silence or drive the song as much of this will be done for you. Often, with a full band, think “less is more,” and stop and listen to what the song ‘needs’ from you as a keyboard player. What is not being played that should be? Often a simple line that stays out of the way of the guitars, and is complimentary to the feel of the song can be a brilliant addition.
If you find yourself playing in a smaller setting, say with a keyboard and 2 acoustics, you would need to learn to distinguish the ‘signature’ parts of the song that cannot be left out, and also think about what the song ‘needs’ from you in whatever context you are playing in. Perhaps your playing will need to drive things a bit more, or perhaps if you are playing with 2 acoustics, it might be better to stick to a pad or an organ sound as both acoustics will most likely be driving the song rhythmically.