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The particular property of the guitar, at least to my ear, is that it can easily "fill the room", as it were, even when playing simple chords or patterns. The keyboard seems to want... more complexity. But this doesn't work so well for, say, amusing people with ZZ Top covers at parties. To put it another way: Overdriven electric guitar can sound amazing while just playing power chords. Overdriven keyboards... not so much. It's bland. But start breaking the chords up, and suddenly you're making a piano arrangement of the song. Which isn't a bad thing, but isn't really what I want.

What playing styles or synth sounds might I look to work on for when I just want to rock the you-know-what out? Bonus points if it sounds great with heavy distortion. Double bonus points if it also works passably with a regular acoustic piano.

(An example of the sort of thing that I'm thinking of is the sound that Quasi's Sam Coomes gets with his Roxichord. Edgar Winter is another, at least some of the time.)

One thing I have found so far is that keeping most of the music in the lower part of the keyboard helps a great deal - which does make sense, as the guitar is a lower-pitched instrument.

Note that I'm not looking to literally imitate guitar playing on a synthesizer; that's silly. Nor am I interested in specific products. More, what are the basic principles that make specifically guitar-driven rock music awesome.

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Perhaps you haven't heard of The Screamers. Check out for instance I'm told they used an ARP Odyssey and a Fender Rhodes. –  S Vilcans Oct 21 '14 at 11:59

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

You can study the playing of the great "guitar-ish" keyboard soloists: Jan Hammer with Mahavishnu Orchestra on a Minimoog, Jon Lord with Deep Purple on Hammond organ, and possibly Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman on Moogs. Jordan Rudess, with Dream Theater (on all sorts of synthesizers) deserves prominent mention as well. All of them would say in interviews that the type of keyboard sound or synthesizer patch wasn't particularly essential; it was all in the articulations of the way they would play them. And except for the use of the Hammond organ, most of these performers made extensive use of the pitch bend wheel on a synthesizer to mimic the bending of strings in electric guitar solos, created on guitar with the fingers or the vibrato (whammy) bar. I'm not aware of any examples of somebody using a regular acoustic piano if their intention was to mimic the playing of a guitar.

There is a second tradition of keyboards in metal that bears study: Many 70s and 80s metal bands would record almost entirely with drums, bass and guitar, yet would hire a keyboardist for live concerts. Many times the keyboardist was hidden off stage so the audience could not see them. In cases where the band only had one guitarist, the keyboardist was not only required to play keyboard sounds, but also to reinforce rhythm guitar sounds on the keyboard. Often the keyboard of choice for this was a Hohner Clavinet, an electric instrument (not a synthesizer) which created its sounds using what were essentially guitar strings and guitar pickups played by a keyboard mechanism. Some musicians who performed in this capacity were Claude Schnell with Ronnie James Dio's band; and Adam Wakeman (son of Rick) with Ozzie Osborne. I am sure there are many others. So you might find useful material in live concert videos of metal bands from the 70s and 80s, although, as I said, the keyboardist is often completely hidden from the audience and the camera.

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Great stuff here, thanks! Again, don't much care about mimicking the guitar per se, but more playing songs without changing their essential character. So that is absolutely fascinating re: hidden keyboardists, and might just be the kind of thing that I'm looking to explore. –  Brian H Jan 30 '14 at 22:35
How about Stevie Wonder's Superstition to that list? –  luser droog Oct 23 '14 at 8:50

My favourite rockin' sound is a good old Fender Rhodes, overdriven so it starts to break up when you play chords or when you really dig into a note. I've played at a couple of parties with just this sound, and it does a wonderful job of "filling the room" as you say.

As for playing style, I find that playing a lot of open fifths helps. I've heard guitarists call these Power Chords, and it really cleans up the sound to omit the third. To give a bit of character, I'll often use the b5 as a crush note onto the 5th of the chord.

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A slightly overdriven Fender Rhodes is actually my go-to for playing with a band, but by itself it's just missing something to my ear (especially with open fifths/powerchords). Which makes me suspect that it's more my technique that's in question, rather than the sound itself. –  Brian H Jan 30 '14 at 22:21

You also need to study the way that chords are voiced on the guitar, which is determined by the layout of the strings of the instrument. As an introductory example, to a rock guitarist, the basic form of the E major chord contains six notes, while the A major chord contains five notes, but the D major chord contains four notes. Here are the exact voicings of the five most important open position major chords that all guitarists learn and use.

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If you use any other voicing to play these particular chords on a keyboard, it will not recall the sonority of the guitar that listeners are accustomed to hearing.

