Smile Politely

Rockin’ the keyboard with Mark Woolwine

Mark WoolwineIf the electric guitar is the dominant instrument and visual symbol of rock and roll, where does that leave keyboard players who want to rock? In an attempt to find out, I emailed Elsinore keyboard player Mark Woolwine some questions.

Mark Laughlin: When Little Richard became a star in the mid-1950s, he brought a flamboyant look and a different sound to the pop music charts. While he was definitely something new on the whole, how original was his piano playing itself on hits like “Tutti Frutti”?

Mark Woolwine: I think with Little Richard it has to do more with his personality than what he plays on the piano. He is a very talented musician, but what he was doing was nothing new. Pianists had been playing music like that since the beginning of the 1900s. It’s just a continuation of ragtime and jazz and blues.


Laughlin: One of the things I like about The Doors is that in many songs the keyboards and guitar complement each other, without either of the two instruments always driving the song by itself. The song “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” is a good example of this. Would it have been possible, in your opinion, for this song to work as well if the band had taken out all the keyboards and replaced them with guitar lines, or vice versa?

Woolwine: Ray Manzarek is one of my favorite rock keyboardists. He added so much to The Doors’ sound that I don’t think they would have been as good if he hadn’t been a part of the band. So, if all of the keyboard parts were replaced by a guitar, then I don’t think the song would have worked as well, mainly because Manzarek’s organ/keyboard parts are such an important piece of the overall sound, and if they were replaced then I don’t think it would sound like The Doors anymore.


Laughlin: While it’s more pop than rock, “Dancing in the Moonlight,” by King Harvest is notable for its keyboard driven sound. The band used a Wurlitzer electric piano for the song. How important is that particular keyboard instrument to the song’s catchiness and fun, in your opinion? Would the tune have worked as well if the band had used, say, a regular piano, or an organ?

Woolwine: I think the way the Wurlitzer part was written has to do more with the catchiness than what instrument it was played on. Wurlitzers, Rhodes, and other types of electric pianos were very popular at this time and many, many bands liked the idea of using them in a song. Wurlitzers don’t tend to be as bright sounding as pianos, so that helps the part not jump out of the texture too much. I think a piano would have worked, but it’s hard to hear anything else once you have heard it so many times.


Laughlin: It seems to me that keyboards in hard rock/heavy metal are used mainly to fill out the sound and add some atmosphere, as in Deep Purple’s “Knocking at Your Back Door.” Sometimes they carry the melody in the form of a synthesized hook as in Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark,” but that’s the exception. Are keyboards in heavy metal anything more than support and novelty?

Woolwine: I don’t know as much about metal as I do other genres, but I do know that most metal bands don’t usually have prominent keyboard parts in their music. I think that most bands would see keyboards as instruments that cannot be used to “Rock” with. They won’t look tough enough head-banging with a keyboard. But there are exceptions, and that’s a good thing.


Laughlin: Rock and roll came out of the blues, but the piano has long been associated with classical music. However, having a classical piano training isn’t necessarily a disadvantage to a rocker — Billy Joel used his childhood classical training later in life when he wrote rock and pop songs, for instance. However, there’s a line that can be crossed in rock music where there’s too much of a classical influence, in my opinion — some 70s prog rock comes to mind here — where the music starts to sound self-important and pompous. What’s a healthy balance?

Woolwine: There are definitely bands that try too hard to make their songs too complicated and it tends to come off that way. It can get pretty easy to go too far when arranging a song, but you just have to learn how to reign it in and be able to hear that a part is overly complicated. There have been times in Elsinore’s songwriting when we have written a section that sounds pretty cool, but was just a little too complicated for our sound. We’ve gotten good at being able to hear when a part just isn’t going to work. We have played with bands that have learned how to keep a healthy balance and have also played with bands that have gone too far and just sound pretentious.


Laughlin: Ben Folds — who has recorded many songs with no six-string guitars on them at all — has famously described his music as “punk rock for sissies,” and I see what he’s saying, although his music is anything but watered down. Even a song as lyrically abrasive and angry as “The Bitch Went Nuts” lacks the filth and fury of the Sex Pistols. Why is that? Is it because it’s keyboard driven rather than full of distorted guitar?

Woolwine: I’ll start by saying that Ben Folds is my favorite rock pianist and Ben Folds Five is one of my favorite bands of all time. Having said that, I think this Ben Folds song (and all of his other songs) lacks the filth and the fury of punk rock because of the way it is sung melodically and how it is referenced in the song. The track, “Song for the Dumped” from Whatever and Ever Amen is much more aggressive in the way that it is performed, but it still doesn’t have the anger of a punk rock performance. I think the piano helps soften the sound, but the melody and the context in which the lyric is used has more to do with the lack of punk rock than anything else, in my opinion.

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