How to Stop Playing the Keyboard Like a Pianist (and other tips, tricks & secrets)
by Jordan Wei
Nightmares of Keyboardists
Picture this. It’s 1pm on a Saturday afternoon and throngs of crowds have gathered to see the battle of the bands competition at your local arts hub. Your group is next to go on and you can’t contain your excitement. You’ve been practicing for this at home since 2 months ago because you’re only 16 and it’s your 1st public performance.
Cue lights, cue emcee. You’re on. You have 5 mins to setup. Piece of cake. You walk on to the stage only to discover that to your horror, the keyboard they’ve provided is a complicated smorgasbord of knobs and buttons. “Where the HECK is the piano sound?”, you mumble to yourself as the drummer starts counting off the 1st tune. Too late. The clash of timbres resonates into the distance as you sheepishly try to avoid any eye contact with your noticeably upset band mates. EPIC fail.
Have you ever been in a similar situation? The part where you turn up to a gig and go: “What the hell am I supposed to do with this thing? I thought I was only supposed to play piano! Harrumph!”
I can totally sympathize with you. That scenario above? That was me. But like it or not, technology is here to stay, and with the advancement of so many new keyboards and synthesizers, our playing style needs to evolve as well. So here is a list of keyboard essentials to help you get better prepared for your next performance; and hopefully you’ll be able to rock the audience with your EPIC keyboard solos instead.
Disclaimer: I am using the term “keyboard” in a broad sense. I won’t get into the finer details like the distinctions between organs, synths, digital workstations, electones and MIDI controllers, etc.
1. Keyboard “Life & Death” Essentials
The 1st thing to take into consideration when playing a keyboard is that it is NOT the same as playing on a piano. Yes the physical black and white keys may look identical but that’s about it. Even the sustain pedal can differ!
Here are some basic keyboard features to check even BEFORE you start playing any notes! Once you make sure all of these are in order, you’ll prevent any awkward and embarrassing moments from happening during your gig.
Weighted vs Semi-weighted vs Non-weighted keys
- Touch Sensitivity
- Pedal Polarity
- Arpeggio Function
- Octave Function
- Transpose Function
- Tuning Function
- Modulation Wheel
- Volume Pedal
- LCD Display
What Are Weighted Keys And Why Should it Matter?
Weighted keys refers to the amount of resistance a piano key has when your fingers push down on it. Semi-weighted keys are less resistant to finger pressure and non-weighted keys have virtually no resistance at all. You’ll also find that on some keyboards, the keys are horizontally cut in half and feel lighter.
So taking all these differences into consideration, you have to adjust the velocity of your hands accordingly. And yes, in general your fingers fly faster on the keyboards than if you played on a regular piano.
Touch Sensitivity Can Affect Your Keyboard Performance
Touch sensitivity is another aspect where a performance can go horribly wrong if you don’t enable this function. It means that all the notes would sound at the same volume EVEN though you are physically changing your touch.
Imagine Bach’s Prelude in C Major but with all the notes sounding at maximum volume. Tragic. The majority of keyboards already have touch sensitivity selected as their default setting but if they don’t, it can be found quite easily under the “function” or “settings” buttons.
Sustain Pedal Incompatibilities
The infamous pedal polarity and the incompatibility of Yamaha and Roland keyboards is an issue that is all too commonplace in many live venue setups. Incorrect or reverse pedal polarity is when you press down on a pedal, the notes don’t sustain; and when you lift your foot off the pedal, they sustain.
An absolute nightmare when you’re trying to play ballads. Always check if your pedal brand matches your keyboard brand! If not, get a generic brand of sustain pedals with a polarity switch like On-Stage or M-Audio, and bring it to the gig yourself! Alternatively you could train to play without a pedal so you that it doesn’t become a crutch to rely on. Fun times.
A Sudden Drumbeat? Arpeggio's Your Culprit
If a random ostinato or drum beat starts to play on your keyboard the moment you hit a key, it’s most likely because the arpeggio function is enabled. Find the arpeggio button and cancel this effect immediately; or pretend it was intentional and start busting out your finest DJ moves. Whatever course of action you opt for, it’s still better than being panic-stricken as to what to do when you can’t get the arpeggiator to stop.
The octave function on a keyboard is indicated by a + or - button and is usually automatically enabled when you switch to a patch like organ or synth midway through a song. To disable it, press + or - respectively to the range you want to play in.
