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I grew up playing classical piano, although it has been a long time since I have seriously played or practiced piano! Recently, I got interested in playing rock/pop keyboard or synthesizer, that sort of thing. Fortunately, I've still got some of the muscle memory from my piano days, but as now I'm into a different style of music (and of playing), are there any recommendations?

For example, are there exercises that could help someone like me hone their keyboard skills? What should I be careful of when trying to learn? etc.

On the more personal side, I'm looking into honing my keyboard skills because I started getting into songwriting and arranging. Particularly, since I'm mostly working with computer music suites, keyboard skills are quite important since the only input device I have is the keyboard; I also want to include keyboard solos. I listen to a lot of progressive rock, etc., type of music, so I think I do have a good grasp of how the keyboard is played in rock-based music.

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  • You might check out this thread — How does a advanced classical pianist start to play pop music? — to see if one or more of the answers applies to your situation.
    – Aaron
    Feb 6 at 18:26
  • Thanks for the note! Unfortunately I am not advanced by any means, but the thread does seem useful to me.
    – xuq01
    Feb 6 at 18:27
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    The transition from one style to another has less to do with beginning or advanced level and more to do with learning the style, which can happen at any level.
    – Aaron
    Feb 6 at 18:34
  • The answers apply to any pianist, the question just happens to come from an advanced player.
    – Aaron
    Feb 22 at 22:17

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  1. Chords: Learn how to play chords and chord progressions using good voice leading. Also learn about different and interesting ways to voice chords. Learn to read and improvise accompaniments using chord charts. Sometimes a chord sheet is all you get when learning a song. Most sheet music piano parts are just a piano accompaniment arranged to play solo behind a singer. This is not how a keyboard player plays in the context of a band.

  2. Harmony: Learn about diatonic harmony in major and minor keys so you understand what makes a good chord progression work and can also analyze songs you want to know better. This will also give you the knowledge to be able to transpose easily. Also learn about such non-diatonic devices such as secondary dominants, parallel major and minor and modal interchange, all of which are used a lot in pop/rock music.

  3. Bass lines: Learn how to play bass lines with your left hand. You won’t always need to do this but you will if there’s no bass player (Boo! I’m a bass player, can you tell?). Either way knowing what the bass does and how it works is important for knowing how to interact with it.

  4. Improvising: Learn to improvise. Start simply, over a single chord or a blues. You will at some point be called on to play improvised solos.

  5. Parts: listen to keyboard parts on some of your favorite records in different styles and try and emulate them. I’m sure there are tons of resources available on YouTube for learning previously recorded keyboard parts. This is really important because you have to be able to emulate established keyboard players to a point to learn how the keyboard functions in different pop styles and this will eventually lead to you being able to create your own parts that are relevant to what you are playing.

  6. Blues: The blues is a huge part of the roots of pop/rock music. Spend some time researching blues piano styles such as boogie woogie, etc. Blues is also a great source for learning licks and phrases to help you with improvising and creating your own parts.

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  • Excellent advice, thanks! Fortunately, I'm quite good at harmony, so it seems that I do have a head start; I do need to brush up my voice leading skills, though. I'm looking into honing keyboard skills because I want to write and arrange songs, so improvising would be extremely important indeed, thanks.
    – xuq01
    Feb 7 at 5:56
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    @xuq01 My pleasure. One basic trick to good voice leading in pop/rock music is if chords are a 3rd or more apart use different inversions of each to keep common tones from chord to chord. Feb 7 at 8:34
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One thing not mentioned so far - listening to everything that's already going on. Obviously that's in situations when others are playing too, not so much in the preparatory times.

Listen for how others their parts, and how your playing can complement that. Listen to what they play - you could do something similar, or something very different. If the guitarist, say, is playing block chords, there's little to no point in duplicating them. If the bassist is playing a walking bassline, maybe you don't play any bass at all.

Listen to when each plays their parts - no point in two trying to solo at the same time - unless you're trading fours and so on. You can also listen to when not to play - there's a lot of sense in not all playing all the time.

Learn what other sounds your keyboard can make - and use some of them. It may be a string wash underneath everything else, it may be horn stabs at critical moments, a nice Hammond or Rhodes solo, or accompaniment.

So, basically, what I'm suggesting is be part of a team, not just 'the keyboard player', complement what the others are doing, listen all the time, keep good eye contact. Pretty well all the things we never need to do when playing solo piano!

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  • This applies to all music that has parts that are either partially or completely ad lib, +1. Feb 7 at 16:34
  • @JohnBelzaguy - not only ad lib stuff. ALL music - needs to be played while listening. Especially by drummers!!!
    – Tim
    Feb 8 at 7:33
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Learn to play a lot of songs that you love in your target genre. Also learn to play by ear. And it might help to learn how the notes are laid out on a bass fretboard so when you’re in a band, you can watch the bass player’s fretting to get clues to the chord changes.

But mainly learn a lot of songs.

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    See also, “draw the rest of the owl”
    – ojs
    Feb 6 at 19:41
  • @ojs As the asker already knows how to play piano, my advice seems complete to me. The same as I would tell an accomplished wildlife artist who has drawn a lot of sparrows but wants to get into an owl-drawing club: draw some owls. Feb 8 at 2:37
  • Are you a classically trained pianist who learned a completely different style by just learning a lot of songs? It does not sound like that.
    – ojs
    Feb 8 at 6:32
  • The graphic arts analogy would be more like "I am a painter, how do I become a cartoonist". So there are some common parts but also a lot that is different and not everything about it is obvious.
    – ojs
    Feb 8 at 7:53
  • @ojs Actually yes. I was trained in classical piano when I was growing up and then taught myself rock and pop piano and keyboards when I was in my 20s. I did it by learning a lot of songs and learning to play by ear. I also taught myself guitar so when I am sitting in with a band I can look at the guitarist and bass players fingers and see what notes they are playing instead of having to do it 100% by ear. When I’m playing guitar or bass, I can look at the keyboardist and see what they are playing also. Feb 8 at 12:05
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There are quite a lot of piano books on how to play rock and pop. Like books with rock-music-etudes, pop-etudes and other styles. These books typically come with a CD.

Since this forum is not the place for recommendations of specific books I can't go into that. So you need to do your own research which you can do with Google. Look for books that has a CD so you can listen to the music. You can also search on YouTube. It is amazing what you can find there.

A good knowledge of chords will get you a long way. You could try out practicing rhythmic patterns with chords. Practicing blues scales is useful for playing rock.

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