My Journey As an Auxiliary Keyboardist

Aux Keys Icon

Introduction

    I've been in and around church music for a very long time.  I mainly envisioned myself as an electric guitarist or electric bassist for most of it, and as a backup singer or worship leader.  But recently I've come to know a new role: auxiliary keyboardist.  I'd like to describe this role and what it means to me.  Note that none of this is a scientific paper, as if I'm here to define this role for everyone globally.  I am merely sharing my experience and opinion.  I hope this is helpful to other church musicians who are trying to augment their sound and improve their church experience.
    I'm going to try to explain this chronologically.  But first, some definitions.
    In this article, "keyboards" refers to all instruments with piano-like keys, from organs to pianos to keyboards (i.e. digital pianos that are not synthesizers) to synthesizers.  Synthesizers are distinguished from keyboards in my use in this way: synthesizers are about synthesizing your own sounds, and often do not have expensive audio clips of strings and other instruments.  If your goal is to simulate an instrument like a saxophone with a keyboard, you would want a keyboard, not a synthesizer.  When you think synthesizer, think Chariots of Fire (Vangelis), Mannheim Steamroller, Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, etc.  When you think keyboards, though, most churches have keyboards, not synthesizers.  True synthesizers are more rare in church.  Usually, synthesizers have lots of buttons and knobs, while keyboards have fewer.  But that's not always the case.

Primary: Electric Guitar

    I have been playing electric guitar for roughly fifteen years.  When I lead worship, I usually do so from electric guitar.  However, at the 2018 youth rally, I brushed off my old piano skills and played pads during portions where I was not playing electric guitar.  This was my first time doing so, and I quickly began to like doing this, so it stuck.

2018 Akai Mini Play

    Then for Christmas 2018 I got an Akai Mini Play keyboard and began to run pads, as backup, into my Boss ME-70, which went to my Fender Pro Junior and into the church sound system via a microphone.  I immediately enjoyed being able to add more to the worship team sound, but quickly outgrew the Akai Mini Play.  To be fair, this is a good keyboard for just pads, so this is probably the cheapest way to get pads in your worship mix.  It also has some pretty good patches like bells, organs, electric pianos and strings, but these are the only ones I found suitable: the rest sounded too generic or "cheap."

2019 Roland System-1

    But the Akai Mini Play, even though it is cheap (at the time, $140) and is suitable, I didn't like it very much as time progressed.  I felt it was too limited in sound (even though it has a very impressive 128 note polyphony).  I felt the sounds were too generic and "cheap", and lacked interesting features.  To be fair, pads are supportive, so they're not supposed to stand out.  But anyways, I started looking for something different, mainly because the keys on the Akai Mini Play are very small, and my sausage fingers found them uncomfortable at best.
    So after doing a lot of research on a good synthesizer that is two octaves, with full size keys, I stumbled upon the Roland System-1.  I bought mine in April of 2019.  I absolutely love it, but the caveat is that now I must build my own pads.  It's sort of a double-edged sword: I have flexibility and creativity, but now I have work to do to synthesize those pads.

What Pads Can Do For You

    This is a good video that explains what pads can do for you.  I agree with almost everything they say.  However, I disagree with how they seem to imply that the "only" way to do this is with a MIDI controller, laptop, and software.  I have written elsewhere on how I disagree with this conclusion, but for now, focus on everything else they say.  They are absolutely correct on what pads can do.



    Some other things I would like to add about this video and pads in general:
    First, some churches, especially larger ones, have someone dedicated to playing pads full time.  Your church may not be able to do this, so what you can do is similar to what I do.  Because electric guitars are a very "strong ingredient" in worship music, similar to how Tabasco is a strong ingredient in cooking, there are places where your electric guitarist may not be playing notes.  At these points, the electric guitarist could be playing pads, like I have.  I think this combination works because, even though electric guitar isn't always loud, often the places where you want pads, and don't want electric guitars, are both the quieter portions of music.  However, this is a generalization, so keep in mind that this isn't always the case, but it often is.
    But if you have someone you can dedicate full-time to pads, pads go a long way in adding a sort of mid-range "glue" that gives "body" to your songs.  They may not be very noticeable, but you'll start to notice when they're not there.
    Second, pads can be used as transition between songs and keys.  By their nature, they are usually supportive rather than leading, so they can be used to bridge songs together with their sustain.  And some keyboards and/or synthesizers allow you to set one chord and "hold" it while fading into another chord.  These keyboards might be expensive, but it's just one more way to do things.  Or use a sequencer to do the fade in/out (but that might get expensive because you're adding equipment).
    Finally, on some songs they are lead or "primary."  This means they start the song and are the main and prominent instrument.  A good example of this is Forever (We Sing Hallelujah).  I have included this because it is an absolutely fantastic example of not only how pads can sustain, but even lead.



