The Role of Keyboard in a Band – Do you really need a keyboard player?

It’s not common for a band to have a keyboard player. As of this writing, I know a lot of bands who survives even without a keyboard player. They have a good music without relying to a keyboard which is one of the reason why there is a scarcity of keyboard players. But I want to tell you that the role of keyboard in a band is so different that it cannot be done by other band members. Later, we’ll tackle that.

Many keyboard players stick in producing music because they can produce music that is complete with drums, bass, guitar, and even techno sound. Thanks for the midi keyboards, the patches now are found in computers which make it easy to produce music nowadays.

Since most of them are on the solo career, you might think what can a keyboard player add in a band. Because of the vast amount of patches they have on their computer or on the digital keyboard, keyboard players can add a variety of flavors in your music so you should consider having one if you don’t have.

Keyboard vs Piano

Many people usually interchanged these two words a lot of times thinking that they have the same meaning. But truth to be told, these two terms are different from each other. Piano is an acoustic instrument that has strings on its back that is used to produce sound. It is what you typically see in an orchestra and it is really big and heavy. I know this is a common sense, but you can’t bring this in your gigs.

An Acoustic Piano and it shows that it is different from keyboard

Keyboard, on the other hand, is an electronic instrument that has the same keys like of a piano but usually not “weighted”. It has a lot of sounds stored in its memory like piano sound, organ, synthesizer, strings, brass and a lot more. It is significantly lighter than a piano but requires electricity to operate. This is easier to bring with in a gig.

The Role of Keyboard in a Band

1. Create an Atmosphere

The benefit of having an atmosphere in the band is that it creates a certain emotion that allows the message of your song to be felt much stronger. The keyboard player should know what message should be conveyed and create such atmosphere using the patches he has in his keyboard.

One special role of a keyboard is the ability to create an atmosphere to a band. Through the use of Pads or other patches, you can just be in the background providing an atmosphere without overwhelming the rhythm or destroying the harmony. Creating an atmosphere is possible with other instruments but on a keyboard, this is just a piece of cake. If you think your music is good but lacks something, maybe you lack the atmosphere.

2. Drive/Support the Rhythm and Tonal Section

A keyboard player can either drive the rhythm or support it. It depends on the song or what the band has agreed upon. If the song is guitar-driven, then you can focus on supporting the rhythm, either by playing with the beat or just sustaining your sound which will led in having a great atmosphere. You should not add too much of your riffs when the guitar is driving the rhythm since it is not your job to do that.

If the song is piano-driven, then you should focus on using a piano sound or an electric piano sound to spice up the music. In this way, you’ll drive the rhythm and the guitar will support you on whatever you are doing. You can add your riffs this time as long as it won’t hurt the rhythm

3. Fill in the Gaps but let the Music breathe

Another role of keyboard is to find a gap in your music and fill that. The beauty in letting the keyboard player do that is that filling those gaps by using his patches will not sound too overwhelming since most patches doesn’t sound punchy and more of an ambient sound. This way, your music will sound thick and intact without too many punchy sounds being heard. This is hard to achieve by a guitar sound since a pluck in a string sounds punchy.

What separate a professional from a beginner keyboard player is the ability to know when to fill the gaps or just let it. Not filling the gaps will result to a low energy at that moment which can either result in a good way or bad way. Good way because your dynamics will be better, having a low energy from time to time is a sign of good music. Bad way because your music will sound weak and less power and you’ll fail to convey the message of your songs.

If you are a keyboard player, be mindful of the dynamics of the band and decide whether to fill the gaps or not. When I’m playing, I always decide based on what the listeners will feel if I fill the gap or not. If you submerged yourself in to the music, you’ll know when to fill and not.

Some tips on how to be a better keyboard player

1. Know if the song is guitar-driven or piano-driven

This is subjective to every band. You should decide if what instrument should drive the song. If the song is guitar-driven, the keyboard player should support and remain in the background. Don’t add unnecessary riffs since you are not the one driving the song. Just focus on playing with the rhythm.

If the song is piano-driven, you can spice up your playing by adding your riffs to right places. Don’t forget that you should still play with the rhythm so that your riffs will not be out of place. You can be more creative during this time by adding melodic lines every once in a while.

2. Utilize other patches

Digital keyboards have many patches stored in its memory. Try to use other patches once in a while. Brass, strings, organ, Synth, pads and many other patches are useful in a lot of genres so you should utilize it. Don’t focus on using the piano sound only since one of your role is to create an atmosphere and it can be achieved by using other patches.

3. Don’t mess with the range of the bass player

One thing you should look out for is your left hand. There are even some people who suggests that you should just use the right hand when in a band set up since your bass player is the one doing the low end stuffs. I agree with that and continuously playing on the low end will muddy the music. But if you have the right discipline, you can still use your left hand as long as you are in sync with the bass.

