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A Matter Of Feel

This month's question: sounds or notes? Perhaps it's time for keyboard players to rediscover emotion in playing music instead of providing an intricate background for those musicians who never forgot it.

DID YOU KNOW, it's amazing what you can do with a plank of wood and six pieces of wire. The reason I ask is that, for an assortment of reasons, I've found myself subjected to the playing of a fair number of different guitarists in recent weeks (letters of sympathy should be addressed to: the Editor, Music Technology...). But I suppose, when you're limited by a primitive instrument like the guitar you have to become pretty resourceful; that's why guitarists have got all sorts of little effects boxes to modify the sound and little playing tricks like using open strings, harmonics and hammer-ons. I know, it's not quite the same as having a real instrument like a D50 or a Synclavier, but, as I say, quite amazing.

More recently I found myself comparing the playing of some of these guitarists with that of contemporary keyboard players - you try it. Try listening for guitarists producing new sounds and keyboard players developing innovative playing techniques. What I heard was a lot of guitarists getting their fingers around impossible playing techniques and a lot of keyboard players dishing out new sounds from new synths. So I started counting up the guitarists that had managed to establish an identity for themselves in the '80s, people like The Edge, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Dunne... And then I started counting up the keyboard players who had done the same... I'm still trying. So what's happened to all the keyboard heroes?

The problem would appear to be the old one of good sounds - not a lack of them this time, but an excess. As more, better-sounding keyboards have become available, keyboard players have become more concerned with the sounds their instruments are making than the notes their fingers are playing. In effect they've become second-level producers, being more involved with the presentation than the content of their music.

Perhaps we've had it too good for too long. When the Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3/C3 were all there was to choose from, the only way to establish a musical identity for yourself was through your playing style - and there were keyboard heroes up there alongside the guitar heroes (usually making even bigger fools of themselves). Then, in the wake of punk, came the art of keyboard "programming". Suddenly there was an alternative to years of piano study and hours spent practising scales; it was no longer a crime not to be able to play notes because you could play sounds instead. But why does everybody appear to have given up playing altogether? Surely the best musician would combine the two skills and use appropriate sounds with the notes to create music. Have we simply become lazy or have we fallen for the salesperson's talk of user programmability and digital parameter access and forgotten about our music? What about the salesperson's claims about the imitative capabilities of today's samplers - aren't we assured that we keyboard players can now be guitarists, saxophonists and violinists (to name but a few examples) for the price of a sample disk?

I accept that an electronic keyboard isn't as innately expressive an instrument as a guitar, but not that keyboards aren't solo instruments; they certainly were once, why shouldn't they be today - and tomorrow? Unless we rediscover the finer points of playing technique to accompany our vast sound libraries, I fear we will never escape the bland songs and lacklustre performances that presently plague popular music.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Feb 1988

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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