    Note how Kari Jobe can keep people's minds on Jesus and on the gospel as she speaks and then starts singing.  Also, a good example of synthesizers as lead is just about the entire album Empires by Hillsong.  They may be using expensive MIDI + Keyboard but the synthesizers are in the laptop software.  A hardware-based synthesizer (as opposed to a software-based synthesizer like the Laptop running Ableton, etc) like the Roland System-1 or System-8, etc, can generate many of these sounds, and these laptops may even contain factory presets that sound identical or similar.

How To Play Pads

     Let's use the song Forever (above) as an example of what this role looks like.  The chords at the beginning are Ab, Eb, Bbmin7, Db.  To do this, i.e. to sustain the pads while playing the electric motif, I need to be able to sustain the same notes, holding my foot on the sustain pedal, while playing my electric guitar.
    The following are chords the chords from the introduction: Ab Eb Bbm7 Db.  I write out the notes that comprise these specific chords and count up how often they appear, resulting in Ab (3) Eb (2) Bb (2) Db (2) F (2).  Then I think about the chords themselves, and consider what notes I can sustain on pads that won't clash.  It appears Eb would only "clash" slightly with the Bbmin7 chord.  An Eb would feel like a "2" chord with Db.  So I would usually choose these two and play (from low to high) Ab, Eb, Ab, Eb, and hold sustain.  The first reason is if we use too many notes, we risk too many strange clashes with these four chords.  The second reason is I have only 4 note polyphony on my Roland System-1 (although it has suboctaves, etc, so don't think it's too limited for this task).  Sometimes I even turn the volume completely down on the keyboard, press the notes and the sustain pedal, then slowly bring up the volume to mid-range or so, as if fading into the pad, as it makes it easier to then grab my guitar and start playing.
    Here are a few more examples.  Lion and the Lamb is three chords at the beginning: (in G) G, Am7, C2.  For this song, G is the most frequently found (all three), followed by D.  So I would probably hold (from low to high) D G D G through the intro as I play the electric guitar solo on the beginning.
    Another example is Worthy of Your Name (Passion ft. Sean Curran).  For this song, we are playing it in C, and the beginning is only C / Csus.  The difficulty here is I cannot sustain the F note because it would clash when C is not suspended.  There are two types of suspended major chords: suspend the third to the 2nd, or to the 4th.  This song is most likely suspending to the 4th (F).  So for this song, again, to not clash, I would probably sustain (from high to low) G C G C (because the System-1's highest note is a C).
    Yet another example is Our God Saves (Paul Baloche).  The introduction is just the G chord.  I would actually depart a little bit from my usual plan and, to add spice, sustain (from low to high) G B D A.  The 2nd factor in the chord would give a tiny bit of beautiful tension, indicating the song is about to start (i.e. we're not done yet).
    Finally with songs that start with the I and IV factor of the key, i.e. (if we were in C, for example) C F, I would probably choose either (from low to high) G C G C, if my goal is to make the IV chord sound like it's an F2, or otherwise just sustain only (from low to high) the notes C C C.

