Keyboards: The “secret sauce” of classic rock

I’m finding that one of the benefits of teaching so much piano is that I hear keyboards in songs where I never heard them before.

I was listening to the New York classic rock station in the car yesterday and the Cheap Trick song “Surrender” came on. Now, I must have heard this song hundreds of times as a teenager (once live in concert – 20th row at the New Haven Coliseum!). But it all sounded like guitars and drums behind the vocals. And yes, that’s what Cheap Trick wanted us to hear, but something else became obvious to me as I listened in the car yesterday; there’s a lot of keyboard in there too!

Have a listen for yourself: Surrender

Do you hear the high string section-like part? It’s there right from the very beginning, in the intro. Maybe you’ve noticed it before, but I’ve always focused more on the words and guitar parts myself.

A commercial rock group like Cheap Trick pays a great deal of attention to a song’s “mix.” The featured sounds are loud on purpose and the background sounds are quiet on purpose. Some other groups from their era such as Styx and Kansas mixed their keyboard parts much more prominently because that was the sound they wanted. It went with their image as being more classical and “artsy.” But Cheap Trick was about guys jumping up and down onstage with their guitars (and baseball hats!). With them, the keyboards played a different role. Color and glue. The synth gave a different color to the sound than simply guitars would and also acted as a kind of “glue,” connecting the spaces between guitar strums.

And it works perfectly for what they wanted. The result is rock and roll that’s edgy but not too edgy. Raw but not too raw. Attitude meets commercialism.

So the next time you listen to a sampling of classic rock, pay attention to what’s just beyond the guitar riffs. There’s likely to be a lot more keyboard than immediately meets the ear!

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