Like the octave function, the transpose function is also indicated via the + and - buttons. Use these buttons to adjust the keyboard to your desired key but please be responsible and restore it back to its original setting for the next keyboardist to use.
Out Of Tune Digital Keyboard? Look at Your Tuning Setting
The tuning function is available on a lot of keyboards, but it takes a while to find as it’s not a one-touch setting. If you’re very nitpicky about whether the band should be in 440Hz vs 442Hz then this is your salvation. Frankly I would only do something if you suddenly realize the keyboard bizarrely set to 432Hz and the guitarist is frantically trying to tune his strings.
What About Modulation Wheels?
The modulation wheel is that small half-rotating semi-circle disc shape thing found on the bottom left hand side of the keyboard which all children (and a few adults) like to touch without permission.
Not to be confused with the pitch bend wheel which has more tension and is even more annoying when people touch it. Make sure that this wheel its pushed all the way down towards you and not facing upwards towards the crowd. Unless of course you want that ghostly vibrato to scare off the children touching it in the 1st place. Mod wheels are good for varying synths and organ sounds. (more on this later)
Pitch Bending Wheels, Don't Get Confused
Side note: Pitch Bend Wheels will snap back to their original position the moment you let go of them but Mod Wheels retain the position you push them to.
A volume pedal is technically not part of the keyboard, but an external gadget that allows your feet to control the volume instead of your hands. If you have everything in order but still don’t hear any sound when you 1st setup, chances are that the volume pedal is tilted up at a 90 degree angle. In which case you should floor the thing and discover your threshold for loud noises.
Volume pedals are very useful when your hands are doing way too much and you can’t reach for the normal volume control on your keyboard in time. Very effective for playing those thick orchestral / strings dynamic swells where all your fingers are required.
Keyboard Lights and Displays
Ever wondered why so many keyboards have an illuminated LCD display? It’s so that performers are able to locate the sounds more easily in big productions like TV shows or Mega Concerts.
Visualize the classic New Year’s Eve event. Strobing lights, pyrotechnics, dancers with luminescent attire, camera flashes and of course the blinding fireworks. With all these activities going on, it’s difficult to see if you’ve chosen the correct sound before every song. Always ensure that the “contrast" settings for your LCD display are set to the optimum glare, if not you’re gonna have a bad time. (insert South Park ref) Note that not all keyboards will have this function though.
2. Keyboard Playing Enhancements
Piano players have their limitations when it comes to making a performance sound as full and interesting as possible. The most musical information that they can probably convey, is no more than loud vs quiet, quick vs slow, and sparse vs dense playing.
Whereas keyboardists have a whole list of options at their disposal, and should start learning how to use them!
- Split Function
- Layer Function
- Faders / Volume Pedals
- Pitch Bend Wheel
- Other Filters / EFX
What is the "Split" Function on The Keyboard For?
The Split Function allows the keyboard to be divided into 2 separate sections via a split point. The default patch is usually bass in the left hand and keys in the right. You may find that on some keyboards, the split point is set too high for the lower patch. In which case, hold down the SPLIT button for 2 seconds and then press the key where you want the split point to be.
Step 1: You want your split point at G3
Step 2: Press SPLIT button (2 seconds) +G3
This “shifting the split point” method is universal on 90% of keyboards but there are a few user-unfriendly ones where you have to go into the “settings” mode first. Split function volumes and patches can be changed too and is normally adjusted with the selection arrows, scroll wheel or settings buttons. Check your keyboard manual for specifics.
The Layer Function For Keyboards
The Layer Function means that you’re adding another instrument on top of your primary sound. This is typically a pads or strings default but you can change it to different instrument like marimba or mellotron flute. Layered volumes and patches are also adjustable on most keyboards.
Faders are those sliding knobs on the keyboard that no one knows exists until they are pushed accidentally. Not all keyboards have faders but you should totally exploit this function on the ones that do. The faders correspond to the number of voices you have selected.
For example if you have:
Primary Sound > Piano
Layered Sound > Pads
Split Sound > E.Bass
Then Fader 1 would be for Piano, Fader 2 for Pads and Fader 3 for E.Bass. The number of faders can range anywhere between 2-4 on various keyboards. Faders are useful when you have to play piano and pads in the verse then only bring up the level of the pads in the chorus.
What about the EQ (Equalizer) Function?
