Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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20 Greatest Keyboard Intros

If you’re a music fan and haven’t already heard of Rick Beato, I highly recommend you visit his YouTube channel and poke around a little, or – more likely – so much so that you jeopardize your job and marriage.  Music is a rabbit hole that’s easy to fall into, and Beato makes it all the more enjoyable by relating interesting aspects of music without dumbing things down and without condescension.  Particularly enjoyable is his “What Makes This Song Great”series in which he dissects classic rock songs, isolating tracks and playing along with amazing virtuosity, while revealing what makes the song stand out.

Rick recently made a video of the “20 Greatest Keyboard Intros Ever,” and since I’m a keyboard guy, before watching the video I quickly made my own list, inspired mostly by song intros that I learned (or tried to learn) starting back when I was around twelve years old to – most recently – intros I learned for bands I play in now.  Only three of the songs Beato covered made my list, but I kicked myself for forgetting to include Rush’s Signals and Genesis’s Dancing in the Moonlit Night, both of which I learned back in the early 80s.

Without further ado, here are my Top 20 keyboard Intros that I recall learning over the years:

1)     Bloody Well Right – Supertramp
2)     Foreplay – Boston
3)     Angry Young Man – Billy Joel

These overlap with Beato’s list, all essential inclusions, and although I thought I learned them all when I was a teenager, even performing “Foreplay” in the 1984 Brookfield Central Battle of the Bands, it wasn’t until I reached my 40s that I actually learned how to play these intros correctly.  All are great fun, highly satisfying intros that still mess me up from time to time.  The latter is a bitch to play unless you’re on a grand piano – I’ve found keyboards don’t have the action required for the rapid repeated notes.  Then again, maybe it’s just my playing.

4)     Another Man’s Woman – Supertramp

I could fill my Top 20 list with nothing but Supertramp songs (“From Now On,” “Take the Long Way Home,” etc.), but if I limit it to two, this has to be the other inclusion.  Another wonderful Rick Davies intro.

5)     Levon – Elton John

Buying the Elton John Greatest Hits album in the winter of 1979-1980, followed shortly thereafter by an accompanying piano book, was monumental for me, opening up a whole new world of piano playing that went beyond Michael Aaron lesson books.  I could easily pick twenty Elton John intros for this essay (“Skyline Pigeon,” “Idol,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” etc.), but “Levon” is the one that made the biggest impression on me.

6)     Nobody Home – Pink Floyd

That same winter of 1979-1980, Pink Floyd’s The Wall made its debut, and – prior to me playing by ear more frequently – this was another piano book that inspired me.  This intro isn’t earth-shattering, but it sets the melancholy song up so well.  Very tasty.

7)     Fooling Yourself – Styx

For a young keyboardist, this Styx song was highly satisfying, as it was easy to reproduce the original part note for note and even get the synth patch pretty close (often not such an easy task on a four-octave Korg Delta keyboard).  Nothing fancy here, but effective.

8)     Fire in the Hole – Steely Dan
9)     Aja – Steely Dan

My brother challenged me to learn “Fire in the Hole,” and I got it kinda sorta down before moving onto “Aja.”  Today, I could learn these songs with a bit of hard work, but I remember struggling mightily just trying to figure out the opening chord to “Aja.”  I didn’t even know what a major seventh chord was at the time, so I was at a distinct disadvantage!  I remember showing my piano teacher Fred Tesch what I had written out on manuscript paper, and he immediately wrote out a bunch of chords that I needed to master, which subsequently made learning songs a helluva lot easier. 

10)  Trilogy – Emerson, Lake and Palmer
11)  Awaken – Yes

These songs provided a different sort of challenge.  Instead of blues and jazz-based chords, these intros were more classically-influenced, and once the patterns were deciphered, they weren’t too difficult to learn.  The fast runs of “Awaken” are merely suspended chords and pretty easy to play.  But again, they sound really tasty.

12)  Trampled Under Foot – Led Zeppelin

Perhaps an odd one to include, as it’s a whopping two measures long, but in the days when learning a song meant placing down the needle on a record, lifting it, plunking out a few notes on a keyboard, placing the needle back down on the record (but too far to the right, so the fade out of “Houses of the Holy” was still audible), listening, lifting, playing, dropping, listening, lifting, playing, etc., learning even a two-measure intro wasn’t so easy!  Also, not understanding pentatonic and blues scales made it a lot more challenging. 

13)  Jungle Land – Bruce Springsteen

Roy Bittan’s handywork was a lovely work of art to reproduce, not only the intro here but the entire song.  Monumental.

