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How to Choose Keyboard Effects for Each Type of Sound

Certain instrument and effect combinations on the keyboard are matches made in rock-and-roll heaven! Some are commonly used based on musical genre (funk and wah-wah, for example), and others are associated with specific artists.

To help you get the sound you want for various songs, here are the essential keyboard sounds and the effects commonly used and associated with them, often naming artists and songs as examples. Note: Reverb is used on pretty much everything, so it’s not highlighted here.

Piano-type and synth sounds

You can use keyboard effects with many common piano sounds:

  • Acoustic piano: Sometimes a little EQ can help modify a piano for a specific song or style of music. Classical sounds good with a less bright, more mellow sound, and rock works with a much brighter piano to stand out when drums and guitars are playing.

    Some pop and rock music uses a little chorus on the piano (think of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”), and deeper chorus with more pitch variation (an increase of the depth parameter) helps make piano sound more honky-tonk.

  • Tine/Rhodes electric piano: So many effects can work on this classic instrument:

    • Phase shifting: Use subtle phaser settings to get that Billy Joel “Just the Way You Are” sound, Steely Dan/Donald Fagen tunes (check out “Green Flower Street”), late 1980s Doobie Brothers (“Minute by Minute”), or the immortal sound of Richard Tee as featured on many Paul Simon, Grover Washington (“Just the Two of Us”), and Stuff recordings.

    • Chorus: Using a chorus helps to get the sound of Jamiroquai as well as the whole L.A. 1980s sound (think Al Jarreau, Toto, Quincy Jones, Chicago, and early Yellowjackets).

    • Distortion/wah-wah: To sound like vintage/early 1970s jazz, fusion, and rock artists, don’t use any modulation effect. Do use EQ if needed to darken the sound a little bit.

      However, a little distortion (not too much) helps to get the aggressive solo sound of fusion players like Jan Hammer (Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Inner Mounting Flame”), Chick Corea (early Return to Forever), and George Duke, who often played through guitar amps. Many artists also used wah-wah, still a good way to “funk-up” electric piano (both tine and reed versions).

    • Delay: You can use delay to get the spacey sound of early electric Herbie Hancock (“Mwandishi” and “Headhunters”), Brian Auger (“Live Oblivion”), Ramsey Lewis (“Sun Goddess”), and many reggae and dub recordings.

  • Reed/Wurlitzer electric piano: This electric piano wasn’t processed with effects as much, but the number one application is putting a deep chorus on it to get that Supertramp sound (“Logical Song” and “Goodbye Stranger”). EQ and distortion can help to get a stronger rock sound.

    Many people like putting electric piano through a rotary speaker.

  • Clavinet: Clavinet through a wah-wah or auto-wah is one of the classic sounds of funk music. Listen to songs like Stevie Wonder (“Higher Ground” and “Maybe Your Baby”), Billy Preston (“Outa-Space”), Herbie Hancock (“Chameleon”), and the funkiest non-funk tune ever recorded, The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” It was also prominently featured in reggae, like in Bob Marley/the Wailers “Burnin’ and Lootin.’”

    Distortion also sounds good on clav, which often was played through a guitar amp. You can hear this effect in varying degrees on the aforementioned Billy Preston songs, Stevie Wonder (“We Can Work It Out”), Led Zeppelin (“Trampled Under Foot”), Phish’s “Tubes,” and the always-amazing John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood).

  • Tonewheel organ: A lot of famous organists have pretty specific and well-known sounds:

    • Tonewheel organ and Leslie go hand in hand. Many jazz players are known for using only the brake and fast settings, whereas most rock, soul, and other players use the slow and fast speeds. Two prominent exceptions in rock/soul are Steve Winwood and Booker T., who both favor brake and fast settings.

    • Progressive rocker Keith Emerson ran his organ through both Leslies and guitar amps to get more overdrive in his sound. He also used a distortion pedal effect on the smaller L-100 he’d abuse nightly to get feedback from it (find live versions of “Rondo” to hear/see this in action).

      Hard-rock organist Jon Lord (Deep Purple) stopped using a rotary speaker altogether, favoring using guitar amps to crank up his sound to match the rest of the band (“Machine Head”).

    • Tony Banks (Genesis) ran his tonewheel organ through a phase shifter and sometimes a chorus; listen to albums like Wind and Wuthering, And Then There Were Three, and Duke.

  • Synth sounds: This group is a vast category, and basically, anything is possible. Have fun!

Guitar sounds

You really should add some effects to the guitar sounds coming out of your keyboard to make them more realistic and pleasing. Here are some ideas:

  • Guitar: Guitar works well with a wide variety of effects. All the modulation effects can sound good, as do delay and reverb when you want to play more open, arpeggiated background parts. Andy Summers (The Police) and especially The Edge (U2) are famous for this. For stronger rock songs and solos, distortion and amp models become an important part of your needed sound.

    Wah-wah works well for some rock songs and certainly for funky tunes, and auto-wah is perfect for funk.

  • Bass guitar: Bass is the one sound that doesn’t want much reverb, if any. Keeping it dry helps to anchor the feel and clarity of a song’s groove. Sometimes subtle chorus or flanging can work, especially on fretless bass. For heavier rock and metal music, distortion is appropriate. Auto-wah can work for some funk.

Other sounds

What to do with more-orchestral instruments? Less is more:

  • Wind/brass instruments: These instruments rarely require anything more than a little reverb to taste.

  • Strings: All acoustic instruments sound good with reverb. String parts in songs sometimes come from real strings or from electronic string synthesizers and such. Slight chorus or phasing adds animation and movement to these instruments.

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