Let’s face it, a piano is not an inherently sexy instrument. It doesn’t bend and undulate like a guitar, or sing and squeal like a saxophone. A piano is bulky and static – more like a piece of furniture than something that can stoke the flames of desire in an audience.
So it’s no wonder why guitarists tend to dismiss keys as something reserved for tuxedoed old men in concert halls. However, beneath the piano’s museum-piece exterior lies an entire universe of knowledge that every guitarist would do well to explore.
Here are five compelling reasons why every guitarist should get familiar with Hanon, and find a piano teacher ASAP.
1. You’ll Become a Better Composer
Composing on the guitar can be a slow and arduous task, particularly if you need to write for other instruments. The range of notes and rhythms that can be played simultaneously is limited, and as a result, it’s easy to end up with a lot of ideas that seem like they should work together, but don’t.
This is why the piano is the gold standard for composition. Bass lines, melodies, chords, and vocal harmonies can all be heard together, allowing you identify any problem areas the piece might have before heading off to rehearsal. Thus, the writing process becomes much more efficient, and you’ll save yourself, and your bandmates, a lot of time and hassle.
2. Music Theory Becomes Easier to Comprehend
The guitar is a quirky instrument when it comes to how the notes are arranged. For example, if I wanted to play a major scale starting on the pitch, middle C, I could do so in five different positions across the fretboard using several different fingerings. Though having so many options can be an advantage at times, it can also be a nightmare when trying to calculate the best way to get from “point A” to “point B” when sight reading.
On piano, accomplishing the same task is considerably easier, as there’s only one place where a major scale starting on middle C can be played, and only two fingerings, one per hand. This takes out a lot of the guesswork when working through a piece.
Other aspects of music theory become easier to understand when learning the piano as well. All the notes are right there in front of you, allowing you to see clearly, for instance, how the modes relate to their associated chord, or how notes in a chord can leapfrog over each other to create inversions.
3. You’ll Have Access to New and Inspiring Sounds
Guitarists have no shortage of effects to work with, but they certainly don’t have a monopoly on ways to create unique tones. Just listen to the blistering synth leads of players like Keith Emerson and Joe Zawinul, or the haunting atmospheres created by Vangelis and Wendy Carlos.
Software instruments and sample libraries, such as Spectrasonics Omnisphere and the Arturia V Collection, offer a vast array of customizable tones and textures both vintage and modern. Although guitarists can, through pitch-to-MIDI devices, such as the Roland GK-3 and Fishman TriplePlay, access these sounds, a MIDI keyboard provides more control and a better playing experience overall.
Another benefit of MIDI keyboards is that the keys can be split into zones and assigned to different sounds. If you wanted your left hand to play an acoustic bass and your right a grand piano, you can. Taking it a step further, if you record a performance and then decide that you want an electric bass instead of an acoustic all you need to do is reassign the MIDI track to the desired sound.
It’s a lot of fun playing with the thousands of new sounds available to you, and you’ll often find yourself picking a random preset, hitting a note and after an hour discovering that you have a fully-realized composition.
4. You’ll Work More
Singers and solo instrumentalists need accompanists; dancers need something to dance to, and hotel lobbies need music that people can ignore but complain about if it’s not there. More often than not, this kind of work will go to a pianist, and that pianist might as well be you.
Now, accompanying a group of singers during a rehearsal for a community production of Rent or playing Christmas songs for intoxicated cubicle-dwellers at a corporate event might not sound all that artistically gratifying compared to shredding at a local dive bar. But you know what is gratifying? Actually making a reasonable amount of money for your efforts.
Provided you put in the work and reach an appropriate level of proficiency, a lot of lucrative work can come your way – doubly so if you advertise yourself as both a guitarist and pianist.
Of course, your goals don’t necessarily have to be so lofty. Maybe you only want to have fun jamming with friends or playing in a local bar band. In that case, just as with guitar, spending a couple months learning some basic chords and how to rip a pentatonic scale will get you a long way.
5. Your Guitar Playing Will Improve
One of the most important skills you learn from studying piano is hand independence – the ability to play different notes and rhythms with each hand simultaneously. When applied to the guitar, this technique yields exciting possibilities. Charlie Hunter, Michael Hedges and Stanley Jordan are all prime examples of how hand independence can be used to create mini six-stringed orchestras and one-man bands.
Guitar virtuoso Shawn Lane once said in an interview that playing the piano helped increase his speed, which, if you think about it, makes sense. With piano it’s important to play every note evenly and distinctly no matter what finger you’re using. Evenness helps develop speed, accuracy and strength. This is also true of guitar, and if you’re finding that your playing is sloppy and inconsistent, running through some piano exercises while being mindful of evenness can help.
I’m not going to lie, piano is arguably the hardest instrument there is. Learning it forces your brain to rewire itself, and it’s not always pleasant. But you don’t have to become a virtuoso to reap the rewards. Learning a new instrument is about having fun and expanding your horizons, even if it’s only by an inch or two.