Some keyboards have an EQ function, which means you can alter the specific frequencies of a patch / sound / instrument on the keyboard. You can find this via the EQ faders / sliders or EQ knobs / dials. Use the EQ function when you can’t get a decent sound tech to do it for you on the mixer board. Boost your highs and lows accordingly and confuse them in retribution to their mediocrity.
The pitch bend wheel allows for microtones to be played and is especially handy when you need to emulate electric guitar solos that an ordinary piano can’t do. Making ecstatic guitar solo faces is highly recommended for a more realistic effect.
Reverb To Keep Dry Boring Sounds Away
Reverb is a one touch setting which you can select when you don’t want your keyboard to sound dead and dry. Acoustic pianos are limited to the reverb of their location, whereas on most keyboards, you have a range of alternatives such as hall, room, studio or cathedral reverb. Reverb decay times are also adjustable via a dial / knob.
Keyboards do have tons of other filters and effects such as phasing, wah-wah, gates, hi-pass filters, low-pass filters and distortion, and can really amp up a sound. However, we won’t go into the details or else this article would be 3x as long.
3. Keyboard Sounds and uses
When it comes to keyboard playing, a great number of pianists don’t realize just how powerfully they can affect a song solely by choosing an appropriate instrument patch. In this section,
I’ve listed typical instrument choices for the different genres, their idiosyncrasies and how you can incorporate these characteristics into your performance.
- Piano / E. Piano
- Clavi / Harpsichord
- Strings / Pads
- Lead Synths / Polyphony / Portamento
- Comp Synths (Orch. Hit)
- Guitars / Harp
- Harmonica / Flute / Oboe
- Marimba / Xylophone / Vibraphone
- Ethnic Instruments (Erhu, Guzhen, Sitar, Koto, etc)
- Split playing
Piano sounds are a no-brainer. They can be used for every genre from romantic pop ballads to lively rock & roll. Use a standard grand piano sound for ballads and layer it with strings or pads but use the brighter rock piano sound for loud and faster songs. Rock piano patches work well on Latin Montunos too as the sound cuts through better.
E.piano sounds can be divided into 3 groups. Rhodes, DX7 and Wurlitzer. The Rhodes sound is warm, round and very suitable for Funk or R&B. The DX7 sound is iconic for its crystal bell timbre and is particularly apt for Disney ballads. Lastly, the Wurlitzer is good for that extra crunch and drive in 70s / 80s disco or rock tunes.
The Clavi sound was made popular by Stevie Wonder in his hit “Superstition” and makes a good fit for funky songs which need a bit more bite than the Wurlitzer. The Harpsichord sound is not often used but works best for classical-esque intros / interludes such as JJ Lin’s “One Shot” or Jackson 5’s “I’ll be there”.
Organ sounds are divided primarily into 2 groups. Jazz and Rock. Use the Jazz Organ sound for the choruses of R&B or Funk tunes. Use the Rock Organ sound for rock and heavy metal. There is also a tremolo option that can be enabled via the modulation wheel, and gives your organ a nice vibrato effect. Church Organ sounds are rarely used in contemporary pop music but there are recordings where you will hear it being utilized. (e.g. Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”)
Strings & Pads are mainly used for ballads mostly but there are some instances which require pizzicato or marcato playing, so switch to the relevant patch accordingly. Marcato string playing usually occurs at the pre-chorus or bridge section of a song, and helps emphasize the buildup towards the chorus. Solo string instruments such as the Violin and Cello are occasionally used for melodic counterpoint in ballads too. Use Fiddle for country music.
Lead Synths are divided into 3 groups. Saw, Sine and Square. The names refer to the waveforms each of them produces. The saw synth lead is buzzy and generally used for techno or dance music. The sine synth lead is very pure in tone and used for pop or R&B fill ins such as in the intro of Jay Chou’s “Gao Bai Qi Qiu”. The square lead is like the saw lead but sounds more hollow. It is also used for dance and techno but more commonly employed in retro game music, ala “Super Mario Bros.” or “Tetris”.
What You Need To Know About Lead Synths
Another point to note, is that for Lead Synths, you have to be careful not to hit more than 2 notes at once, as most Lead Synths do not have polyphony. This means that when you hit the 1st note, then subsequently hit the 2nd note whilst still holding the 1st note down, only the 2nd pitch will sound.
On the flip side, the reason why synth leads are built this way is to allow for portamento to be used. Portamento is when you have a smooth slide from one note to another. The synth solo in Walk the moon’s “Shut up and Dance” is a prime example of how portamento can be used effectively.
