Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Sound Of One Hand Chording

Why should I care
If I have to cut my hair
I’ve got to move with the fashions
Or be outcast

Today’s post is kind of trivial, but it’s interesting to me. And I’m going to be talking about this more in the future so I wanted to get this topic started.

I’ve always been interested in similarities and differences between music produced by guitars and keyboards. Now that everything can be synthesized there are still differences. I suspect the differences in part grow out of the way keyboards and fretboards each favor different kinds of chord voicings.

These are four voicings of a G Major 7th chord.

The two GM7 chords on the left are typical one-hand voicings for keyboard. The two GM7 chords on the right are typical four-string voicings for guitar. These have the root in the bass, then in the treble.

The keyboard voicings are closed, with all the notes being drawn from within an octave. The guitar voicings are a little more open with one note outside the octave of the root and that’s just because of the way guitar strings are arranged.

I suspect the typically slightly more open voicings of a guitar are why folk singers—to many listeners—sound better plucking away at simple progressions on guitars than they sound plunking away at simple progressions on a keyboard.

When I watch jazz keyboard players perform, they usually look very relaxed, with their left hand chording low bass voicings and their right hand playing a couple of octaves up for melody lines or comping chords.

And this sounds wonderful. I’m thinking of music like Vince Guaraldi’s.

But I’ve heard and seen guitar players—folk musicians and rock musicians—perform on keyboards and, often, they seem to play all cramped up with their hands close together and they sound as bad as they look.

I believe—I might be wrong, I don’t have a lot of keyboard experience—I believe these guitarists are sitting at the keyboard and kind of locking their hands together and using two or three fingers of each hand, together, to mimic familiar guitar voicings on the keyboard.

This does not seem to be a good idea.

It doesn’t look good. It doesn’t sound good.

I mean, what the hell, if you’re going to be using both hands at once, why not move them apart and play the keyboard properly?

(I know that I am also raising another issue here—why should the exact same chord voicings played with two hands on a keyboard sound or be experienced differently than when they are performed with one hand on a guitar? I’m ignoring this issue today because I think it needs a post of its own and I’ll do this some other time. It’s also, I strongly suspect, much harder to answer.)

I’ve already put up Pete Townshend’s incredible guitar performance of “Pinball Wizard”—on acoustic guitar!—and said it is my favorite guitar performance of all time. It is.

I like Pete Townshend a lot. (And I haven’t even begun to talk about his song “Rough Boys.” That's a whole other topic for another day.)

But here is Pete playing “Cut My Hair” on piano.

I don’t think this is good. I don’t want to be a h8er [laughs] but he should not do this. Nobody should do this. (And at this show, which looks like kind of a solo show, he has a helper keyboard player way off to the side. Harumph.)

I’ll be posting more about guitars and keyboards, but I wanted to get the topic started and I wanted to have these two Pete Townshend performances up as points of comparison. (Soon I hope to have examples of my own, but, you know, on keyboard I don’t want to look or sound like Pete so I still need a little work.)

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