14)  Abacab – Genesis

My high school band took on this song and did a pretty damn good job of it!  Once again, when I relearned this song about five years ago, I realized that my ears hadn’t picked up on a few things back in mid-80s.  YouTube set me straight as it always seems to do.

15)  Target – Joe Jackson
16)  Be My Number Two – Joe Jackson

The former’s Latin-based piano part is probably a joke to those who know the ins and outs of this style of music, but for my young ears in 1982, I didn’t understand what was happening here at all.  It wasn’t until the late 80s that I finally wrote out the parts to figure out the syncopation.  I never did master Latin patterns and rhythms the way I’d like, but I got this Joe Jackson part down pretty well.  “Be My Number Two” was more my speed, and I love hearing what Joe’s done to the middle section lately when he plays live, modulating every two measures or so before resolving back to the original key.

17)  The Way It Is – Bruce Hornsby

I can’t tell you how exciting this song was for a piano player in 1986.  In a decade awash with synth sounds, this was an honest-to-goodness piano track, and playable too!  The solo later in the song required more finesse, but even that was doable.  Bruce put piano back on the map.

18)  Locomotive Breath – Jethro Tull

This is another one I kinda sorta learned until recently, when YouTube came to the rescue.  Slowing things down at half-speed sure makes the faster runs a lot easier to dissect!  I just played this intro last month at a gig and had a lot of fun doing it.

19)   The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – Genesis

This gets my vote for the best keyboard intro ever.  In typical Tony Banks fashion, the chord progression here is insanely odd – something I’d never come up with in a million years.  It’s also – like “Angry Young Man” – hard to play (for me, anyhow) without a grand piano, and even then I’ll still mess up the final run.  I learned this intro for a proposed Genesis tribute band that never came to fruition, but it was so much fun to learn.

20)   Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

There’s more to this intro than meets the eye, as after the initial memorably eight bars the piano delves into some interesting voicings that aren’t so easy to hear initially.  This intro captures the mood of the song perfectly.

So there you are – my Top 20 Keyboard Intros.  Oddly absent are any songs by Ben Folds, especially “Philosophy” and “Landed,” but only because I haven’t actually learned those songs.  Why?  I don’t know.  Ben Folds was a breath of fresh air when the debut album came out in 1995, as important to me in my late 20s and early 30s as Elton John was to me in my teens, but I still need to learn the tunes.

Some other honorable mentions:

1)     Sweet Dreams – The Eurythmics
2)     1000 Miles – Vanessa Carlton (it once again put piano back on the map in the 2000s.)
3)     Take on Me – Uh Huh
4)     Waiting for a Girl Like You – Foreigner (read about how Thomas Dolby came up with this intro – amazing!)
5)     Lady Madonna – The Beatles
6)     Don’t Do Me Like That – Tom Petty (the piano is sparse and simple, and the organ is perfect)
7)     Jump – Van Halen (of course)
8)     Atlantic – Keane (man, I love this eerie opening)
9)     The Great Gig in the Sky – Pink Floyd
10) Vienna - Billy Joel
11) Head over Heels - Tears for Fears

Lot of great stuff to choose from!  If you’ve got any others I should have mentioned, send them my way.

Keyboard Rig for the Aging Rocker

When I started gigging again back in 2011 I was using a heavy, inflexible beast from the 1990s, a 60 pound Roland A-90 that – along with its sonic limitations – virtually guaranteed regular chiropractic visits. When it died two years later, its replacements offered other problems. The Korg SV-1 was 15 pounds lighter, though still cumbersome, and it was functionally limited. It offered zero layering and splitting capabilities and its organ sounds were simply terrible. I added a second keyboard – a 31 pound Kurzweil PC3LE6 – that really shined in some areas, but now I was lugging around two heavy-ish keyboards that still didn’t do everything I wanted. Add to that a QSC K12 for my keyboard amp, and at the end of an evening my back was ready to cry uncle, not to mention my ringing ears. I considered purchasing a Nord, but in additional to the exceedingly high price, these keyboards also have imitations. I was looking for something to offer me flexibility without breaking the bank or my back.

