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I am a keyboardist in a rock band. I run into a problem a lot when introducing new songs to the rest of the band members. It might be my lack of skill as a piano player, I don't know. It's been frustrating me for years.

When I write a new song, I hear the guitar strumming pattern in my head. But it's very hard to imitate guitar rhythm with piano chords. The style sounds all wrong and the band members (not to mention the drummer and bassist) don't end up interpreting the song in the right style. Or, the piano is supposed to be the icing rather than the cake, so if I play "icing" then they think it is a slow song, but in fact the thing I'm playing is just supposed to soar above the rhythm.

Example 1: I tried to write a reggae style song and I did my best to imitate the guitar upstroke but the song ended up sounding very much NOT like reggae once the band got ahold of it. It came out more like this boppy, cutesy tune that just was not good. Corny. We tried for years to play it at shows but it bothered me so much that it never sounded the way I wanted it that I just told them we needed to cut it from the rotation.

Example 2: when we do a more two-step bluegrassy style song that I've written, I very much want the guitar players to lead it because if I lead it on piano, it sounds like a polka. Playing a two-step song on piano gives it an oom-pa oom-pa kind of style that is frankly terrible. I've listened to so much country music to get an idea of what the piano typically does in that genre and maybe I don't imitate it perfectly and I just need to work harder. The band members keep resisting this and want me to lead it. It sounds bad. I don't know how to convince them of this, or how to play differently so that it doesn't sound like a polka.

Advice would be helpful. Video tutorials of how to play reggae keyboard or country piano you particularly like. There are a lot of those out there and it's overwhelming to choose one that's going to help me.

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    The obvious answer, but meant sincerely: start learning guitar! Also: some of it might be just that it’s hard to communicate exactly what’s in your head and have it survive the filter of others’ perception. Nov 3, 2023 at 11:24
  • My thoughts were with Andy in the 1st paragraph.
    – Tim
    Nov 3, 2023 at 11:58
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    You should listen to more ragtime, especially foxtrots. The "oom-pah" style is pretty unnoticeable there despite it being for solo piano and ridiculously clogged with two-steps. Foxtrots sound closer to bluegrass thanks to their dotted-note patterns.
    – Dekkadeci
    Nov 3, 2023 at 12:29
  • I would love to see a slightly alternate question: how to imitate (or satisfactorily replace) rhythm-guitar energy with a piano. I'm not a pianist, but I once had the task of leading songs that were written for guitar, with the accompaniment only of a classical pianist, and trying to get him to replicate the rhythmic drive. But I do feel that in your particular situation that's the most complicated solution. As Brian said, demonstrating on keyboard is probably the worst way of effectively communicating. Nov 3, 2023 at 15:34
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    @MarkFoskey - believe me - there are bands which can get one number something like, in 2-3 hr rehearsal, others which could sort out a dozen or more in the same time, including finding good keys, working out arrangements, etc. And every stop in between! Keep reading, there are several q/a regarding this sort of 'problem'.
    – Tim
    Nov 4, 2023 at 10:53

7 Answers 7

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What's happening at the moment is they're parroting your keyboard-based attempts to sound like the instrument that they play. They're not using their imagination nearly enough.

I'd suggest presenting the song to your bandmates as a lead sheet (melody + lyrics + chords + geography/structure) rather than as an audio demo.

Use audio as a last resort.

Make them work a bit. Expect them to be able to suggest multiple ways of performing the notation. Together you can refine and polish what you come up with. And you'll spark off each other.

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    As a guitarist, this answer is how I'd prefer to work: Give me the chords and perhaps some thoughts on texture and then let me write my own part within that framework. If the asker is in a band with guitarists who are not able to bridge the gap between lead sheet and rendering a part, then their next best option is to work with a guitarist from within or outside the band to craft more precise parts that are idiomatic to guitar before presenting them to the band. Nov 4, 2023 at 14:42
  • @ToddWilcox - me too springs to mind. However - OP has written a song, and has a specific idea about how they would like each part played, and it seems like each player is doing what you and I would do, but that's not what OP envisages.
    – Tim
    Nov 14, 2023 at 13:53
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The issue doesn't seem to be in the writing, it's in the translation.

I guess it's stating the obvious that if the guitarists can't get it from you saying "It's reggae, a bit like this" then they're pretty slow on the uptake… but let's give them the benefit of the doubt & instead call into question your ability to translate what's in your head to what you want them to play.

Maybe try removing the piano from the equation altogether. You say you can't play guitar, but I bet you can play air guitar. That's enough of a start.

You move your hands in imitation of the strum pattern whilst saying, " mmmn skank-a wait skank". Or "uh, chicka chick… a dum dum chick, ah." etc etc etc.

That way you're giving them enough to get them thinking, but nothing specific enough for them to literally parrot.

I used to MD a band from behind the drum kit, which is about the least 'instrumentally useful' position to be in, unless everyone has a good clue & adaptability. Sometimes I'd have scribbled out a chord chart beforehand, but intentionally I would add no other information. I'd just give them a direction & off they'd go. The less information they got, the more their imaginations would come into play. If things needed changing drastically, then I'd just shout over the song as we were running through, or pull it up for a bigger discussion - but usually they all managed to get out of each other's way & get something useful going by the end of the first run-through.

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  • Sounds like the players in your band were a lot more experienced/adaptable than those in OP's. Working with the former is a pleasure, (rehearsals move along far better) not so with the latter.
    – Tim
    Nov 4, 2023 at 8:48
  • @Tim - I wouldn't like to directly point fingers in an answer; it feels somewhat disrespectful of the players concerned, who I've never met or heard;) I have had the good fortune, though, of almost always working with people who are not only great players, but really quick on the uptake & with an innate ability to get out of each other's way in just a few minutes of trialling a new piece. It's a joy to behold when it happens. i've also worked with a lot of session guys who'll come in for an overdub - once through for a listen, then two takes. Done.
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 4, 2023 at 9:09
  • It does sound a little disrespectful, true. However, having unfortunately been in situations similar, for me the only way was out. I felt I was wasting my time, and also theirs, as they were happy to go on their merry way. Luckily, like you, I have generally been a part of bands where the players were as you found - quick on the uptake, and capable of sorting out things rather quickly. I stand by my last two options - both feasible, and obviously it's up to OP if any are applicable. Maybe, maybe not.
    – Tim
    Nov 4, 2023 at 10:48
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All the previous answers offer good information and tips for getting your ideas across.

I think you learning about how the other instruments function would be very useful. Guitar doesn’t always translate well to piano so learn to play simple rhythm guitar, even with just one chord so you can express your ideas. You don’t have to necessarily play all the instruments, learn to play bass lines and drum beats on your keyboard and try and come up with specific parts you’re hearing for your songs.

I think it is basically a communication issue but without being there it is impossible to know whether the issue is you not expressing your ideas in a way that the other players understand or them not being able to follow your guidance.

Another simple solution is to present them with pre-existing songs as examples. Tell them: “I’m looking for a groove similar to ‘Roxanne’ or ‘I Shot the Sheriff’” or whatever the case may be. That’s an easy way to not end up with a “cutesy” tune when you are hearing it as reggae.

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As far as the drummer's concerned - there's probably a plethora of rhythm settings on your keyboard. Find the closest as an example. If not, there are plenty of cheap rhythm boxes out there which are programmable to give just what you're after.

Bass shouldn't be a problem, unless he's steeped in rock and cannot adapt. at most, he'll deal with 8 in a bar, so should be given some 'music' to count on, literally. Being a rock bassist, he'll probably fight back, but if the band want you to write originals, it's a small price for him to pay - and will bring him closer to the real world of music!

Guitar-wise, more difficult. Best available solution - learn a few easy chords, they don't even have to be those from the song's key, and learn to strum in the patterns required. If it takes more than a month, I'd be surprised.

Otherwise, two other options: don't write those songs any more, or change bands..!

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One quibble I have with a lot of piano players is that they tend to immediately play a full arrangement on piano. If you come up with a bass part in your left hand and a guitar part in your right hand, they may sound fitting together on piano, but they probably won't make a lot of sense each by themselves.

Take it apart. It can be a good idea to start with a bass line, because that can be done quite faithfully. Take care to not play it piano-like, in particular no octaves etc.. It may help to use a monophonic synth sound to get into the feeling, and it will prevent the urge for the right hand to "help out". (Or indeed perhaps play the bass with the right hand, which may help making it more melodic!)

Then set that bass part aside, and come up with the guitar. Maybe you can continue playing the bass line with the left hand, or you could record it and jam over that, but it shouldn't really be necessary: a good bass part should be memorable enough to just keep it running in your head.

Also for guitar, a piano sound may be counterproductive, but I would not recommend choosing a "guitar" patch: those usually have either still too piano-like response, or too much processing on them to allow for much playing nuance. Instead, a slightly overdriven Rhodes sound or even Hammond organ (ironically, since you'd think organ is even more different from guitar than piano) have more of a feeling that can translate to guitar. Organ has in particular the advantage that it can't do the kind of dynamic interaction between the hands that you're familiar with only piano, and forces you to employ percussive ghost notes for bringing in rhythm/dynamics; even though these are played very different than on guitar, they can act musically quite similar.

