Do you want to be Franz Liszt or Chas 'n' Dave?

Playing the keyboards


There was a time not so long ago (oh alright, thirty years or so) when it was considered normal, but rather "square", to have piano lessons. Loads of kids seemed to have them, and loads gave up as soon as they decently could, usually some time shortly after going to secondary school. You spent an hour or more a week with some middle-aged matron who would give you something to practise, usually on the old upright sitting in your dining room, until you saw her again. The few that stuck the course into their teens usually did graded exams and went on to do music at 'O' level (the hallowed forerunner to GCSE) or further, the really brilliant ones going on to do music at some higher institution. Most of the rest of us oiks regarded piano study with a mixture of awe and disdain: although we were astonished at the technical skill involved, the sort of music that seemed to get played on it just wasn't interesting to us. Even those of us who liked keyboard-heavy prog rock couldn't really hear the sound of the Mellotron in our contemporaries' tinkling of a sonata on the music teacher's old joanna, and the nearest to popularity that the classical style in keyboard music came was Keith Emerson's flamboyant playing in Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Even that could be a turnoff to some who liked their rock straight and heavy without too many frills from some bright spark sat behind an organ.

Another offputting factor in those days to those of us who might have considered playing keyboards was the sheer cost. True, buying a decent electric guitar and amp would set you back three figures, but not as much as buying a Hohner electric organ or Fender Rhodes, while Mellotrons, early ARP synths or Hammond C3s cost a king's ransom: you had to be earning serious money (ie working and living at home) to obtain one of those. In any event, synthesisers were in the early stage and, apart from sometimes looking like old-style telephone exchanges, could be notoriously unreliable, especially with tuning. And anyway, how were you going to learn to play it?

The times they were a' changing

Up to the late seventies the keyboard player, if you had one in your band, was usually the disaffected or smart-aleck kid who had had lessons or else the real herbert who didn't know how to play rock and whom you had to relentlessly dumb down to get to sound right. What changed all that was the advent of cheaper keyboards, particularly synthesisers. The old string machines (keyboards that made a noise variable between an organ and a lush string orchestra) paved the way, followed by small two-octave monophonic (one note at a time) synths that could be programmed to sound like an organ or like outer space static. Coupled with this sudden cheapness and innovation was a change in the rock culture itself: being too clever was out, prog rock and fellow travellers were ridiculed as "dinosaurs", and punk rock ushered in a new standard of minimalist economy. True, most punk bands didn't have keyboards, even, but they set the pace for simpler music. At the same time there was also an interest in pure electronic music without guitars or even drums or bass, as exemplified by Kraftwerk who had in fact been playing this way for most of the seventies.

But the floodgates really opened with the eighties and MIDI. While in my own personal opinion a lot of the eighties was a superficial decade (think power dressing, shoulder pads and Stock, Aitken and Waterman!), these years saw some of the most important changes in keyboards for the masses. Thanks to the now established silicon chip your keyboard could do more, including sounding more and more like other instruments, and thanks to the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) standard it could do those things with other keyboards or instruments. It wasn't long before we had drum machines, sequencers, keyboards, samplers and even wind instruments linked up together in one menacing setup. True, some of it was over the top (some bands have since scaled down on this aspect of their setup and focused more on the basics of guitar, bass and drums), but it was a good learning curve, and it was fun.

Today you can buy a decent keyboard for 300 or so, and the simaltaneous rise in computer processing power means that you can make music on your home PC where formerly you needed a dedicated keyboard amp. However, for the purpose of this page I am addressing those who want to play with other people, ie in a band. I do a lot of home stuff myself, but I think nothing beats the buzz of playing with other people.

Where do I start?

I'm assuming that you've got (a) no experience or training and (b) no equipment. (b) is easy to sort out with a bit of cash: (a) takes longer but can also be achieved fairly quickly.

A Tune A Day

.... was the name of those elementary textbooks we used to have at school for learning to play the tuba, trumpet, piano, Peruvian nose flute or whatever. If you are wanting to play pop or rock in a band, however, you don't need to adopt the more strictly defined classical method of learning. You probably don't even need lessons. What you do need is the enthusiasm to learn and something to practise on.

