War of the Worlds: No Strings Attached opener

No Strings



Keyboard players prove once again that you can't believe everything you hear.




Since Jan Hammer's amazing Minimoog work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, rock synthesists have shamelessly attempted to emulate the sound achieved by electric lead guitarists. Their success has been notable, if limited: while many aspects of guitar-playing can be replicated on a synth or sampler, not even Hammer pulls off all the guitar tricks in the same manner as a top-flight guitar hero.

The toughest part is real-time integration of rapid chordal and double-stop patterns, picking effects, and riffs into a seamless whole. It's easier in the studio, of course, but to go beyond straight-ahead leads with an assortment of harmonics-tapping, string-bending, and vibrato effects, you have to invest a lot of time. Nonetheless, a well-rehearsed keyboard player can perform enough guitar-like parts to cover a host of musical situations.

Of course, you don't have to limit yourself to playing like a guitarist. Many times the point is to fill a similar role, so you can go beyond the guitar's limitations and add the special strengths inherent in good 10-finger keyboard playing, such as higher-speed licks; larger, more complex chords; and extended note range.

Learning From The Masters
The best way for a keyboard player to sound like a guitarist is to play guitar-even badly. It's the ideal way to learn how a guitarist approaches a musical situation. Otherwise, you have a lot of watching and listening ahead. Watch guitarists' hands carefully, and get it feel for how they arpeggiate chord tones within lead lines, when they tend to bend strings, etc. If you want to play a strict guitar emulation, play within the maximum practical range of an electric guitar; depending on the guitar, the range is about four octaves (E2 to E6, or MIDI notes 40 to 88) in standard open turning.

As with emulating other instruments, you I must learn the unique playing conventions guitarists use for various types of music. For instance, jazz guitarists of the old school rarely bend strings, preferring to slide up the fretboard or jump to a different string.

It seems obvious, but it's worth emphasizing that you should listen to, and practice playing, your favorite guitar parts on keyboard. You don't need to imitate anybody when playing your music, but every musician can learn from the masters.

Pitch Bend and Vibrato
A guitarist must always finger-bend strings up, not down, due to the design of the instrument. Sometimes players such as the late Roy Buchanan and Jeff Beck get a down-bend effect by bending the string up while muted, then picking it and pulling the string back to normal position. (For a good example, listen to Beck's "Cause We've Ended As Lovers" on Blow by Blow. Not coincidentally, the song is dedicated to Buchanan.) You can do it the same way with the pitch wheel: bend first, then attack the key and ease the wheel back to center position. Guitarists generally accomplish downward bends in either of two ways. The most common method is with the whammy bar but some guitarists occasionally use the machine heads to detune and retune the string

while sustaining a note. (Bluegrass banjo players use this detuning technique, too.)

Although keyboard players have had great success using the pitch wheel for string-bend emulation, it isn't an ideal controller. If possible, try using a ribbon controller. A touch-sensitive XY pad such as the Spectra Symbol Softstick (tel. 801/972-6995) is even better, but you'll have to create your own interface circuitry. (We're planning a DIY project that accomplishes this using the EM MIDI Fader project published in the February 1991 issue. Stay tuned.)

These controllers let your fingers do the work, as with a real guitar, and you aren't at the mercy of spring tension. They also provide a way to get more realistic vibrato. Jan Hammer is famous for his pitch-wheel vibrato, but apparently he has exceptional hand strength and coordination, so you may find this approach difficult. In addition, some wheels have springs that are too stiff for smooth vibrato effects.

Many keyboard players use LFO-based vibrato (frequency modulation), which often sounds too mechanical to convince a knowledgeable listener. If you randomly modulate the LFO frequency by a very small amount, the results are a bit less mechanical. You also should set the LFO speed to match the tempo and feel of the music. One possibility is to trigger the LFO with a spring-loaded CV pedal and program the patch so the pedal modulates LFO frequency; thus, you can match the LFO frequency to various tempos by ear, "on the fly." When the pedal is released, the spring returns it to the "up" position, and the LFO frequency is zero (no vibrato). LFO-triggered effects aren't ideal, but if done well, most listeners accept them.

A 6-string guitar commonly is tuned (from sixth to first string) to E, A, D, G, B, and E, with the sixth string two octaves below the first string. Alternate tunings are common. (One rockabilly tuning trick, which I first heard used by James Burton, is to tune the sixth string down to D. The deep sound that this produces is worth experimenting with.) You'll have to use open chord voicings, spread accordingly, which will take a lot of thought until you get used to it. Naturally, you shouldn't exceed six notes in a chord if you want an accurate emulation.

For strumming effects, roll the notes as if picking them one by one, instead of attacking them all at once. You'll probably have to use both hands to get the sound of a full chord strummed across six strings. If you're using a sequencer, you may find it effective to slow the tempo while rolling the chords, then return to normal speed. Jazz guitarists often strum the last three or four strings and slide straight into a melodic lead, ending with finger vibrato. You can emulate this by rapidly rolling your fingers upward, across three notes, and continuing into single-note lines, without string bends.

Oberheim's Strummer (reviewed in the December 1991 EM) is designed to remap keyboard voicings to sound like a wide variety of guitar voicings. It does a fine job and can save you a lot of work. Strummer emulates upstrokes, downstrokes, and many common guitar-strumming techniques.

EM managing editor Steve O likes working with guitarists. On the other hand, in his touring days, he enjoyed putting bass players out of a job.

This article is reprinted from the February 1992 issue of Electronic Musician magazine with the permission of its publisher, Penton Media. For more from EM, please visit www.emusician.com.