A year ago I started to seriously consider updating my gear to a laptop based system, and after months of research, several purchases, a steep learning curve and countless hours of frustration, I am now playing live with a new setup that’s got one foot in the 21st Century while still offering the stability and simplicity of a 20th Century rig. Here are the specifics:

Nektar Panorama P6 61 key controller keyboard (used)

Casio PX-5S 88 weighted keyboard (used)

MacBook Pro (used)

Mainstage 3 software

IK Media Sample Tank software

Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 (2nd Gen) audio interface

USB port (used)

2U Rack mount case

Rack mount Power Supply (used)

3 keyboard pedals

Shure SE 215 headphones with self-made in ears molds using Radians custom molds

Call it a keyboard rig for the aging rocker who still wants to stay relevant. The price? I purchased both keyboards, the MacBook, the USB port and power supply secondhand, saving me around $1000. All told, my new gear cost somewhere around the price I would have spent on a new Nord keyboard.

A couple of points:

The Casio PX-5S is the best-kept secret in the keyboarding world. It sounds great, it’s flexible and I can carry it under one arm. It’s staggering light – only 23 pounds – and I personally love the feel of the keys. The Nektar Panorama P6 only weighs 17 pounds. So in essence I went from carrying 76 pounds of keyboards to 40 pounds. Nice.

I no longer take an amp with me when I gig. Instead, I use my Shure headphone and directly monitor my keys along with a PA vocal feed through my audio interface. No more heavy amps and I’m guaranteed to be able to hear myself without subjecting my ears to deafening sounds.

I use soft synths for my top controller keyboard only. I use the internal Casio sounds (while still programming patch changes with Mainstage), partly because I like the sounds and partly because it provides me with a backup in case of catastrophic computer failure. No matter what, I'll be able to get through a gig. I basically use the Casio for pianos, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, clavs, Vox Continental, Farfisa and some pads and strings, but it can do a lot more in a pinch.

I run both the Casio and the softsyths through the Focusrite and out the back in mono - each panned hard right or left - so that the audio engineer still has flexibility to change volumes. I've learned that this is a better way to go (for me, at least) because sometimes the volumes I set during rehearsals need tweaking when playing live.

My rack mount contains my audio interface, mult-USB port, Power supply and all the cables I need to set up, which I can complete in about seven minutes. I use Velcro strips to adhere my rack mount onto a music stand, and I use additional strips to adhere my MacBook to my rack mount. Easy, cheap, flexible and – to date – accident free.

Similarly, I adhered all three keyboard pedals onto a 11” x 14” canvas board (painted black) with Velcro strips. This keeps my pedals from sliding around, and it’s light and easy to carry.

 

All you Apple lovers out there who told me that MacBooks are the best and I would wonder why I didn’t switch to Apple years ago, I cry bullshit. My MacBook freezes and crashes at inopportune times just like my PCs do. It’s a computer, and an inflexible and overpriced computer at that, but I wanted to use Mainstage to play live so I had no choice. Fortunately the most significant problems have occurred during rehearsals and not during live performances.

Speaking of which, Mainstage is an amazing value but also amazingly frustrating to use. Yes, everything can be configured if you have enough hours in the day, but it could be oh so much better. I am not a MIDI guru – I know just enough to be dangerous – and this is no doubt the source of much of my frustration, but Mainstage makes me work very hard to do some very simple tasks. Still, once you get things set, there’s nothing as wonderful as pressing a button and having all of your song settings appear. I no longer spend my time on stage trying to select the correct patch at the correct time, and I enjoy performing live much more as a result. 

Mainstage is impossible to learn well without help, and I found two on-line sources to be invaluable: http://brian-nagel.com/ and https://brianli.com/.  I owe them big time.

The sounds that come with Mainstage – particularly the organs and synths – are amazing and allow for endless tweaking to get the sound you need. I purchased SampleTank to help supplement some of Mainstage’s shortcomings, particularly the horns and strings, and for piano, Rhodes, etc. I use my Casio’s internal sounds, and although they’re not as strong as my SV-1’s patches, they’re certainly sufficient and enjoyable to play, and they're much better than Mainstage's pianos.

I have odd ear canal sizes and I wasn’t able to get my Shure headphones to stay in place consistently and block out enough room noise. Rather than having proper in-ear molds created, I purchased Radians ear molds and created my own based on some youtube videos I watched. Cheap and effective.

All in all, the switch to a laptop based system has achieved what I’d hoped for: a lighter rig with better sounds and more flexibility. It’s been a source of frustration to be sure, and I don’t even want to think about how many hours it took me to learn how to use the gear properly and to program patches for my bands, but ultimately it was a challenging and rewarding experience. In a way, it helped me to reengage with music that had become a bore to play and allowed me to examine each song’s potential, challenging me to make the song sound as good as possible. Performing is much more fulfilling as a result, not to mention less back-breaking, and I also feel like this is a rig that can grow with me rather than being bogged down with a expensive keyboards that only do certain things well. 

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved