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Choosing The Right Sound

Choosing The Right Sound For The Stage


Keyboards are extremely versatile instruments and are used in most genres of rock music, this is due to their extensive sound catalog and abilities to manipulate sound. When first starting out on the keys it can seem daunting with the amount of sound options and buttons it may feel like you are operating a spaceship and not playing an instrument. With the right understanding of the keyboard and its functions through this guide you will be one step closer to becoming more confident on the keys.

One of the first things to wrap your head around when starting out on the keys, especially in a rock band, is the different sounds. Having an understanding of how and when to use certain sounds (patches) is crucial to any keyboardist's journey. How you play on a piano patch is not going to be the same way you play on an organ patch or even a synth patch. The following will give insight into the differences between popular types of keyboards, keyboard patches and when they are used.




Grand pianos and upright pianos get their sound by hammers striking strings when a key is pressed down. They have a range of 88 keys which equates to just over 7 octaves, this gives the player a lot of room to be creative. Pianos also have weighted keys this means the keys are heavy to push down however this yields more dynamic control. Most stage keyboards do not offer the weighted key action or the range but they are able to emulate the classic and timeless sound. Pianos are utilized in most genres of rock music. Home sweet home by motley crüe and locomotive breath by Jethro Tull are both songs that use pianos. 


Electric piano 


The electric piano has hammers that strike reeds or tines to create sound when a key is pushed down. Electric pianos can offer dynamic action depending on how hard the key is pushed down. The two most popular brands of electric pianos are Rhodes and Wurlitzer. Electric piano patches are widely used in funk, rock and jazz music being used in songs such as Goodbye stranger by supertramp and I Am The Walrus by The Beatles. 




The Clavinet was created in the 60s. The sound is created by strings being pushed down by rubber hammers against metal. Songs such as Superstition by Stevie Wonder and Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain and Tennille use the clavinet.  




The electric organ has become one of the most popular keyboard sounds in rock music. The electric organ was created to be less expensive and smaller than the traditional pipe organs for churches. The electric organ was then used by musicians playing rock, jazz and blues music, the two most popular organs were the hammond organ and the vox continental. Organs have drawbars which can create an endless amount of sounds, the organ can sound harsh and gritty like a distorted guitar which is featured in songs like Highway Star by Deep Purple or organs can sound bright like in Karn Evil 9 1st Impression Part 2 by Emerson Lake and Palmer. 




Synthesizers are a kind of electronic keyboard that relies on the manipulation of sound waves. There are a few basic sound waves like sine, sawtooth, square, triangle and pulse, each of these soundwaves will create a different sound. In addition to the unique sound waves there are other ways to change the sound with functions like attack, cut off, delay, resonance, reverb and more.  Some synths are monophonic which means that only one note can be produced at a time while others are polyphonic which means that more than one note can be produced at the same time. Songs like Frankenstein by The Edgar Winter Group and Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics.




Pad patches are a great addition to any keyboardist's repertoire, they are great to use to fill out space and make any song sound full. They offer a sustaining sound that takes up a lot of space which means that keyboardists have to be aware of the action of these patches and may have to adjust how they play. Songs like Radio Ga Ga by Queen and Here I Go Again by Whitesnake use pads. 




There are many songs in rock music that utilize traditional string instruments that you would typically find in an orchestra. Some bands like The Beatles and Deep Purple have played with the help of an actual orchestra, in other cases the keyboardist would use a string patch to emulate the sound of a string ensemble. When using a string patch on the keys you will have to adjust the way that you play because most string patches will respond differently, playing too many notes at the same time will sound muddy. Songs like Mr Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra and Ain't No Sunshine by Bill Withers use strings. 


Brass/ Woodwind 


Similar to the strings patches most keyboards can also produce sounds that emulate brass and woodwind instruments. Cryin’ by Aerosmith and Nights In White Satin by The Moody Blues use brass and woodwind sounds. 


Other functions of the keyboard


Sustain pedal 


Most keyboardists use what is called a sustain pedal. The function of the sustain pedal is to prolong the notes that are being pressed down. The proper use of the sustain pedal can take the song to the next level however it can also make the song sound muddy if not used wisely. The use of the sustain pedal does not work well with certain keyboard patches. The piano patch is the beat patch to use a sustain pedal with and it's best to refrain from using too much sustain with patches that already have a sustaining quality to them.




Most keyboards do not have the full 88 key range that a traditional piano has, instead they have a transpose function. This lets the keyboardist switch the range of keys higher or lower by octaves or semi-tones. This can be handy when playing songs that fall beyond the natural range of the keyboard.  



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