Alright, gotta admit, this article is a tough nut to crack because I could go on and on about this one topic and still not cover all the bases! That’s how crazy versatile the piano is as an instrument.
After doing some serious soul-searching, contemplating the universe, cracking open a cold one, and reminiscing about some of my favorite piano-based jams, I think I’ve narrowed things down a bit.
So, here’s the deal: when it comes to the piano, there are two primary ways to think about it: Live and Studio. Different instruments just seem to have a better shine – a better je ne sais quoi – in each format.
Check it out…
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The piano is one of the most popular instruments out there, and it’s used in so many different kinds of music, from heavy metal to classical to soundtracks to EDM to jazz.
Seriously, without it, we wouldn’t have classics like “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses or “Hello” by Adele. It’s a staple in rock bands, along with drums, bass, and guitar.
Some of the biggest bands in history, like Queen, The Beatles, and Coldplay, have rocked the piano.
What’s cool about it is that it can be used as both a percussion and string instrument, so it’s super versatile and can fit into any kind of music ensemble. Let’s get into some different scenarios in the studio and see what we can pair with this bad boy!
Drum Machines and Akai MPC
Most folks don’t even think of Hip Hop and R&B when it comes to the piano. But I remember when I first heard “The Light” by Common and was like, “Whoa!” when that dope percussive piano part came in via the sample from “Open Your Eyes” by Bobby Caldwell, so sick.
Of course, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys were straight-up killing it on “Empire State Of Mind”. That high piano percussive 8th note part is so fire, similar to the use by Common.
Most of these tracks use the Akai MPC as the main sequencing instrument, and at times the actual piano gets sampled into the machine and replayed or sliced. So the MPC and Piano combo is straight-up legendary.
“Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean, “Nite and Day” by Al B. Sure, and countless other hits also blend piano with the TR series Drum Machines from Roland, of which the most famous 808 and 909 are part of Music royalty.
Analog Synth Bass (Moog) and Modular Synths
Oh boy, there are just way too many examples to count for this category, but let’s talk about some Big Hits. You can’t miss “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby, the bass is so obviously a Moog and I think it’s really cool how it contrasts with the jazzy piano.
Now, if you want something more recent, check out “What I Like” by Bruno Mars. The bass is just non-stop, and the piano is super funky. It’s a winning combination.
And if you want to get a feel for how awesome modular synth patterns and piano can be together, just listen to the opening sequence of The Social Network soundtrack. “Hand Covers Bruise” by Trent Reznor is a total masterpiece, the piano is just haunting.
Okay, so when it comes to jazz, Chick Corea’s piano and Gary Burton’s vibes are like peanut butter and jelly – they just go together perfectly. They made a ton of albums together, but “Crystal Silence” is the cream of the crop.
Personally, I just love the way the vibes sound – they’re like this cool, glassy texture that pairs so well with the piano. Perfect for setting the mood, you know?
If you wanna hear why this group of instruments made the list, just play “Penny Lane” by The Beatles or “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago. Trust me, the combo of tenor sax, trumpet, and trombone playing together is something special that supports the piano beautifully, especially when they play those long chords.
Personally, I think the vibraphone and horns are the OG inspiration for synth pads and the Rhodes electric piano – these last two go well with piano but they’re too common. You know, like drums, guitars, and bass. Horns as pads are cooler.
Alright, so the piano is a pretty great instrument when it comes to performing on stage.
There are a couple of main situations I wanna talk about: playing classical/film music and playing more modern stuff.
Strings could have also been added to the Studio section, but let’s be honest, they sound way more awesome in a concert hall. That’s how they were meant to be played, right?
Even most modern film score recordings are done in large stage-like studios such as Air Lyndhurst, Abbey Road, and the Eastwood Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox. It’s like a mini-concert, but for movies!
Remember those MTV Unplugged concerts? If you don’t, you should totally check them out on YouTube. They were basically massive pop and rock artists playing stripped-down acoustic versions of their hits – hence the name.
Many of them swapped out their heavy guitars for piano and strings, and it was pretty darn breathtaking if you ask me.
Percussion Instruments (Hang Drum, Tablas, Talking Drum, Steel Drum)
Have any of you had the chance to experience a Hang Drum performance live? If not, you’re missing out! I had the pleasure of seeing the amazing Hand Drum player Manu Delago perform with a pianist once, and let me tell you, it was mind-blowing.
On a similar note, some really cool artists like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Hans Zimmer, and Herbie Hancock have all incorporated exotic percussion instruments into their music along with the piano.
The Steel Drum is usually linked to Calypso and Caribbean-style music, but in film scoring, it’s used to make a very mellow and sad sound when combined with strings and piano. It has a distinct glassy resonance, similar to the Vibraphone. It’s great with a piano and can make both sharp and long notes, making it a flexible instrument for live shows.
Voice (Choir and Ethnic Chant)
Well, obviously this one is a no-brainer. When you hear the combination of voices and piano live, it takes on a whole new level of awesomeness. If you’ve ever seen Peter Gabriel perform his hit “In Your Eyes” live with either African singer Youssou N’Dour or Baaba Mal, you’d know how much more vibey that is from the usual Ben Folds Five or Coldplay song.
And let me tell you, even though I’m not the biggest fan, when I saw Sam Smith perform “Stay with Me” live at the Royal Albert Hall and the choir came in, it did give me a little bit of a chill down my spine.
As I was writing this article and listening back to some of the songs I’ve noted for reference, I had this realization, man. It’s freakin’ amazing to just listen to beautifully played instruments jamming together.
I’m lucky enough to be a pianist who can play solo or jammin’ with others. That’s part of the charm of the instrument, ya know? With 88 keys at your fingertips, you have the whole spectrum of the orchestra. That’s pretty darn cool.