The basic requirement for 99% of keyboard players in any sort of electric group is that they can play chords. Chords are a bunch of notes held together to make a certain sort of sound - different combinations, different sounds and often different moods. Probably the best book you can buy is a guide to piano chords, showing you which notes to hit to produce which chords. It's not as difficult as it looks, although you will need to practise the different chord shapes to memorise them, just as you would if you were learning to play the guitar. The good news is that you start off with the simple, three-note chords (which form the basis of most pop and rock anyway) and can then go on to learn the more advanced ones. If you are playing a synth you also don't need to worry too much about your left hand, unlike on the piano where you do need to learn to coordinate the two. I'm not knocking the use of the left hand for a moment, but often in a band situation the bass player is playing the low notes anyway, and you will probably need the left hand to change controls on the synth. Again, in most band situations you won't need to play much fancy stuff with the right hand either. You're certainly not required to be a concert pianist, and such people are sometimes viewed with distrust anyway. It's good to be able to play a keyboard solo, but you can pick that up later.


This brings us to what you actually play on. If you have a piano at home you can obviously practise on that, but if you are going to play with other people you can't exactly take the piano with you. For that matter, most pianos just don't sound right in a group context anyway, unless you're playing blues, jazz or R'n'B which is tricky anyway. My own opinion is that it's better to buy a half-decent synth that is going to sound OK with other people and practise on that from the start. Although the standard of home keyboards is tremendously high these days, I recommend you stick to a "proper" synth, one with a few controls that you can use to change the sounds and which has a line output so that you can connect to an amplifier. You will probably also want one with a MIDI input and output.

Which synth?

There's no easy answer to that question, since synths change year by year (like computers!) and yesterday's top model is tomorrow's bargain ad in the local free paper. There are some big name manufacturers like Roland, Yamaha, Korg, Casio and others who make a whole range of stuff, and there is also a huge reservoir of second-hand gear out there. The best thing to do first of all is to decide roughly how much you can spend and then look in both the shops and the second-hand ads at what's available. The next thing to do, of course, is to try some out and see if you like the sounds. Some synths are designed for certain markets, and if you want to play rock for example then it's probably a mistake buying one that's built for making dance music. If in doubt, take someone with you who plays keyboards or knows a bit about them. There are also magazines and books you can buy, or possibly obtain from the library, giving both reviews and price guides. The normal advice applies if you buy second-hand privately, ie make sure the thing works before you lay out good money.

The other thing you will probably need at this point is a keyboard stand. These look rather like an ironing board with the flat board removed: they fold up and can be set up at different heights depending on the player. You can rest your synth on top of it when you're playing. It's usually a lot better than trying to play it on the kitchen table. If you want to make music straight away, you can either play through headphones or connect it to your PC's speakers.


Sooner or later if you want to play with other people then you're going to have to bite the bullet and buy an amplifier. This is absolutely necessary if you're playing with a drummer, since it's the only way you can make yourself heard above their noise (no disrespect to drummers, but we're talking sound levels here). You can get away with using an old bass amp, but it is much better (in terms of both efficiency and sound quality) to use a proper keyboard amplifier. The advantage of most keyboard amps is that they have at least two or three separate inputs, allowing you to play more than one keyboard through the same amp. The corresponding disadvantage is that they aren't always cheap - you could pay as much for your amplifier as for your synth, if not more. The size in power ratings also goes up from a few watts (enough to play at home in your bedroom) to 300 watts (loud enough to destroy property, if you're so inclined). What you have to remember is that the more watts, the more you pay and also usually the heavier in weight the amplifier is. Bear in mind that you're the one who will have to lift it in and out of car boots. I think a good rule of thumb is that 50 watts is the minimum power needed if you are going to play with a human drummer. Reverb is also desirable, and a practical help is four castor wheels on the bottom of the amp to allow you to push it along the pavement instead of working up a sweat before you've even started playing.

In conclusion

Playing the keyboards need not be difficult, nor expensive once you've made the initial outlay. Unlike guitarists, you are also spared the agony of blisters on your fingers for the first few months of learning. There are also nowadays plenty of good tuition books available for people who want to play in a band as opposed to playing solo pieces, and if you get stuck you may be able to ask a friend or someone you know for a few pointers. Music teachers can help if you want to pay, but make sure you get someone who is in tune with what you want to learn.

There are two tips for learning any instrument well: listen a lot and play a lot. The listening part comes from playing the CDs of your favourite artists (sometimes even if they don't use keyboards) and trying to work out what's going on and how they're playing. The playing part comes not only with practising on your own, but from playing with other people. It's often worth playing with other people just sporadically, as it's good practise and a good way to learning quickly and picking up useful tips. Even playing a song you hate can teach you something. Above all, playing with a drummer (or drum machine) is the best way of sharpening up your rhythm.

Finally, the good news is that keyboard players are always in demand. We all know people who can sing, even if it's only karaoke, and probably plenty of people who play the guitar, but good keyboard players are hard to find. So don't just sit at home playing with sequence loops on your PC - go out and make some chord shapes on your own!

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