And specifically for acoustic rhythm guitar I'd agree with Andy Bonner: why not just do it on guitar? You don't even need to play chords, you can just mute the strings and strum away to demonstrate the rhythm. The chords can simply be written out.

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I would propose using a vst. Ample Guitar has a free acoustic guitar, and you can play upstrokes, alternate strokings, palm muting and so on. You just use a pc and your piano to play a simulated guitar. You can go for the specific sound you want, and you can still input it on a piano.

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A few thoughts and observations in arbitrary order. Some parts tackle your questions directly, others try to provide a broader perspective of where to go and how to arrive there.

Fretboard limitations wrt chords

Compared to a piano a guitar is quite limited. Think of e.g. the D-major chord, e.g. from here https://chord.rocks/guitar/chords/d-major , trying all "Variations" buttons. What's easy on the piano keyboard can turn into a nightmare on the fretboard.

So a way to come closer to sound of chords on guitar can be to translate these (a selection of relevant chords to your band) limitations to your keyboard, as boundary conditions for you: where you could do more on piano, a guitarist will soon face a harder time.

Like on piano/keyboard there's also fingering on the guitar, i.e. easy and impossible routes to change finger postions over time.

In a nutshell: know those instruments involved.

Fretboard and melodies/leads

There are similar limitations, but are less severe in my view. The solist simply has more options to "play the same note", while it will sound a bit different from fret to fret, string to string. See e.g. here: https://chord.rocks/guitar/scales/d-major .

Guitar sound ...

... is certainly something you hardly can replicate on piano. Though keyboards may provide some or many guitar sounds, like samples, sound variations from a real guitar (A or E) will vary much wider, and with lots of pedals s/he will outperform any keyboard mimick easily.

Solo vs. band approach

As I see it, in a functional band it should be sufficient, if one member describes a musical idea, the right person picks it up and after a few joined attempts it shapes out, how to do it.

Think of passing the ball to the team in a ball-game, like soccer, football etc.

This requires a certain level of skill from everyone, of course. However, work with the current level, as that's what you have available.

Characteristic rhythms

This is certainly the drummers task, calling etc. S/He should be literate in a few basic styles of the genres you play, just to synch-in the band, and to provide a rhythmic base to play from.

And with good listening skills from the drummer, you can avoid many musical cliffs, which appear every now and than ...

But also each genre singled out a set of must-know patterns for each instrument. E.g. how does reggae look like on key, string etc.?

Less is more - more or less

Related, there are two extremes of playing note ensembles:

  • every instrument throws as many notes as possible (with overlaps in time)
  • the complexity of the whole song is fragmented accross instruments.

The first approach you can find e.g. in orchestras: just look at a leadsheet or listen to an orchestra.

But you also find a transition to the second approach: e.g. wind-instruments can't play chords, so the chords notes are split and assigned to different players, like horn1, horn2 and horn3.

The second approach should be familiar to your drummer as so called linear-drumming. But you can also hear it in many bands from e.g. South America, Africa etc. as a kind of "linear-instrumenting".

To illustrate with linear-drumming:

  • it's one pad at a time (pad=snare, toms, cymbals etc.)
  • rather than "all at once" (whatever two arms+hands, 10 fingers and 2 legs can provide simultaneously)
  • which results in a clear, crisp rhythm with a unique sound
  • however, at times you need to "hit them all" for muscial reasons (emphasis etc.)

The rule of "don't stand in my way musically" can be seen here, too. I.e. it doesn't make sense to play the same frequency range as a drummer on the kick drum as the bassist does: one of them will not be heard. There's a time for each instrument to switch from regular voicing (git: strum-strum-strum, drum: rock-rock-rock) to stand out in a little solo or break (the others are quite, i.e. make room to be heard). Think of talking rules in a group.

Composing

Composing might also benefit from doing less, but clear. Viewed from the audience, complex songs are often hard to follow. Dance-ability can be a simple way to "measure" it, where "dancing" more means body movements, and less standardized moves.

You can fool the audiences expectations on the genre only a few times. E.g. providing a waltz in a reggae song, or "phantastic odd meters", can work, if you use it as you would use spice for a meal. It can sound great, or become a desaster ... It depends.

Besides all those rhythmes, notes, chords and so on to me interesting songs tell a story with musical, not neccessary lyrical means.

E.g. from listening to boring songs (the same again again ... wake me up, when it's done) and to enticing ones. The latter often make the drama "told" audible. Try identifying some generic patterns you can work with in your specific band environment.

Hope this helps a little.

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