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Really interesting point, and one that my classical training very much likes the sound of. –  Brian H Jan 30 '14 at 22:23
@Wheat, whilst certainly not knocking your erudite answer, most rock guitarists would tend to use the E and A chords (and shapes further up the neck) as they incorporate a P5 underneath, which somehow 'beefs up' the chord sound.The D shape , starting on the 4th string, is often too high,on a thinner string, pitch-wise, to sound as effective. –  Tim Feb 1 '14 at 8:24
Yes, @Tim, you are absolutely correct. I didn't want to write an entire book on barre chords, so I just thought I would introduce the questioner to the concept of the voicings of the basic first-position, open chords. Feel free to edit and modify my answer, or add your own answer, if you want to explain barre chords. –  Wheat Williams Feb 1 '14 at 15:57
@Wheat - I understand the dilemma ! The concept of using guitar voicings is interesting, though, only time I've used them is to help guitarists getting in tune, as in playing that particular E chord.Good answer. –  Tim Feb 1 '14 at 16:02

Some good comments - to recap and add my own twist:

When the guitar is playing bar chords, the main notes are 1-5-8 (F-C-F, etc.), an octave with a fifth in the middle. Keyboardists are tempted to throw in a third. DON'T! Two reasons - 1) the guitar usually does not play the third; and 2) if the guitarist is wrong picking major or minor (keyboardists are too smart to make that mistake), you don't highlight it by clashing with them. Or if you're a slumming keyboardist, it saves you from having to instantly figure out "major or minor?" over and over on the fly. This is particularly useful when playing with people you have not rehearsed with. It is simply not required to play EVERY note that the guitar is handling, and it's often better not to.

When filling in guitar parts with keyboards, you have a lot of choices. You can pick sounds that have attacks (Rhodes, acoustic piano, clavinet, . . . ) and sounds that don't (organs, string pads, fat sawtooth a la "Jump"). You have bright, prominent sounds (clavinet, sawtooth, bright piano, Farfisa organ, full Hammond w/ chorus/Leslie) or smoother sounds that just add weight (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, square wave, 888000000 Hammond w/ no chorus/Leslie). You can duplicate the rhythm of the guitars, you can do a counter rhythm, or you can just play power chords. You can play in the same range as the guitar or bass, which makes a big sound and conceals the addition of keyboard better, or you can get a less muddy sound and broader soundscape by picking your own range to play in. When replacing a guitar, pick a sound that has a similar attack envelope - replace strummed guitars with percussive attack sounds, replace power chords with sustained, flatter attack envelope sounds.

On a similar note, the best thing you can do is pick when NOT to play. In pop music, the chorus is almost always "bigger" than the verse. Try just playing on the chorus, or using a thicker sound on the chorus. The myth is that "more is better". The truth is, "contrast is more interesting". Not playing on verses is the easiest way to achieve that. Except that you have to figure out what to do so you don't look awkward while not playing.

Solos - keyboardists learn major and sometimes minor scales in piano lessons. Then they apply that to solos. NO! Learn to play like guitarists. Use blues and pentatonic scales, learn Dorian and Mixolydian modes. Set your pitch bend wheel to a whole step to a minor third for string bends (bend up), or you can give it more range for whammy bars (bend down). Pitch bending up is the equivalent of a guitarist bending a string. The string will typically break if it bends much farther than a minor third, so don't exceed the guitar's limitations. Listen to which notes in the scale guitarists like to bend, and how much. This is not a hard and fast rule, but bending from one note in a scale to the next is often a safe bet. Here's a tip you don't see everywhere - combine Mixolydian and major blues, or Dorian and minor blues. In other words, add flat 3 to your Mixolydian, and add flat 5 to your Dorian. This saves you the mental exertion of hopping back and forth between a mode and a scale. In bluesy contexts, try out Dorian and minor blues scales.

Articulation - I have a hard time convincing some guitarists of this, but I am most successful adding to or replacing guitar parts if my articulation is spot on. I place that BEFORE selecting the patch that comes closest to a particular guitar part's tone. I usually forsake the "Wall of Sound Marshall" patch for piano or organ because they tend to be more responsive (in a natural, not "programmed" way) and can often achieve the guitar's "musical purpose" in the song better than a sampled/modelled guitar patch. So, your job is to pick a patch with an attack envelope and playing response that allows you to best duplicate the job that the guitar is doing. Is your stacatto similar in length and sharpness of the guitar's? Does the tail of your sustained notes approximate the guitar's?

Conclusion - start out with smoother, less obtrusive sounds and accompaniments, and then grow into more prominent sounds and more active playing as you grow in your sense of what works and what your band will tolerate. The point is to make them sound better, not to bow in worship to your rig and playing prowess.

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There have been several PC-based virtual instruments that have attempted to enable a keyboardist to mimic the playing of a rhythm guitar by "remapping" a keyboard chord voicing (a closed-position triad) into the kinds of chord voicings used on a guitar, and then to use synthesis or sampling of guitar sounds in conjunction with programming to provide automated arpeggiation. Three products that I am aware of are:

Applied Acoustics Strum

Musiclab RealGuitar

Indiginus Torch

I don't have any personal experience with these; I've just heard their audio demos.