Comp. Synths have the same waveforms as Lead Synths but the only difference is that they have polyphony. (2 or more notes are able to sound at the same time) In Van Halen’s “Jump” you will hear the quintessential usage of a synth comp (saw) sound. Besides the regular Saw, Sine and Square Comp. Synths, you do get other synthesized patches such as Orch. Hit, Triangle and Pulse, etc. which work for a variety of styles. Check out the Orch. Hit. sound in the Mission Impossible theme! The song wouldn’t be the same without it!
As with Strings, Brass sounds can either be individual or collective. A collective Brass section can often be heard in groovy numbers such as Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” or any Earth, Wind & Fire tunes; whereas solo instruments like Muted Trumpet and French Horn are common for Jazz & Classical passages respectively.
Guitar sounds on the keyboard seldom do justice to the real thing. Nevertheless, it’s always good to know how to get the patch to sound as realistic as possible. Use the Acoustic Nylon Guitar patch for Bossa Nova, Bolero or Mellow Jazz. Use the Steel String Guitar for Acoustic Pop or Country. Use the Electric Jazz Guitar sound for mid to up tempo Jazz.
Use the Wah-Wah Guitar patch for Funk and Motown and finally, use the Distortion or Overdrive Guitar for Rock and Heavy Metal solos. With the exception of Rock and Heavy Metal, guitar strumming and plucking patterns can be replicated quite authentically for each genre. One additional point to note is that on a handful of keyboards, hitting a key at maximum velocity produces a guitar harmonic sound. Practice combining this feature with a few pitch bends and you’ll be able to execute convincing guitar solos in no time.
Woodwind sounds like Harmonica, Flute and Oboe are sweet-sounding replacements for more raspy and grating solo Brass / String instruments. For instance “That’s what friends are for” by Dionne Warwick employs a Harmonica, “My heart will go on” by Celine Dion has a Wooden Flute and “For all we know” by The Carpenters makes use of an Oboe.
Creative Use of Uncommon Sounds
Keyboardists hardly ever choose pitched percussion patches such as Marimba / Xylophone / Vibraphone as their primary instrument due to their unconventional nature in pop songs, but there ARE tasteful ways to integrate these into your playing. Marimba and Xylophone sounds are good for Reggae or Calypso, and sometimes a Steel Pan Drum patch works too. The Vibraphone is more metallic sounding and blends well into Jazz or Bossa Nova.
There are times when the music calls for obscure Ethnic instruments from both Eastern and Western traditions. Take a look at the Guzhen part in Jay Chou’s “Ju Hua Tai”, the Turkish Oud in Justin Timberlake’s “What goes around comes around” and the Irish Bodhrán and Penny Whistle in The Corrs’ “Dreams”. Another ethnic instrument that has been quite popular recently is the Kalimba, which can be heard in Maroon 5’s “Don’t wanna know” and Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of you”.
When playing Ethnic instruments, you do have to factor in the various playing ranges and techniques, so as to make them sound as close as possible to real thing. For example, you wouldn’t make the Penny Whistle hold a note for longer 20 seconds, as you would imagine any woodwind player running out of breath quite soon after that. You also wouldn’t have an Oud play in the same register a Piccolo, as that would be physically impossible for a real Oud to do. In addition, tweaking the EQ and filters on the keyboard can help you obtain that identical sound as well.
Vocoder — Weird Robotic Sounds
A Vocoder is a device that transforms your voice into a robotic sounding machine and has a very quirky effect. But how on earth does one use this in contemporary music? If you search for Cory Henry and Jacob Collier performing “Billie Jean” at the BBC Proms, you’ll see just how cleverly both of them use the Vocoder to complement the lush harmonies of the orchestra. Vocoders take a while to get used to because you have to press the keys down and sing into the microphone simultaneously, otherwise no sound come through.
Lastly, not an actual instrument but a side note about split playing. When a split sound is selected on certain keyboards, you will notice that it doesn’t have polyphony; which means that you have to be very conscious of how you play your left hand part. As rule of thumb (pun intended), always try to play single notes when it comes to left hand bass split playing. If the keyboard DOES have split function polyphony, then playing more than one note at a time would make the split voice sound very muddy and clustered.
So there you have it. How to stop playing the keyboard like a pianist, and tips and tricks to making you sound better. What was your favourite tip? Any other useful suggestions that you can think of?
Comment below to let me know!
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