Improve Your Clavinet Playing

In this article we’re going to cover some tips to help you improve your clavinet playing. The clavinet is one of the funkiest-sounding and yet most elusive instruments in all of funk. Despite its classic and iconic sound, many players struggle to understand how to play the clav effectively. Here, we’ll cover some pointers to help you understand this incredible intrument.

One quick caveat: For the purposes of this article we’re talking about the clavinet sound, as opposed to the actual clavinet instrument. The clavinet sound is one that comes pre-programmed with virtually every keyboard and synthesizer sold today.

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Improve Your Clavinet Playing, Tip #1: Copy Everything That Stevie Wonder Does On His Amazing Album “Talking Book”

Ok, so maybe this is not really fair. But my point is that the clav is on full display on this amazing record. Everyone knows the classic “Superstition,” but some of the lesser known tracks are beautiful displays of what the clav can do in the hands of a master. Check out “Maybe Your Baby,” and “Big Brother.” And if you’re not already familiar with this record, get familiar.

Improve Your Clavinet Playing, Tip #2: The Clav is Not a Typical Keyboard Instrument

The clav looks like a keyboard but it is very different than a rhodes, wurli, piano, or organ. Therefore, trying to solo on the clav in the typical “right-hand solo, left hand comping” jazz style is tough because this method does not play to the instrument’s strengths. One reason is because much of the funky clav parts for which the instrument is known use a very quick decay – you press and hold a note and it does not ring out for very long. Also, the clavinet’s mid-range wheelhouse is a relatively small range. As you go higher up the clav the sound gets very thin and the decay is greater. Going lower down the instrument results in a more full-bodied sound and longer tones with more growl. But the middle two octaves is where the clav really shines with a sound that has body and resonance. Therefore, it’s a good idea to spend some time experimenting with the extreme registers to be aware of the clav’s limitations and strengths.

Improve Your Clavinet Playing, Tip #3: Funky Rhythm 101!

The clav has the ability to create some incredibly rhythmic, percussive comping textures. This is due in part (again) to it’s quick sonic decay. Why? Because a quicker decay means that the instrument can play faster rhythmic subdivisions with a quicker rebound so there’s a lot of clarity in the articulation of the instrument. Repetitive, syncopated patterns work great on the clav. Of course, there are some classic tracks that demonstrate this, such as Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” among others.

Higher Ground

Improve Your Clavinet Playing, Tip #4: Chords and Textures

Because of the timbre of the clav, dense chords can have a tendency to get a bit muddy. It’s important to treat chords on the clav differently than you would on the piano. Voicings sound best when there is some space between the notes of the chords, so textures on the sparser end of the spectrum are generally more effective than dense, clustered voicings.

Check out our “Keyboard Technique” videos for more tips on clav and electro-mechanical keyboard technique.