Learning Piano Will Make You a Better Guitar Player
By Dave Eichenberger
There are lots of reasons why we chose guitar over piano. Piano players have to deal with strict teachers with rulers that slap our wrists every time we use the wrong fingering. Piano isn’t portable, and other than kicking the stool behind you and standing up, there are no rock-approved stage moves. You have to learn repertoire that is 300 years old before you even begin to learn something cool. You also can’t hook up a piano to cool pedals and amps to curate your rig one piece at a time. But there is a reason to learn even basic piano, and this can actually help your guitar playing. This article will provide a list of reasons why you should sit at the stool, flip the tails of your tux, crack your knuckles and pound those keys.
You Are Here
The piano keys are linear, and it is easy to know where you are at at any time. If you look at a piano keyboard, look at the patterns of black and white keys. You see groups of two black keys and groups of three black keys. Right now, just look at a group of two black keys. The white key to the left of that first black key is a C. C is really the starting point of piano, as the other white keys follow in sequence:
C D E F G A B C D …and so on.
The black keys in-between certain white keys are the sharps (and flats). That black key to the right of the C? C#. In piano, you always know where you are at, and learning the names of the notes on the instrument is one of the first things you do. Contrast that with guitar, in that it is common for players who have been playing for a decade or more to not know the notes on their instrument. Sure, it is easy to find E, A, D, G, B and E, but many guitarists don’t know the 10th fret on the B string without counting up from another note they know. Learning basic piano shows us that the first thing we should know on our instrument is where the notes are. But it isn’t as easy as that, is it?
On a 24 fret guitar, the E played with the open 1st string occurs 6 times on the guitar. On piano, that note occurs just once. So how do we know which one we are supposed to play? Piano makes this easy, but on guitar, there are multiple ways to play the exact same thing. The only thing separating the difference between each version of that E note is the timbre (sonic characteristics). Each version of that E sounds slightly different, even if it is the same pitch.
Be Forced to Read
There is no tablature in piano. No chord charts, and no musical shorthand. The language of music, as far as piano is concerned (and every other musical instrument) is standard notation. The 300 years of music written for the piano isn’t taught or learned any other way. But the good news is revealed in the previous paragraph: when you see a note on the staff, it only occurs in one place on the piano. This makes reading incredibly easy, as much as it makes it frustrating on guitar. Besides, as we learn more tunes on piano, we undoubtedly will find a few things we never knew existed. Being exposed to new, great music is bound to help our guitar playing, and change what box we put ourselves in. Plus, learning to read will open the world to communication with other non-guitar-centric instruments. If you want to write that Perseus vs Pokemon for Guitar & String Quartet, you have to get your music into a form the string players understand. Keep in mind, though: guitar is written one octave higher than it sounds.
Bored with your Chords?
Understanding complex harmony on guitar is difficult for a few reasons. For one, the range of a guitar is pretty small compared to a piano. Second, chords on piano can use 10 fingers across a much bigger range. Third, music that uses complex harmony just isn’t popular right now. If your music primarily uses power chords, you realize pretty quickly how wimpy a power chord sounds on piano vs. a guitar though a loud distorted amp. But the piano can play fully-voiced 13th chords, and easily playable polychords (different chords played at the same time). Learning piano will teach your ears harmony that isn’t generally available on guitar unless you have two or more guitars playing at once. Learning about complex chords can help our guitar arranging skills when layering guitars together.
Up Your Writing Game
On a piano, being able to play a different part with each hand is a great skill that most guitarists don’t possess (unless you do the two-handed-tapping thing, in which case, you still have a limited range comparatively). On piano, it is easy to try out one part that ascends, while another descends and then transfer the idea to two guitars or a guitar and a bass. Your harmonies can be worked out easier, and you will have an easier time either writing a melody over chords, or chords behind a melody, because you’ll be able to play both at once.
Play in Those Other Keys
Guitarists (myself included) are guilty of playing in a few guitar keys (as other instrumentalists tease us) like E, A, G, D, and C. Playing a little bit of piano will let us explore those other keys (there are 12) as many composers were happy to compose in keys that don’t quite make things easy on guitar, with our open strings ringing. This bends our ears a little, as each key has a slightly different sound. E-centric guitarists can especially benefit in helping to break out of riffs and patterns we have all heard 1000’s of times.
Transcribing solos from players such as Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson (and playing them on guitar) will also test our technique, since they don’t play patterns like a guitar player would, and some have wild leaps from very low to very high. Or solos might sound less scalar, and less like a group of different techniques stapled together.
My Own Playing
I am not a great keyboardist, although I took piano in college. I tend to use it for my writing and working on sounds and phrases for my guitar synth work. For composition, it is very helpful in breaking out of my patterns, as all of the little things I do on guitar are immediately gone when I step over to a piano or keyboard. I always have a keyboard close by for working out harmony to a melody I might write, and my sound design has helped me work on different guitar sounds I dream up in my head. Working with a keyboardist for years and then having a project that doesn’t have one makes me think of ways to fill up the sound with chorus, delay, and long reverb times. All of this experimentation would not have happened if I didn’t love sitting in front of a keyboard with a lot of flashing lights in front of me. It changed my guitar playing for the better, indeed.
Do you play any piano? Who are your favorite keyboardists?