Keyed Up


By Ryan McLouth

In the last four issues, we’ve been talking about the standard role of instruments in the contemporary worship ensemble. So far we’ve discussed acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar and drums. This month we’ll cover style tips for the keyboard.
Don’t overplay. The keyboard has the ability to cover a lot of sonic space. If you’re a classically trained player or grew up studying piano with an instructor, you may need to tame your sound a bit. Classical piano frequents the solo stage or may be the only instrument accompanying a soloist or vocal ensemble. In these situations, our job is generally to cover as much musical space as possible. 
Printed editions are often arranged in this way. Playing in a contemporary ensemble is not the same and required less. What you play does not need to be less artistic, but is needs to be more complimentary to the instruments playing with you. Listen to the rhythm and range of the guitarists and bass players that you’re working with and try to play something different.
Don’t double the bass guitar. Playing the same or similar to the bass is a major no-no. Unless the goal is to achieve a special effect, this generally sounds bad. The low end of the spectrum is the most susceptible to clutter, which detracts from the sound of the entire band. It can also throw off the drummer (whether that player realizes it or not), since they are often listening for the bass guitar.
Buy a synthesizer. You might be playing a piano with the group, which is fine. However, there are many sounds and creative possibilities that you can explore with a synthesizer as well. Additionally, synthesizer “pads” are one of the most defining characteristics of modern worship music. Working with a synthesizer, you can explore interesting chord voicings, extensions, and countermelodies with less likelihood of clashing with your band members. Synthesizers get cheaper every year, and can now function in conjunction with your laptop, giving you the opportunity to access hundreds of sounds from apps like Garage Band.
Learn contemporary music theory. I’m a classically trained musician. However, if I use chord voicings and structures from that idiom in contemporary worship music (even things written in the last 40 years) it won’t sound right. Understanding how to integrate popular or even jazz music theory into your contemporary ensemble will help your group get the right “feel.” If you’re a classically trained pianist, it may not be a bad idea to take basic improvisation lessons from an instructor as well.
If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me via email at or phone at 660-651-9964.