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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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4 Answers

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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 at 22:35
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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 at 22:21
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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 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 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 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 at 16:02
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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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