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12 August

Troubador Tech

Pedal Keyboard Playing Technique

This page is devoted to my very personal, subjective observations on the problems of playing a pedal keyboard, and possible solutions:

See related pages:
-Pedal Keyboard List
-MIDI Synth Tricks

Playing with One Foot

Hear me play
Besides the brief song excerpts on the Sounds page, you can hear my left foot playing an Elka DMP-18 on complete songs at my Sensory Syrynx page.
The particular gospel tract that determined my own faith appeared on the back of a record jacket:

MELVIN RHYNE was a pianist "who had fooled around with organ some"; apparently this is a clue to his development of a lithe, angular, pianistic organ style, with a firm left-foot bass line... --Orrin Keepnews, liner notes, the Wes Montgomery Trio (Riverside RLP-1156), 1959

I have no idea how many hundreds of times I reread those words, while listening to the album, during the long, long weeks between the time I ordered my first pedal keyboard and the time it finally arrived. The Wes Montgomery Trio was (and is) the only recording I owned with bass played on a pedal keyboard, and I damn near wore it out. (I'm probably the only guitarist in the world who ever speeded up a Wes Montgomery album for the purpose of copping licks. But they were Melvin's licks, not Wes's! By speeding the LP up, I could bring those deep Hammond bass tones up into a pitch range my speakers could almost handle...) By the time the MIDI Step was in front of me, I had concluded that "a firm left-foot bass line" was a very good thing to have, and I was intent upon developing one.

Actually, I had tentatively decided on a left-foot technique even before I ordered the unit. For one reason, the few people I had previously seen playing pedal keyboard and guitar simultaneously had all done it that way. For another and better reason, I had realized that a lot of physical effort was going to be involved in swinging an entire leg around to do, essentially, the work of one pianist's or organist's finger. I figured I could manage one leg; I had serious doubts about two.

Choosing the right seat: Minimizing physical effort was particularly important to me because I had already crippled myself as a guitarist. For fifteen years, my only guitar, an ancient Martin O-18, had very high action and grooves in the frets down to the wood. By the time I finally had the instrument set up properly, the damage was done: I had the unbreakable habit of fretting with many times the pressure necessary. I was determined to use no more muscle power than absolutely necessary in playing a pedal keyboard; I was not going to make the same mistake again. I also wanted to minimize any adverse effects upon my singing, harmonica playing, and guitar playing.

I realized that the height of whatever I sat upon would be critically important-- a point driven home when I saw a performance by Marti Majors. From my years as a pedal steel guitarist, I owned a battered Tama drummer's throne. With the seat raised to near maximum height (I'm tall), the drum throne proved adequate, if not quite perfect, for playing the pedal keyboard. With my right foot braced on a footrest (later to become a volume pedal, as described in the page about my setup), my left leg dangled in such a way that my ankle did almost all of the work.

Having made these decisions, I settled in for months of practice, several hours a day, hoping that the investments of money and time would eventually pay off. They did.

Standing on One Leg

This is a possibility I considered for about five minutes, and rejected as entirely too much like work. But it works for IronMan Mike Curtis, who performs as a one-person band in the Los Angeles area:

I rarely sit while playing, especially when playing bass pedals. On the floor, I also have (currently one) multieffects pedal, drum start/stop and fill/tempo switches, and on/off and effect select switches for a Lexicon Vortex (essentially an echo unit). When I play bass pedals, I can also use my heel for support, and can (usually) operate the switches while hitting a bass note. Yes it's a tap dance, and when the pedals drift from their expected location, can be a problem.

Playing with Both Feet

Several months after I obtained my first pedal keyboard, and several months before I had the nerve to use it in public, I saw John Stone White perform. That evening, and on many occasions after, I thought seriously about selling my pedal keyboard and synthesizer, and cutting my losses.

John was singing and playing guitar and harmonica, just as I did in those days for what I laughingly called my living. He was playing a pedal keyboard while doing so, just as I struggled to do at home. But he was playing bass lines any bass guitarist would be proud to claim... and he was using both feet to do it.

And his posture was terrible. John was sitting on a standard straight chair, with his back braced firmly against the chair back. Because the chair was so low (John's tall, too), he was essentially lifting both legs at all times during a song. The amount of effort required to play in this way is significantly greater than my approach... but it certainly had no apparent ill effect on his singing, harmonica playing, or guitar playing (all of which was much better than my own at the time). In fairness to myself, John is ten years younger than I, and considerably more athletic; he told me he had worked as a tennis pro for a while.

I didn't sell my pedal keyboard rig; I stuck with my one-foot approach, and kept practicing several hours a day. In a few more months, I started using the pedal keyboard on stage. I made a lot of mistakes-- but I had reached the point where what I was able to do added more to my music than the mistakes took away.

John and I saw each other half a dozen times over the next several years, and even tried out each other's setups, in public, at gigs. Each of us decided the other's way was wonderful... for him. But unquestionably, it's possible to play a lot more notes in a given time with two feet than with one.

See related pages:
-Pedal Keyboard List
-MIDI Synth Tricks

One aspect of John's pedal keyboard technique I did adopt, eventually: He played in his socks. I was playing mostly country music at the time, and after years of playing pedal steel guitar, I was only comfortable on stage with my boots on. Several years later, after wearing through the tops of several of the keys on my MIDI Step, I acquired my Elka DMP-18. I decided that I'd only play it barefoot or in socks. Keytop wear is significantly reduced; also, my playing is considerably more accurate and even a bit faster, since my leg doesn't have to overcome the inertia of a boot. I've read that there are lightweight, soft-soled "organ shoes" available, but I've never gone to the effort of investigating them.

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