What to do if there is no musical space for you

Stephen Miessner from the US emailed to ask “What do you do when you’re the keys player and there isn’t room for you in a song?”

Andy answers: Firstly I’d ask why isn’t there room in the song. Is it written in a way that is very guitar led so doesn’t work well for keys? Or is it actually that everyone else is overplaying and therefore there is no room left for you. If the second, then maybe don’t play in that section (its great that you are developed enough as a musician to be hearing that there is no space – so get out rather than adding to the mush). If there are too many instruments and everyone is just playing too much then as a band you need to work on the arrangements so that everyone creates some space and compliments each others’ playing – look back through our newsletter archive for some input on that. Communication and honest feedback is key here so that the band make space for everyone to contribute.

Its lovely when there is space for the keys player to work in some riffs, fills, passing notes and the like, but if you have lots of other musicians and vocalists all trilling and frilling its going to be a lot better if you refrain from adding to the “extras” mix and instead look to add in a textural layer.

Secondly the lack of ‘space’ may not be to do with general busyness but actually a lack of integrated grooves. I’ve often played in situations where the drums, keys and bass are all playing slightly different pushes and accents and it all just sounds like a bit of a mess. So again the key is to simplify but to get everyone to understand that they need to play together as one unit and not as a bunch of individuals.

If there is a still lot going on rhythmically there are some practical simple choices you can do to make it work:

If it suits the song a great choice is to use a Hammond organ sound. It works well with electric guitar driven songs and is the sort of sound you can hold long, vamped notes with minimal chord movements to create an overall sense of force and adding behind the rhythm but not clashing with it. Almost think of the sound like a backing vocalist singing long flowing notes to add to the harmony and using your draw bars to add vibrato.

Another obvious solution is strings and pads which will just add a textural layer. If you are using strings, be careful not to play full chords. It will sound more authentic in octaves or single notes. Again play using long notes with minimal changes or if you want to play more rhythmically focus on the groove and play a repetitive motif but try to again use minimal movement and note changes.

You can do something similar to Hammond organ with pad sounds but do make sure you are using a “quality” pad sound. A cheap and nasty keyboard an often give cheap and nasty sounds. So think about the type of song and a sound that works well with it – is your pad sound suitable for its style? For instance, if the song is fast and drives along, a pad may sound too sweet and sugary and would be better used in something more delicate.

Lastly, pads can be a bit like guitar effects, they sound great in the right place, but if you use them all the time you are going to give your congregation ear fatigue.

All the best with working this all out. Our experience with the live worship band training seminars that we run is that generally everyone is playing far too much, far too loudly, all the time. Focused work on dynamics, arrangements and honest feedback is the place to start and if you don’t have the skills in your band to lead that then maybe look to get some help from a really experienced musician who can identify the specific problems.