Also, computer-based keyboardists today are fond of sending their keyboard sounds through guitar amp simulators and guitar amp stomp box effects simulations, like those found in Apple Logic and IK Multimedia Amplitube, in order to impart the characteristics of tube amplifiers and distortion, which are associated with rock guitar sounds, to the keyboard instrument sounds.

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I've played in numerous bands and spent years and years perfecting tones and playing style to blend with different guitar parts, or approximate (but not simulate) various lines. I even have a bunch of pretty exact guitar patches when matched with amp sims, just feel like I'm chugging on an SG (I did this in a band without guitars and no one really noticed). BUT... the holy grail is not to sound like you're trying to be a guitar. First, stand up and yell "I'M A F***ING KEYBOARDIST!" then sit down and get to work.

There are numerous different kinds of guitar playing, and I find it a wonderful challenge to try and approximate them (or beat them). Some lend themselves more easily to keyboards than others.

Guitar solos and leads? Easy. We cracked that one YEARS ago. Of all things, my all-time hero for "guitarish" keyboard leads is Derek Sherinian (former Dream Theater). Listen to his material off Falling into Infinity like "Lines in the Sand", that album might get a bad rap, but he's an absolute MASTER of having a great grasp of the bombast and character that great guitarists get their feel from: bluesy bends, pentatonics, wah pedals, feedback, etc. yet he's not just throwing on a crappy guitar patch through a Marshall either. He's got carefully crafted saw leads running through wah and amp sims that still scream "I'm a synthesizer!", yet are dirty and rock hard. Jon Lord's another great one of course, using a B3 through a Marshall JCM800 as well as possibly the chinciest electric piano known to man! Eddie Van Halen, of course, blew everyone away with his keyboard leads and deserves some serious recognition. Leads are easy, have fun! But as much as I love 'em: Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Tony Banks, and Kevin Moore... great keyboard players with great synth leads, but they really aren't trying to reach the dirt that comes out of a guitar lead.

Metal rhythm parts? "Chugga-chugga"? We've cracked that one too. Jon Lord, hands down. Hammond can have every bit the ballz as an overdriven Gibson. But stay away from Leslies if you're planning on throwing the horns (no pun intended). Run it through a Marshall, Orange, or other adiquately metal amp and skip the rotor. Hammond's have a crazy attack due to their percussion setting, as well as an electronic "click" that's a byproduct of the key being pressed. This does a great job achieving the huge punch that a palm-muted rhythm guitar has. The only thing to be careful of is that organs have constant sustain, guitars don't. So longer notes are going to be very obviously not-guitarish, which is why taking on a metal guitarist's role is easy, but grunge one is not.

Here's where the problems start: clean(isn) guitar, or even worse, arpeggiated clean guitar. Soft rock, 90s rock, etc. Non-metal, I don't know a keyboard technique or sound that can do that justice. Clavinets can be made to sound JUST LIKE guitars (they're essentially the same thing on the inside, a picked string), but I almost feel like that's cheating, everyone will just think you're using a bad guitar sample on your board, unless you have a real clarinet there. Rhodes and Wurlis are all wrong, though they have a beautiful sound all of their own, their percussion attack is far too pure and bell like to sound like a guitar attack, and just don't achieve the right tone.

I'm writing this as I'm struggling to figure out a decent part for rhythm line (not Slash's part) on "Sweet Child o' Mine". Been at it for hours, I've tried overdriven pianos, rhodes, wurli's, synths with all different amps. But it's pretty hard finding something with a similar attack to a guitar and decay to play those gritty-yet-not-chugging rhythm parts.

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You have to be aware that playing a sample-based keyboard on "overdriven guitar" sound requires different voicing than playing an overdriven guitar. The reason for that is that with a guitar, the overdrive is applied after combining the strings whereas with a sample-based keyboard, the "overdrive" is sampled before combining the strings.

As a result, you can stack more notes into a keyboard-like chord without getting unrecognizable mush. If the rock power chord mush is what you are actually after, it might make more sense to pick a "clean electric guitar" sound on the keyboard, remove all traces of reverb and depth and whatnot, and feed the keyboard into a typical guitar amp setup, with overdrive, guitar amp (or amp simulator) and stuff. With that kind of setup, you are more likely to get fingered power chords to turn into rock material rather than synthetics.

That's quite a bit of effort for something that is somewhat closer to the real thing. It might make more sense to learn the guitar.

Or just not overstress over authenticity and play the keyboard like a keyboard and accept the "close enough" type of "rock guitar" sound.

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