The piano is a powerful instrument. With a piano and two trained hands it's possible to easily cover the major components of a song—bass, rhythm, harmony, and melody—at the same time making it the perfect all-in-one accompaniment instrument.
This wonderful characteristic is probably one of the main reasons the piano has been around as long as it has and why it's remained as popular as it is. However, with great power comes responsibility.
In a rock band scenario, this much power is rarely needed.
The key to effective piano playing in a rock band is to understand these four components, how they manifest themselves and where the piano can fit in the mix.
For the classically-trained pianist this poses a significant challenge as it requires a bit of reprogramming and a completely different approach to accompanying a song. But it’s not impossible.
Meekness is the name of the game now, not virtuosity.
Here's four simple tips—corresponding to the four components of a song—that help piano players play perform effectively in a rock band.
1. Steer Clear of the Bassist
This is an easy tip. At no point should you be playing in the same register as the bassist. Simple as that.
He’s got one job to do and does it sufficiently with only one note at a time. For you to join in does nothing but muddy the waters.
Here's a few practical ideas to help:
- Make it a rule to never play octaves in your left hand
- Place a piece of tape on the C below middle C and don’t allow yourself to play below it
- If all else fails, tie your left hand behind your back. You’ll be inconvenienced, but the bassist will be thankful
2. Lock in With the Drummer
Rhythm should always be in your periphery. In a rock band, it’s the drummer’s job to set the beat. Your job is to always know what he’s doing and make sure your playing locks in with it.
Here are some examples:
In this example, although the piano part doesn’t sound bad, it’s not at all in step with the drummer. The pianist is feeling simple quarter notes while the drummer is feeling sixteenths.
The beats he’s emphasizing are in bold: 1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, 3-e-and-a, 4-e-and-a.
Now the piano is playing the same notes but different rhythms that are locked into what the drummer is doing.
Here’s a practical idea to help:
- Let the band play through the song a couple times while you just listen and take notes
- Ensure you're confident of the drummer’s rhythms in each section before trying to come up with your own parts
3. Compliment the Guitarists
The guitarists cover the harmony component in a song. They're the ones providing the harmonic context and most of the musical textures that the vocalists sings over.
Pianists—this is where you live too.
What the guitarists are doing is what, therefore, you should be most focused on.
Ensure that what you’re doing isn’t redundant and doesn’t conflict with them. Rather, you want your part to compliment them and stand out on their own. This is the fun part
Before you begin, understand two basic types of guitar playing in a rock band.
- Rhythm guitar
- Lead guitar
Rhythm guitar playing is when the guitarist (acoustic or electric) strums the chords. This often produces a full sound that provides plenty of harmonic context for the singer to sing to.
Lead guitar playing (usually by the electric guitarist) is more melodic and textural and usually provides the defining characteristic sounds of a particular song.
This is an example of an acoustic guitar playing rhythm and a lead guitar playing a background melody that provides a nice musical texture.
Your job as the pianist is to find a place within all of this, and it can be simpler than it sounds. If there is only a rhythm guitar player in your band, well then you play what a lead guitarist would play.
Notice that the acoustic guitar is filling in most of the harmonic content within the middle range. An easy place to fit is to provide more of a texture in a higher register just like the electric guitar would.
If you’re lacking a rhythm guitarist, then fill in the gaps with some nice chunky chord playing.
If you have both a rhythm and lead guitarist, then first take stock of what each instrument is doing and find a hole to fill.
Here the piano is being used in a register that nobody was using.
The electric guitar part is pretty active, so here the piano is playing a counter melody that is slower than the electric guitar.
4. Support the Vocalists
This last tip is really a tip for everyone in the band. In a typical rock band, the vocalist is king. Unless someone is doing a solo, all the other instruments are either middle-ground or background, never foreground.
The pianist's job as the band is to support the vocalist.
Ensure that what you play doesn’t trample on or distract from the vocalist. The rule of thumb is this: less is more.
If you’re wondering whether you should or shouldn’t play something, don’t. A practical idea here might be to regularly ask the vocalists if what you’re playing feels like it’s helping them or hard for them to sing over.
At the end of the day, music can’t be put in a box. There really aren’t any rules as to what you should play, just a few guidelines of what you should avoid.
Ultimately, it’s just a task in learning what it means to listen to others and be a selfless team player. If you get good at that, you’ll soon become an indispensable member of the team.