Having piano (or keyboard) as part of Bluegrass is fantastic, and a part of Bluegrass that I would love to see grow and expand. Following are a few suggestions on how to play Bluegrass Piano/Keyboard. To start, though, learn the basics on the piano, and, of course, listen to Bluegrass music. The piano (keyboard) is a very flexible instrument. It can be its own band (there are many, many records that have been recorded like this), or it can be part of a band, obviously. Its range of sounds and styles (exciting, depressing, calming, energizing, and more) seems infinite, which makes it a perfect addition to the Bluegrass genre.
It is not rocket science.
At this point I'm working on that part as well, and don't think I'll ever "arrive". Personally, I have worked more, in general, on Southern Gospel, and Gospel styles.
I have liked and used Roger Bennet's Southern Gospel Piano Course Volume 1 & 2 which I would recommend going through.
I believe that playing by ear should be accompanied with the knowledge of how to play from a book. If all one knows how to do is play out of the book, I think their abilities become somewhat limited. They can improve this by learning to write and arrange music, but while I know people who can picture the music and write it, that is something I simply can't do. I have to play it in order to really hear what it sounds like. As a result, this has led me to see that ultimately, one does themselves a huge service by knowing how to play by ear, and out of the book.
If you do well with reading music, and are looking to learn the Bluegrass piano style, I recommend getting Stan Whitmire's Old Time Gospel Piano book . Yes, it doesn't say it's "Bluegrass", but many of the principles in those arrangements are excellent. It is some intense piano music, and if you aren't proficient with reading music when you start into the piano book, I think you will be when you finish. Be sure to get Stan Whitmire's companion album, Old Time Gospel Piano so you can appreciate what it is supposed to sound like. It is available as an MP3 for easy and quick download, and is a very enjoyable listen.
I am a huge fan of practical theory. Some theory gets rather high-level, and that's fine for those who want to dedicate the time it requires to learn it, but for me, I'd rather learn the fundamentals, and then turn on my keyboard, and make it do something. I highly recommend, MusicTheory.net as an excellent source of almost all of the theory that I think is needed to learn the piano. Pick up their exercise app and instruction app if you can. They are very well done, and worth the small price.
If you are learning to improve your play-by-ear capabilities, I think you should consider getting Jermaine Griggs Gospel Keys 101. While I have most of his products, I am of the opinion that this outshines the rest of them in a big way. It is for beginners, but I would recommend it to anyone that is not familiar with playing the piano by hear or doesn't use the Nashville number system.
One thing to note is that I'm not necessarily talking about the "ear-training" that is taught in some of the classical circles where one looks at a note on a page, or perhaps even hears it, and then knows what that note sounds like, or what it is, respectively. While that is an excellent skill, I am primarily speaking of the type of playing by ear that comes natural for most people. For example, almost everyone knows the tune of "Mary Had a Little Lamb", or "Amazing Grace". With that in mind, it wouldn't take most people long at all to play that melody on the piano. In the same sense, it isn't hard to then build on that skill and to mix the creative side of the mind, and learned part to create something beautiful.
Chances are you've come here because you are either part of a band or looking to join or start one. First, playing with a band is awesome, but challenging. I've been playing in a band for a number of years now and I am still learning things regarding working with the other band members. As you are likely well aware, music is very relative - there is almost never any particular note, or combination of notes, or arrangement that is the only "perfect" way to do it. As a result there may be 5 different "best" approaches to a particular number, and choosing which one is a matter of the band leader's decision or simply solving it together.
When it comes to playing Bluegrass style piano with a band, I have a few things that may be helpful for you to be aware of if you haven’t figured these things out already.
If you find yourself evaluating whether to learn on (or purchase) a keyboard or piano, I have two main thoughts on this issue:
I suppose it's stating the obvious, but also, if you don't care for keyboards, I'd recommend getting a piano instead.
Yes, you read that correctly: it doesn't matter. What matters is that it functions and that you like it. There is no doubt that pianos are "the real thing", but I have personally played many pianos and would clearly take my Yamaha S90 XS synthesizer over at least 90% of them. At this point, I remember playing only about 2 grand pianos, both Yamaha, I believe, and one quite old, that I would prefer over my keyboard. However, for me, portability is just as important as the sound and feel of the instrument.
Anyone that has spent much time around either pianos or keyboards can tell you that there are good and bad ones of both. And neither option is a perfect solution in all situations and for all people. Below, you will find some practical pros and cons to keyboards and pianos. For this, we will assume that we are comparing a mid-grade standup piano to a mid-grade, weighted action, electric piano such as the Yamaha P-155. Again, these are only general principles and would vary wildly between instruments. Also, don't underestimate the power of pianos being "the real thing".
I’m Jesse Maxwell, and my goal is to glorify the Lord Jesus, my Savior, through playing music. I believe that He is the One Who gives me the grace to learn the piano and improve. I play (mostly) keyboard with my family and enjoy the Bluegrass part of it but also greatly enjoy the worship styles of piano as well.
I played several more mainstream Bluegrass instruments before settling on the piano. When my family started learning to play Bluegrass, I learned the Hammered Dulcimer, which is actually similar in principle to the piano. Overall it is a very nice sounding instrument, but it didn't stick with me. I ended up learning to play the resonator guitar, or dobro, for 2 years. The Lord clearly led me to move away from the dobro, and I then started working on learning the mandolin.
I took piano lessons from my brother when I was roughly 6-7 years old, but after I had moved to learning a more Bluegrass-style instrument, I thought I had left the piano for good. During the time that I was practicing the mandolin, though, I become interested in piano again after hearing an artist play it with a Bluegrass band.
After some consideration, in November of 2010, I acquired my first, and current, keyboard: a Yamaha S90 XS synthesizer. With over 1,000 different voices, fantastic performance ability, and great customization, it has proved an excellent choice. In addition, the key action, which feels extremely true, allows me to switch to the piano without having to adjust my technique. Most of the time I stand when playing the keyboard, but haven’t noticed that making a difference when I sit down to play a piano. Probably 99% of my music practice time now goes toward the keyboard.
After returning to the piano, I have never looked back. I find the piano to be an extremely versatile and expressive instrument, which almost constantly poses new challenges to me. Learning it has been an incredible, awesome challenge, and I hope that the resources that I link to from here are helpful if you are beginning this journey.
Last updated: 07/04/2014
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