The keyboard (both piano and organ varieties) ruled the worship music landscape for a long time. It still does in many places. However, over the last 50 years, the guitar has made itself at home in many churches, replacing keyboards as the lead instrument. Where does that leave the keyboard? Here are my top 5 tips for playing the keyboard in a worship band ensemble:
Keep it simple. Do you notice the trend? The same rule applies to every instrument: less is more. When things get too busy there is no room for the song to develop. This is a chronic problem I notice from keyboard players. I guess having that many notes at your fingertips is tempting. Resist the urge to play busy parts. Occasionally force yourself to play with only one hand. Instead of playing chords all the time, try playing a simple counter-melody.
Share the lead. Keyboardists are used to taking the lead. As a pianist or organist, they are used to setting the tempo, giving the downbeat, and helping the assembly sing together. Some of these skills are counterintuitive when playing as a member of a worship band ensemble. Sometimes the guitar or drums needs to push the song in order for it to sound right. This requires the keyboard to relinquish control over the tempo, feel, and sometimes even the tonal structure of the song.
Explore the tones. If you’re playing a piano, I guess you’re stuck. But if you have an electronic keyboard or synth, don’t just stay on the piano sound. Try everything. There are virtually unlimited amounts of patches online. Make a list of the tones you think could have an application.
Study B3. Every church keyboardist should know how to make the Hammond B3 organ sound good. It is the quintessential sound for many churches, and also the glue that holds together a lot of rock, blues, and jazz music. Get on YouTube and figure out how to make it work. Get a lesson from someone who knows.
Deviate from the page. Rarely will you be able to play exactly what is written out for your keyboard part. If it is fully composed, you will probably have to simplify what you play to some extent (following tip 1 and 2). Or if all you have is a chord chart you can’t just play the changes on whole notes. Don’t be afraid to leave the page and create your own part.
3. In keyboard driven worship the guitar players need to listen and play a complementary part and not the same rhythm. (This also applies to a multiple guitar scene).
When the keyboard is the driving instrument in a Worship Band (or just on a song), the guitar players need to do something different rhythmically. If the keyboard is playing steady eighth notes, the guitar should play whole notes, or half notes, or a lead part with a varied rhythm. If the keyboard is playing dense chords, the guitar should play a lighter voicing or even a single note figure. If the keyboard is playing sustained chords, the guitar should play a rhythm using open chords or a palm-muted power chord part. As always, there are exceptions to this rule – there are times when you would want all the instruments to line up rhythmically to create impact or buildup at a high point within a song. You probably don’t want every instrument playing the same rhythm the whole time in a song.
A note about frequency range: The guitars and keyboards tend to occupy the same frequency range. The guitar occupies the middle frequencies of the keyboard. Keyboardists can stay above middle C and be fine most of the time. If the guitar boosts it’s mid frequency this will help distinguish itself from the keyboard.
When you’ve got 2 guitars in the band, it’s good to break up their rhythmic approach and chordal voicing as well. If one guitar is playing open chords and strumming, the other guitar can:
capo and play different voicing of the chords
play palm-muted power chords in a higher voicing
play an arpeggio of the same open chord or a varied voicing
2. In guitar driven worship, the keyboard should use pads and strings so not to conflict with the rhythm of the guitar.
Depending on what God gives you, your band may be more guitar driven than keyboard driven. The instrument “driving” the band is the one that the lead worshiper usually plays. It’s also the instrument that starts most songs, and sets the rhythms that other instruments play to. If you’re blessed, you have a band that can be both guitar and keyboard driven, depending on the need of the song. Then you can add variety and depth to your worship music.
When the guitars are instrumentally “driving” the songs, the keyboard has to be played differently. This requires a keyboardist with sensitivity. They have to know when not to play notes in the left (bass) hand. They have to know when to switch pads so not to compete with the tone of the electric guitar. They have to know when to drop out altogether.
Humility is truly a wonderful contribution to a Worship Band.
So if the guitars are playing a heavily rhythmic strumming pattern, the keyboard should play something else and not try and copy the rhythm using a piano patch. Simple, single-note melodies work well in this setting. If the guitars are playing a flowing, eighth-note, finger-style pattern, the keyboard should play long, sustained notes/chords. If the guitars are playing palm muted, chunky riffs, the keyboard should find alternate voicings for the chords and look for countermelodies in the pockets between chord changes.
If you’ve got a couple of keyboards/synthesizers floating around your church, chances are one of them is a Kurzweil. The latest Rolling Stone (February 19, 2009) has an article about Ray Kurzweil – the guy who basically fathered everything we know about modern musical synthesizers. In the 1980s, Kurzweil used his knowledge of computer pattern recognition to create realistic orchestral instrument sounds on a keyboard (synthesizer).
What Ray Kurzweil is known for these days are his futurist theories. An excerpt (p. 57-58)…
In our lifetime, Kurzweil believes, machines will not only surpass humans in intelligence – they will irrevocably alter what it means to be human. Cell-size robots will zap disease from our blood stream. Super intelligent nanotechnology, operating on a molecular scale, will scrub pollution from our atmosphere. Our minds, our skills, our memories, our very consciousness will be backed up on computers – allowing us, in essence, to live forever, all our data saved by super-smart machines.
He also has developed a line of health supplement pills that he takes 150 of throughout the course of a day, intended to prolong his life “until we have the means to reverse-engineer the information processes underlying biology – giving us the power to ensure our immortality.” (p. 61)
I only bring this up (not to knock the man) to point out that some people believe immortality is possible apart from any traditional faith system.