Limitations of the Aux Keyboard Role

    The first obvious limitation of this role is that I cannot play pads continually.  I have to switch back to electric guitar at some points.  In practice, this works out because pads are the least noticeable during the more "building" and "groove" portions of the song.  But because my keyboard has a sustain pedal that I've placed nearby, I can, and often have, held a pad sequence intentionally while playing electric guitar, even if only for a few measures while switching instruments back or forth.  In a few songs where this works, I've also turned the volume down on a pad and then reached for my guitar, holding the sustain pedal, and then turning the volume back up at the end of the song to transition the band and choir into the next song.
    It's up to the worship leader: for some songs, pads might be more important to the sound of the song or its place in the worship set than electric guitar, so the worship leader might decide that I don't need to play pads.
    (A quick gripe: please stop writing "groove" on lead sheets as instructions to electric guitars.  That's not a very musical instruction, and it makes me wonder if I'm supposed to be swinging my hips or something.  Please use more guitar-friendly lingo like "crunch" or "drive" or "overdrive" or "distortion", etc for the more "rock" portions and "clean" for the non-rock portions, etc.  In fact, "drive" would probably be the best word, in my opinion.)
    The second limitation is money.  You can tell from my other articles that, while I am not a rich man, I have invested a lot of money over time into my "rig", or equipment.  (I'm not bragging.)  To buy my worship rig right now, without keys, would cost you about $1,700.  Not all of your church musicians are limited on money, I understand this.  And I'm not here complaining about money, either.  Nor am I saying that all electric guitarists need this much money to have a good worship rig.  But it's a noteworthy limitation.  I address this in the next section.
    Third, equipment and space can be limiting factors.  Note that it's possible to play a guitar and keyboard simultaneously.  Rush is one prime example, in my mind.  I won't include a video but if you search for Rush live sessions on YouTube, you'll see he was able to build up a complex keyboard rig using (I'm guessing) MIDI.  But they're Rush, they've got money.  It's possible, using a sequencer, a MIDI footswitch, and other equipment to set up foot switch chord triggers and play both instruments at the same time.  However, again, this requires even more money and equipment.  This might cost about $200 or so for the sequencer, $300 for foot switch, on top of a MIDI keyboard with which to program the chords.  It can be done, sure, but the costs quickly mount up.
    So as primarily an electric guitarist, my choices are a more narrow range.  I'm not rich, my focus is guitar, and my church isn't rich, either.  So for me, the choice of keyboard is different.  Note that the first picture on this page, at the top, was of a rig I put together with the church keyboard specifically for the 2018 youth lock-in.  This was my first attempt to do both, and it worked so well that I started looking for a keyboard.

My Own Choice Matrix

    Ah, music, such a wonderful pursuit!  But money is often a limiting factor.  I could easily, if I was given a million dollars, spend it on legitimate equipment for using in church, or in music in general.
    Note on the "Pads in Church" YouTube video, above, that they recommend a Macbook Air plus lots of software, and a MIDI controller keyboard.  This is a very legitimate setup for someone who is primarily a keyboard player.  I note that bands like Porcupine Tree (see this live video) use this setup, as well as some churches.  I am not here to say this setup is invalid.
    However, for me, when I added up the cost of buying such a rig for playing keyboards, even buying refurbished equipment (like a refurbished Macbook Air for $200ish), the cost put me over what I would spend on a Roland System-1 keyboard.  The laptop-centric setup they recommend wound cost about $1,000 easily, not even including if I wanted a good MIDI keyboard and not just the cheapest one I can get.  So in terms of cost, it wouldn't work out for me.
    Spending $450 on a System-1 is cheaper for me.  It is expandable using a laptop, just in a different manner.  The ability to grab Plug-Out (tm) instruments and download them into the System-1 is going to be very helpful.  But mine is not the only cheaper option: there's also possibly keyboards like the Yamaha MX49.
    Another limiting factor is portability.  I have to be able to carry all of this in and out of church.  My band mates already see me carrying a heavy backpack plus a guitar (or two, because some of our acoustic guitar players don't have their own guitars) and an amplifier.  Sure, I can make multiple trips to and from my car in the morning when I get to worship practice, but it's just a drag, so the portability of the System-1 and other two-octave miniature keyboards is very appealing.
    Two octave keyboards also take up less space in my worship area.  Any more equipment and it will look like I'm Neal Peart or Geddy Lee, surrounded by tons of drums and/or keyboards.
    So if your church "has to" copy other churches like Hillsong, etc, you would want a more laptop and software type of solution.  Or if you just like those sounds.  If you want to trail blaze, the System-1 or even a System-8 might be a better choice.  But there's no right or wrong way, and every musician is different.

Making It Work Live

    You might ask, how do I set up my rig live?  Right now, my signal chain goes from guitar to ME-70 to Fender Pro Junior.  The Boss ME-70 has an "Aux In" jack that I've been running my Akai Mini Play into.  This setup works, but is not ideal.
    I recommend running both instruments into separate channels.  This means the keyboard would need to go into a Direct Box.  I am a big fan, by the way, of using direct boxes (or "DI" boxes) to clean up the signal.  Most signal going into them is 1/4" or even 1/8" cable.  Those cables have only two conductors (wires), and are not shielded.  This means that the longer the cable and/or running the cable near other electronics could cause signal noise, like a hiss or hum, to be injected into the sound.  Using a direct box cleans up the signal and sends it to the sound mixer over an XLR cable.  XLR cables are shielded (or, at least, should be: if yours isn't, replace it with a better quality cable).  This means you can run them for long distances and usually not have problems.  This is why often the church "snake" is a large bundle of XLR cables.

Conclusion

    The role of auxiliary keyboardist might seem to be quite a narrow focus, and in some ways it is.  But I've thoroughly enjoyed exploring this role in my current church.  Hopefully this helps someone out there.