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5 ways to play keyboards like Rick Wakeman

Rick Wakeman
(Image credit: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

Rick Wakeman is one of the most influential progressive rock keyboardists of all time. While a member of the groundbreaking English rock group Yes in the 1970s, Wakeman revolutionised the rock keyboard world by using a heavy helping of the most sought-after keyboards of the day, often times playing multiple instruments simultaneously.

Wakeman was also a prolific musician in his own right, playing sessions with everyone from David Bowie to Black Sabbath and releasing solo albums on his own.

Let’s examine five components that have helped make Wakeman a living keyboard legend.

1. Clavinet Riffs

(Image credit: Future)

Ex. 1 is a Clavinet riff inspired by Wakeman’s keyboard work on his first solo album The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Here we see diatonic triads (Eb and F) from the C Dorian mode (C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C) mixed with triplet blues riffs from the C Minor Pentatonic scale (C, Eb, F, G, Bb, C). 

Notice how the bass pedal points hit in the spaces of the right hand part.

This is an effective technique on Clav and it adds a sense of rhythmic propulsion as well.

Try this idea during a band breakdown passage and make sure to practice it in all 12 keys so you can use it at a moment’s notice.

2. Classical textures

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Ex. 2 is inspired by a piano breakdown on the classic Yes album Fragile.

Here we see Wakeman’s penchant for triplet rhythms again. The bass line descends as triadic shapes create interesting contrary motion and twisting harmonies.

Notice how the bass notes create more involved harmony when combined with the triads. For example, the G triad over an E bass line in Bar 2 yields an Emin7 chord. 

Notice also how we modulate to different key centres by moving the bassline in half steps. In Bar 3, we quickly modulate to the key of E for a moment before arriving at a cadence on Gb in the last bar. This harmony comes as a big surprise coming from the unrelated E minor tonality of Bar 2.

When coming up with your own solo piano interludes, don’t be afraid to experiment with modulating to unusual keys.

3. Synth leads

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One of the most interesting sounds in Yes came from their use of what was actually a new keyboard at the time, the now venerable Minimoog synthesizer. Wakeman would use this instrument for searing mono lead sounds and unusual effects. (Check out the Yes album Close to The Edge for examples of great Moog playing).

In Ex. 3, we've composed a short solo with the Bb minor pentatonic scale that captures the spirit of Wakeman’s synth work. Try using this line over Gb Major, Bb minor, and Eb7 chords.

In Bar 2, we play the scale in fourth shapes to impart a little interest and diversity into the line. By the last half of Bar 2, we start a pattern of skipping one note in the scale as the pattern ascends and skipping the third note or original starting note on the way back down.

Utilising this system of skips yields interesting intervals in your pentatonic lines. In the last bar, we add even more excitement with the mod wheel. Experiment putting skips in your pentatonic lines and vary which note you skip. Think like Rick and mix it up!

4. ARP it!

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Another interesting keyboard from the 1970s was the ARP Odyssey, which Wakeman used extensively for his pad sounds.

In Ex. 4, we recreate this idea in the digital age, with a delay-soaked analogue pad from the free U-he soft synth Tyrell Nexus 6.

Over a static bassline we move “sus 4” shapes built exclusively from notes in the G Dorian mode (G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G). The ascending chords create nice colours that bleed into each other because of the long decay and effects on the sound.

On your own, experiment with slowly moving the cutoff frequency to create more motion.

5. Organ solos

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Ex 5 is influenced by Wakeman’s great Hammond organ solo on Roundabout from the Yes album Fragile. On the solo, Wakeman drowns his B3 in a lot of distortion, using a drawbar setting of 88 880 000. Note he also employs the third percussion harmonic and the slow or Chorale setting on his Leslie. All the material for the line comes from the D Blues scale (D, F, G, Ab, A, C, D).

An important technique in this type of organ playing is to play a little sloppy. This creates a great texture, especially with the distortion. Don’t be afraid to 'schmeer' the notes together and hit different notes of the scale simultaneously to create interesting intervals and dissonances.

Practice tip

“Rick Wakeman often infused his keyboard work with elements from classical music. For extra credit, study the scores of Brahms’ symphonies to see how the composer used bass motion to lead to unusual keys,” says keyboardist and composer Brian Charette, who has performed and recorded with artists like Joni Mitchell, Michael Buble and Rufus Wainwright in addition to leading his own jazz groups.