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Faking Keyboard Parts On Guitar: Part 1

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Asides from being big hits, songs like I’m a Believer by The Monkees, Let’s Spend the Night Together by the Rolling Stones and The Final Countdown by Europe have an element in common in that they all feature keyboard parts prominently.

If you’re a guitar band that doesn’t have a keyboard player you might perceive this to be a problem. The obvious solution is to hire a keyboardist or force the singer into keyboard lessons. Neither, though, makes economic sense if you only need such sounds occasionally.

Happily, there’s a third way. As if you don’t already have enough to do, you, the guitarist, can play these parts. 

With a little preparation there’s no reason why you can’t perform them convincingly plus you’ll have a valid excuse for buying more equipment (and who doesn’t want that?).

In this first tutorial, I'll show you the techniques and thought processes you’ll need to make this work.

Stop Thinking Like a Guitarist

If you want to approximate keyboard sounds, you have to approach the guitar in the same manner. Luckily, this doesn’t mean playing it horizontally from your chest, or having to sell all your gear and purchase a Keytar —neither is a good look. 

But it might mean an adjustment in technique, especially if you’re playing chords.

Making It By Faking It

The believability of your sound starts with two factors relating to your playing: 

  • The Attack Phase
  • Harmonic Voicing 

The Attack Phase

This refers to the initial sound at the beginning of a note. On a guitar, the attack phase is loudest on the string that’s struck first with a diminishing amount for each of the strings that follow. By contrast, on a keyboard, the attack phase is almost uniform for every note.

The difference here is that whilst a guitar’s strings are struck one after the other (even if very closely together) the notes on a keyboard are struck simultaneously. Any timing discrepancies between notes created on a guitar are far harder to discern on a keyboard.

Therefore, strumming strings simply doesn’t convey the same kind of sound as a keyboard.

Here's how to adjust technique accordingly.

All Fingers and Thumbs 

Keyboard players don’t use plectrums, so if you’re trying to emulate the sound of a keyboard, logically, you shouldn’t either.

However, if you really can’t live without it, then you should investigate hybrid picking. This is where the plectrum is used in conjunction with your remaining fingers. It’s more common amongst players who use thumb picks (country players, for example) but is still perfectly viable for those who use plectrums held between thumb and fingers.

Typically, you would use the plectrum to play the lowest note and your fingers for the remaining strings. A pinching action’s required so that all relevant strings are plucked at the same time. Play more lightly with the pick, as it’ll be on a heavier string, plus you don’t want to over-emphasise the attack of a single note.

The Claw

If hybrid picking isn’t for you, then it’ll have to be fingerpicking. A good technique to adopt is known as The Claw. It’s a picking style that encourages independence between thumb and fingers, but I’m recommending it here for the shape it requires of your hand: thumb forwards, fingers back.

The virtue of this is that it keeps your thumb and fingers from striking one another, plus it maintains your hand in one position. If your thumb and fingers face one another, you’ll be lifting your hand up and down to prevent a collision.

Other reasons to avoid this are that:

  • It’s an unnecessary waste of energy
  • It can’t be done rapidly
  • Your hand will drift (gravity being the cruel mistress that it is), so that you may end up plucking the wrong strings

As a technique, The Claw doesn’t always come naturally to everyone but it’s worth persevering with as it has so many uses in your playing beyond the scope of faking keyboard parts.

Once you’ve worked out how to play you need to decide on what to play which brings us to our second consideration.

Harmonic Voicing

Using I’m A Believer, once again, the first two chords are G7 and C. If you play these as open chords, as many guitarists would, they sound okay but definitely aren’t like the original. The problem here is one of harmonic voicing.

A lot of guitar players tend to attribute only one or two shapes to any particular chord, especially if they’re common chords, such as G7 and C.

Keyboard players, by contrast, learn about inversions early on, so that every 3-note chord can be played 3 ways. For example, the notes of C-E-G (C major) can also be voiced as E-G-C (known as the 1st inversion) and G-C-E (known as the 2nd inversion). 

Although they’re all the same chord, containing identical notes, the order lends each of them a different sonic identity. Indeed, the first inversion is often used to lead from the I chord (C major, in this example) to the IV chord (F). As the voicing’s lowest note (E) is just a semitone below the root of the IV chord (F), it makes for a smoother-sounding chord change.

It is therefore a question of attributing the correct harmonic voicing and choice of which octave to play in that’ll make your keyboard parts sound more believable. It won’t always be possible to do so, as a full-range keyboard can produce almost twice as many octaves as a guitar, but you should still make it a consideration.

Conclusion

In order to start faking keyboard parts on guitar, you need to bear in mind the following:

  • Stop thinking like a guitarist
  • Make sure notes are struck simultaneously
  • Pluck, don’t strum
  • Fingers sound better than plectrums
  • Investigate hybrid picking or using The Claw
  • Correct harmonic voicing is important

In the next tutorial, I’ll show you various equipment options for creating the right sounds.

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