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the Pale

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'Keyboards' in George Martin's 'Making Music'

A chapter by Gary Brooker

This article comes from Making Music: The Guide to Writing, Performing and Recording. Starting as a general survey of keyboard instruments, it becomes much more personal and Procolesque towards the end.

Making Music was edited by (Sir) George Martin, and published by Pan Books in 1983: ISBN 0 330 26945 3 It can be truly recommended as an excellent volume, fully-illustrated and covering all aspects of the popular music business, authoritatively-written by many top musicians, including Brooker-collaborators Eric Clapton, BJ Cole and Dave Mattacks: even David Platz, founder of Essex Music, writes about songwriter royalties!

We're not quoting with Pan's permission – but then we're not charging for the advert either!

Keyboard instruments fall into two basic groups: those that are responsive to the strength of the musician's touch on the keys; and those that simply trigger or pluck a note in the same way however the key is pressed. The piano, clavinet and clavichord are touch-sensitive; harpsichord and organ are not. There are synthesizers of both kinds.

Acoustic keyboards
In my view the piano is growing in popularity again as a musical instrument for the home. The guitar has been the main instrument of popular music – and in the home – since the l950s; but the piano was the established instrument – almost part of the furniture – in the 1800s and the early decades of this century.

The nineteenth century was the great era of the piano; it was then that Liszt and others produced their great works for it; but the instrument has its roots considerably earlier, during the 1700s, in the time of Bach. He used three main keyboard instruments: the organ, which of course was a woodwind instrument; the harpsichord, which had strings that were plucked when the keys were pressed; and the clavichord, which was the closest to the piano. It had hammers for striking the strings; but instead of retiring to let the strings vibrate freely, it lifted the string and held it in that position, so muffling the sound. It was very much quieter than a piano, and that is why the piano was called a pianoforte, meaning 'soft-loud'.

My favourite type of piano is the Bösendorfer; in fact the best piano I've ever played was a Bösendorfer at Linz, in Austria. It was nine foot, but it went down to a C; Bösendorfers often have a little envelope that opens you down to an F, but this went down to a C below the F.

There is a type of Bösendorfer, the largest size of all, which isn't overstrung. All the strings run vertically up and down, so the bass strings are well separated from the treble – marvellous for stereo recording.

My own piano is an Ibach. It has a beautiful tone and a little bit of brightness which I like. It's only six foot nine, but like most people I have a space problem.

Upright pianos
Upright pianos are really grand pianos turned on their ends so that they can fit into small spaces. There are usually two pedals: the sustain pedal which keeps the sound ringing on even after the hands have been raised from the notes; and the soft pedal, sometimes known as the "una corda" pedal, a term which describes the mechanism exactly. Each note of the middle range of the instrument has three strings assigned to it which are struck simultaneously by the hammer. A shift mechanism, activated by the soft pedal, moves all the hammers laterally so that only one string (una corda) is struck, creating a softer sound. The honky-tonk piano has an extra pedal which causes the hammers to strike the strings in a way which gives the jangling, cowboy piano effect exemplified in Paul McCartney's Rocky Racoon.

Touch-sensitive electric keyboards
There are a number of electric pianos available and, like acoustic pianos, they are touch-sensitive; the most widely used are the Rhodes, the Wurlitzer and the Yamaha electric grand.

The Yamaha sounds most like an acoustic piano; it is in fact a baby grand with strings, hammers and the same action as a normal acoustic piano, but with the additional benefits of phase, chorus, treble, bass and volume controls. It is made to the overstrung design – as is Helpinstill's electric piano – which characterizes most good acoustic pianos. The longer a piano's strings, the better its sound; to gain maximum length, bass strings are strung diagonally across the frame above and at an angle to the treble strings. The Yamaha is very useful for touring bands, because the body splits into two sections; the harp, or frame holding the strings, comes away from the keyboard, hammers and electronic controls, enabling two people to carry the piano.

A gigging, freelance keyboard player usually requires an instrument which he can move and set up by himself. Whether he uses ancillary keyboards and synthesizers or not, he will need a basic piano sound from a keyboard that reacts to touch and pressure. The most popular electric portable is the Rhodes, of which there are several models. Most common are the 73 Stage, which requires an external amplifier, and the 73 Suitcase, which has its own amp and speaker system; 73 refers to the number of notes avail able. There are also 88 and 54 models, although the latter does not come in suitcase form.

On all models of Rhodes pianos the sound is produced by a hammer striking a metal tine, the vibrations from which induce a signal in the pick-up which is amplified by an amplifier. The Rhodes is easy to tune; each tine has a spring which can be moved up and down.

Rhodes pianos have a distinctive bell-like quality coupled with a warm tone, excellent for creating moods with a sustained lingering quality. It is used to great effect on innumerable recordings, including Elton John's Daniel and Steely Dan's Babylon Sisters.

