Got two hands haven't you? So what do you do with the left one?
And on the other hand... four fingers and a thumb. The multi-dexterous Honeybone ponders the fate of the keyboardist's left hand... what it should do, where it should do it, and how to stop it going floppy in the washing up water.
WAY BACK in the mists of time, some nine months ago, the interconversion of guitar and keyboard styles was the introductory theme for this column. The intervening period has seen a flurry of well-intentioned words concerning the whys and wherefores of chord classification, the odd song analysis and a foray into the paranoia of improvisation. Where next? — the left hand as I know it.
Two immediate warnings seem appropriate. First, don't make the left hand over-complex. Secondly, never consider the hands in isolation — they are a team.
Another standard piece of advice that we can file away as "interesting but hardly practical" is the assertion that the entire range of the keyboard should be used. I suppose that this is as valid for a four octave S-10 as a KX-88 but the real message is to use keyboard extremes — the highs and lows. In this respect, for many styles, the left hand is expected to perform gymnastics of mind boggling speed and accuracy.
However, as a raw beginner equipped with Vox Continental (before punk made them fashionable) and Hohner Pianet, left hand technique was for me an embarrassment (as were the keyboards). The problem was aggravated by the fact that on either keyboard, any attempt to play anything remotely elaborate with the left hand would guarantee that right hand would then be drowned out.
At this stage in my development, the root notes of the right hand chords were duly added by the left, sometimes as a low drone or, in moments of rhythmical frenzy, sometimes four in the bar. Time is known for its healing properties but a vague recollection persists that the left hand may even have doubled the right when playing riffs (what ever happened to Uriah Heep?).
Then the Brubeck hook was discovered at the library. Only with hindsight can I recognise the damage that resulted from that tome. Fine man that Dave Brubeck might be, his style comprises a vast left hand stretch, huge block chords and a predilection for bi-tonality. Studying Brubeck was for me and, I suspect, many others like trying to get a drink from a fire hydrant. Too much too soon.
Not realising that Brubeck only represented one branch of a complex 'tree' of jazz styles, I all but rejected such things. At that time, the over acting of Keith Emerson held more attraction. Only a good few years later was I to appreciate the influence of Jimmy Smith, Thelonious Monk et al on my mentor.
But enough lurching through my mis-spent years, let's get a little more practical. Before devoting the next year of your life to working up your left hand chops, it might be as well to ponder what it is that you hope to do with them. You could play bass riffs but this will keep you very busy and probably annoy your bass players. If you're going to play very strong rhythmic basses on a keyboard rather than sequencing them, mistakes are very noticeable and so you shouldn't aim to play much else simultaneously. In fact, you might as well play bass lines right-handed so you can use the left to operate modulation and pitch bend devices.
You could use your left hand to double chords on two different keyboards but isn't that what MIDI's for? What about the keyboard man in Europe playing backing chords with the left and a trumpet voluntary with the right. Is that what you want to do? Any more suggestions? I think it's time to come back to that opening warning that neither of the two hands should be considered in isolation. There are two distinctive uses of the left hand in combination with the right: firstly to create crossrhythm 'drumming' patterns and secondly to affect some variation on the 'call and response' theme where one hand answers the other in either melodic imitation or chordal punctuation.
There are those orchestral players that consider the keyboard to be a percussion instrument so let's take their tip and use it as such. Select a clavinet-type preset and bash away in true 'Superstition' funk style. Strangely, this highly rhythmical approach seems to be encouraged by the 'clav' timbre but vapourises when another preset is chosen. Why this should be is beyond me. After all, selection of a harp preset doesn't immediately prompt us into sparkling glissandi.
The 'call and response' idea can be developed in many ways. The style is best known from its initial exposure in the big band arrangements of Fletcher Henderson. Paul Hardcastle's 'The Wizard' is a further example of the technique where brief melodic statements are answered by the rhythmical backing.
One of the many idioms of jazz piano is the stabbing left hand which punctuates the phrases of the right. I'm certainly not going to get too deep into this subject but, in passing, I hope to highlight a few gems for you to rip off.
But for now, some suggestions for practice. Before we get too deeply into left hand 'voicings' (a term used decades before synths were even a twinkle in Bob Moog's eye) I would recommend that you practise all your right hand chord shapes with your left. In order to build up hand independence, you might care to 'doodle' with the right and play the left hand chords four to a bar, first on the beat (Errol Gamer style) and then off the beat ('Charlestoning' — Ahmad Jamal style). You might even try to get to hear some records by the two gents mentioned above. Do yourself a favour though and leave Brubeck on the shelf.
Feature by Andy Honeybone
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