If you can’t stop abusing your left hand since most keyboard players learned to play alone, you should put your left hand at your back when playing to avoid muddy-ing the whole sound of the band.

4. Pick your Spot

You should talk with your bandmates like the guitar player and try to play your part without getting on the same range of frequency. If you are creating an atmosphere, this will not be an issue since you can play anywhere. But if you are using a punchy sound like a piano sound, then you should not play on the same range as of guitar.

Creating an atmosphere is achieved by using an ambient sound so playing on the same range will never be a problem. There will be even times that for the whole song, you’ll only use two notes that is sustained for the whole time. But when playing patches like a piano sound, then you can either play on other range or not play anything at all.

5. Hammer Action is best for Piano Sound

As I am looking for a keyboard many years ago, I encountered this term and I am wondering what this is about. Hammer Action tends to replicate the feel of a real acoustic piano. It means it will be heavier on the lower end and lighter as it goes higher. This is the best action if you want to play a piano sound because the strength you exert is directly proportional to the loudness it produced.

Other actions will have a hard time expressing the right emotion since it requires less strength to produce a full sound. It means that you have to play really really soft if you want a soft sound and this can be hard to achieve especially if you studied piano using an acoustic piano. So, if you rely on piano a lot of times, consider looking for a keyboard with hammer action

Brown digital keyboard with hands playing it

6. Synth-Action vs Semi-Weighted

Synth-action is the most common action of digital keyboards. It has no weight at all and you don’t even have to use force to press the keybed. It is beneficial to Synth patches since playing fast will be easy. Full sound without using a lot of force is important when doing your lead lines. But this is the most unreliable action when using piano sound. Even if it is velocity sensitive, playing dynamically is hard to achieve in this action.

Semi-weighted lies between the hammer action and Synth action. You’ll use some force to press the keys and you can play soft to achieve soft sound. You can’t get the same vibe just like with the hammer action, but this is much better and workable compared to Synth action when it comes with a piano sound. However, you’ll have a harder time when playing Synth patches.

It is advised that you have at least 2 keyboards when playing. One with hammer action for the piano, and a Synth action for your Synth patches. But since we live in reality, you choose the action based on the patches you use frequently. If you do not use a piano, then go for the Synth action. I often use a lot of patches, from piano to Synth, so I always choose a Semi-weighted action when looking for a keyboard.

7. MIDI vs Digital Keyboard

If you are playing for a long time, I’m sure that you have encountered some Midi keyboard controller. This kind of keyboard has no memory or sound in its hardware. It is just a keybed with some knobs, pads or faders and it requires a software if you want to produce a sound.

Pricewise, Midi Keyboard set up is much cheaper compared to a digital keyboard. If you want beautiful patches, then you have to prepare a lot of money if you are buying a digital keyboard. But in MIDI, since every sound is on the computer, then you just need to purchase the program to have an access for beautiful patches.

Both have pros and cons and you should study carefully on what will work for you. Digital keyboards are plug-and-play and easier to use on a gig than MIDI keyboards, but having an access to other beautiful patches is harder. But MIDI Keyboards are lighter and easy to bring, but you’ll need to have a powerful laptop to make sure your playing will run smoothly.

8. Use Riffs at Proper Time

Just like any other lead instrument, keyboard players tend to overplay at times. They use riffs at the wrong time and even if the riff is fantastic, the overall result sounds horrible since it’s out of place. When you want to use riffs, make sure that you serve the music and not just to show off.

Sometimes, two notes is enough to serve the music and have a fantastic result than using a riff with many notes. Many notes is never equal to beautiful sound.

9. Utilize other Chord Voicings and Inversions

There are a lot of other Chord voicings out there so try to study some of it. Instead of using a C major, why not use the CM7 chord. You just need to add the B note and you’ll have different flavor in your playing. Open chords are also applicable in most major chords. Instead of doing a normal C, which is C, E, G, try doing C, D, G. This is a Csus2 chord and it sounds better especially when playing in the background.

M7, m7, 9, 11, and 13: this chords are important in some genres and can be used to add some new flavors in your playing. The most chord voicing I use is the minor 7th and major 7th. I also use inversions to achieve different tone even if using the same notes technically.

A high end digital keyboard that is commonly used in a band

Final Thoughts

Keyboard is also essential in a band setup. It can bring a lot of new sound in your band because of the patches it has in its memory. Utilizing it can improve your overall sound as long as your keyboard player knows his role and doesn’t play for himself.

If your band doesn’t have a keyboard player, consider having one. And if you are a keyboard player, playing with a band can teach you a lot and can improve your song production skills since you’ll know how to sound well using every instruments.

If you have any question, feel free to leave it in the comment box. What do you think is the role of a keyboard player?

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