The great rival of the Rhodes piano is the Wurlitzer EP200. This uses a simplified piano action, a hammer striking a metal reed, the resulting vibrations being received by pick-up plates. Individual reeds are tuned by adding or removing pieces of solder which are stuck on the end of each reed. This is fiddly and requires patience coupled with a good ear or an electronic tuning device. The Wurlitzer's tone is harder and brighter than that of the Rhodes, but it doesn't have the sustain of the latter and is therefore best used in staccato passages. Supertramp's Dreamer features a Wurlitzer piano.

The clavinet, especially Hohner's model D6, is capable of very exciting rhythmic work. It is an electric instrument, strung like an acoustic piano, but the hammer-action strikes the strings like a bass-player banging a string against his fingerboard. It is not very effective in slow passages, but for up-tempo music (Stevie Wonder's Superstition, Andy Kim's Rock Me Gently) it beats rhythm guitar every time, having a bright, cutting tone.

All these instruments react to the speed and pressure of the player's touch, so that a musician can really colour his playing with sensitivity in the hands. With non-touch-sensitive keyboards – organ, harpsichord and most synthesizers – volume pedals and vibrato/tremolo effects have to replace those nuances normally achieved by e fingers.

Non-touch-sensitive keyboards
Until the invention of the tone-wheel organ, which was patented by Laurens Hammond in 1934, all organs were reed or wind instruments, activated by keys and bellows-driven. Hammond revolutionized the instrument by using a synchronous motor, powered by an alternating current. The motor turned 95 tone-wheels, each producing fundamental pitches with no harmonic overtones. A system of drawbars, which could bring in other notes and frequencies at different volumes, enabled a sound to be built up tom various separate constituents (rather like additive synthesizers).

The Leslie tone cabinet was developed for use with the Hammond organ; it comprised a speaker with two horns mounted on a revolving spindle. The spindle was driven by a motor and had two speeds. The slower speed produces the characteristic, haunting Hammond sound with the tone apparently changing constantly. This is achieved by the movement of the horns – first facing the listener, then pointing away, then turning back and so on – so the effect on tone is bright, dull, bright, dull. The higher speed provides a lovely rippling tremolo. Good examples are all Booker T & the MGs albums, Billy Preston's work on The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers album and The Beatles' She's So Heavy.

The harpsichord is strung but, instead of a hammer action, little quills pluck the strings. Because the plucking action is always the same, the amount of pressure applied to the keys does not affect the volume or tone of the sound. By using pedals or stops, similar to those of a church organ, different effects are obtained. You can in play octaves, only striking one key at a time: quills pluck the required note plus the octave above or below. The "lute" stop produces a sound like a lute by causing the quills to pluck the strings very close to the nut. Little soft pads can be brought into contact with the strings, producing a "harp" sound. And there are many other possibilities.

The harpsichord has a bright, delicate tone which is exemplified in pop music in songs like In My Life from The Beatles' Rubber Soul album, and The Stranglers' hit single Golden Brown.

Combining keyboard instruments
Along with my piano, my other main instrument Yamaha CS80, a synthesizer which I play as if it were a piano. For effects I use an ARP synthesizer. I haven't experimented with synthesizers as much as some keyboard players, mainly because my energies are taken with the three things I do best: writing, singing and accompanying myself.

I have never been very interested in the organ, in spite of the fact that it played such a big part in my major hits with Procol Harum. I started Procol with the idea of using a piano and organ together – something unusual then because it considered a luxury to have two keyboard players. But I thought they sounded great together.

Our line-up in Procol Harum was myself on the piano, Matthew Fisher on the organ, Robin Trower on guitar, BJ Wilson on drums and Dave Knights on bass – a five-piece. This allowed us to have particularly strong backing to any solo. If the guitar was playing alone, he could have the piano and organ behind him; the same applied to piano solo, when he had a guitar and organ backing. It is not a combination that has been much used, but I think it could come back.

Composing on piano
I nearly always write my songs by sitting down at piano and experimenting. I've sat on trains countless times and had ideas, known what the chords were, written them down along with the melody, and then gone home to find it's all rubbish when tried out on the piano.

I find the piano right for composing, because it reacts to how I feel and how I'm playing at the time. And of course, it gives chords, fill-ins, rhythms, bass lines and melodies all in one shot.

I don't find composing on the piano restrictive; my fingers don't automatically run in grooves, and I don't just reproduce material I've played before. If I play a chord I've used before, I scrap it immediately.

Until recently I wrote only the music – not the lyrics – for songs. but for my most recent album, Lead Me To The Water, I did both. This did not alter my approach of always thinking of the music first. At the creative stage I use dummy lyrics – real words rather than just la da da – but with no particular sense. The advantage of writing the lyrics myself is that I can make them match the sound as I think they should. Some words aren't nice to sing; they don't lend themselves to carrying on a note – you can't for example sing plaaaank or swaaank. There are all too many words like that, and if I write the lyrics, I can easily find substitutes. All the same, it can be difficult to produce lyrics which both suit the notes and make enough sense to preserve the story line.

Styles of piano playing
In my view my style of playing piano – and most other people's – is an assimilation of styles. I don't think there is such a thing as basic rock 'n' roll piano style. Some early players, like Jerry Lee Lewis for example, had a style which was basically boogie – good left hand rhythm and diddley work on top but with plenty of major chords. Others, like Ray Charles, had a more rhythmic, rhythm and blues type style, using plenty of sevenths and what I call minor type playing, when you play individual notes and get minor thirds even though you're actually playing a major chord. This style actually stems from straight blues; you can see it in the work of Muddy Waters and similar guitar players.

Early rock 'n' roll piano was mainly up tempo, but Jerry Lee Lewis also used a pumping, country and western tempo, and Ray Charles played some slow numbers. Generally speaking, piano playing was quite "busy". People like myself who came later learnt, and used, all these styles.

Another important style, which I use for a certain type of song, is best described as ballad style. Carole King, Elton John and even Carly Simon often play this way. We may have derived it to some extent from country and western, but actually I suspect it owes more to Floyd Cramer – a major influence on many of us.

Modern recording and sound techniques have had a major effect on piano style. Today you can play one chord on the piano that can be made to last electronically for, say, four whole bars. Provided it is good sound, in itself it is effective. People like Gary Numan have made much of this.

Among my favourite styles these days is that of Dr John (Mac Rebenneck), although his is a direct copy of Professor Longhair's, the New Orleans pianist who had a kind of "rolling" style. The New Orleans style – not Dixieland, but New Orleans rock- has been a major influence.

I think the growth in popularity of albums has also affected style: the album gives musicians the opportunity to mix material, to vary the pace. For a varied album, you need up tempo material along with solid songs and some dreamy stuff, perhaps a ballad starting with piano only.

Jazz piano has had an enormous influence, though to assimilate the style of greats such as Count Basie you have to be technically superb. I suspect that many people achieve this to a great extent by relying on a repertoire of "licks" which they insert in their playing. Dudley Moore is an example; he is an excellent jazz pianist, and he introduces a selection of licks into his playing. A lot of top guitarists are like that; they have six or eight licks and they play them in different keys – sometimes major, sometimes minor – and because of what is going on behind them – because it is a different song – they sound different. People pinch licks all the time and modify them a little. I've got a few licks which I use from time to time and they're ones I've had since the early days.

When it comes down to it, the sort of playing that young pianists should try to emulate is Count Basie's. The older he gets, the fewer notes he plays, yet each one tells beautifully. It seems terribly simple – as if anyone could do it – but of course, it's not so simple, and you have to have thought of it in the first place.

To understand how that kind of playing is achieved you have to go back to the question of technique. Count Basie has a very mature approach to technical ability. He made a decision that he would prefer to go for telling simplicity, rather than dazzling, busy playing.

In order to have this choice at all, you must be a master of technique; at the same time, I believe you have to be able to put technique second to your desire to create your own music. There is no substitute for a way of playing that will reach across to people; but technique is the springboard for achieving that goal.

I learnt the piano by getting my knuckles rapped when I played a wrong note. I often had to learn pieces I didn't like. It wasn't an enjoyable way to learn; and even at the age of seven or eight I knew I could be taught better.

I went to the lessons because my father sent me – just like many others of my generation. We had no guitars, or records – except "78s" – or any popular music to speak of. We played little classical pieces like Humoresque or To A Wild Rose, the business of learning just wasn't much fun, or particularly interesting. It is vital that teachers encourage pupils, especially children, to like music by getting them to play pieces they enjoy.

My only enjoyment of music at that stage was playing duets with my father, who was a professional musician. Maybe this kept my general interest in music alive – I never thought about much else – even though I didn't enjoy the lessons.

In retrospect, though, I believe musical discipline is important for young people. The right approach is to practise every day, and learn to read music. I'm not a good reader, but I could have been if I had practised every day for an hour. Even the mundane routines, like scales, arpeggios and consecutive thirds are important. If the fingering is automatic, later on it will be easier to concentrate on musical ideas when composing, or to have a greater range when playing.

Some people think that the greater a musician's technical proficiency, the more difficult it is for him to be creative. I think this is evading the issue, which is that if creative talent is there it usually comes out somehow, whether the person is technically skilled or not. But I do think I might have ended up in a different field of music if I had been a better technician. As it is, I make up for not being a particularly technical pianist by versatility – by being able to sing, accompany myself on the piano and write songs. It is also true that I found my creative niche precisely because I went into popular music, where it is usual to have to play it by ear, to try to produce what people want to hear at the time.

Possibly the most serious drawback of great technical ability is a tendency to write songs that are over-complex. This can be disastrous. There is definitely a right and wrong use of sophisticated technical ability. These days I practise mostly in order to get ideas, rather than to improve my playing ability, although I will practise when there is an important recording session or tour coming up. My advice is to become as technically accomplished as you can, but to play only music that you enjoy.

Gary Brooker, a founder member of the influential Procol Harum, wrote the music for A Whiter Shade of Pale, one of the most memorable records of the late 1960s. During its 10-year history the band moved further towards classical forms and consolidated its reputation for innovation. Since 1977 Gary Brooker has combined a solo career with playing keyboards for Eric Clapton's band.

Of course this summary was written before Procol's 'New Testament' resurgence.

Gary Brooker's page at BtP | An extensive Brooker keyboard interview from five years earlier

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home