Keith Emerson: An Appreciation of His Moog Musicianship
My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
For this blog, we are going to take a close look at the Moog musicianship of Keith Emerson. The recordings that are featured in the associated podcast feature Emerson during the heyday of Emerson Lake and Palmer –1970 to 1974. Emerson was the versatile keyboard player of the group that also included Carl Palmer on drums and Greg Lake who wrote the lyrics, sang the songs and played bass guitar and guitar. Emerson, of course, was the brilliant keyboardist who was most at home on the Hammond organ, piano, and Moog Modular Synthesizer. We’ll listen to some studio recordings as well as some live recordings where Emerson showed a brilliant resiliency in adapting the Moog to situations that could only come up in live performance.
For this special look at Keith Emerson, we have special guest Brian Kehew. Brian recommended most of the tracks and he will walk us through several of these to highlight some of Emerson's outstanding musicianship. Brian is a friend and fellow electronic music historian and is also known as an electronic musician and producer. Of most relevance to this podcast, he was a key engineer for Moog Music and worked on reconstructing the Keith Emerson Moog Modular back in 2014 and knew Emerson. I’ve included links to Brian’s various endeavors in the playlist for this show and make sure you check out his incredible book he wrote with Kevin Ryan called Recording the Beatles. Also included is a link to a Moog Music Inc. video about the Emerson Moog restoration project in 2014. Finally, I've also included a link to the Electronic Music Education and Preservation Project in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, which is where Emerson’s Moog is on display.
Keith Emerson was an enormously talented pianist whose vision for music generously encompassed the genres of progressive rock, classical, and jazz. Trained on the piano at an early age by local teachers, Emerson was never university trained and progressed on his own while picking up licks listening to classical, blues, rock, and jazz music.
Beginning with the piano, he next added the Hammond organ and then the Moog to his repertoire of keyboards. An imaginative player, he effortlessly combined elements of classical, rock, and jazz, and was able to play different styles on each hand at the same time. In many ways, one of the key drivers behind his playing was that of contrast, and his flair for integrating different genres of music made this so easy for him. The genre of progressive rock and roll suited him perfectly. He combined flashy playing with a flair for the melodramatic in stage performance. The Moog Modular synthesizer was an important component of this new sound.
In 2014, with his revived Moog Modular available to him once more, he said, “I still use this [Moog Modular] as part of my keyboard rig because nothing else makes a sound like it. When you crank it up in a stadium, it can hurt.”[i]
About Emerson the synthesist, Brian Kehew notes that Keith’s aptitude with the Moog provided a distinctive perspective on the instrument."Most Moog players approach the instrument as simply another keyboard, “a glorified organ” as Brian likes to say. "This is fair to say for some players, but not for the Moog Modular itself which had “huge range” if one knew how to patch it and extract imaginative sounds."[ii]
The Minimoog became available in 1970 and by 1971 it had essentially supplanted the Moog Modular as the instrument of choice for most working musicians. "Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, and Rick Wakeman all found the Minimoog easy to work with because it allowed them to enhance individual notes using their existing keyboard skills, the core of expression for these players," explains Brian. He called this “note-oriented” playing “using patches, simple routings not much beyond what an organ could do.” The Minimoog had an organ-style keyboard equipped with a Modulation wheel (to vary the inflection of the tone) and a Pitch wheel (to slide the note), gestural control within the reach of any keyboardist. It was an instrument designed around adding expression to the note, a feature that jazz and rock artists appreciated.
While Emerson was familiar with programming a synthesizer, he was more of a musician than a synthesizer engineer.
“Keith did play melody-based synthesizer sounds mainly, as did most,” adds Brian. He was not a synthesizer expert; he did not really know all of what and why the synthesizer operated, as did Carlos and Tomita. Very few synthesizer owners really understood their systems well, but they "got on with it" and made music, as did Keith.” As Bob Moog said, Keith took virtually anything and made it musical.
But with a full Moog Modular system at this disposal, “Emerson sometimes went beyond with wild modulations,” says Brian. This makes much of what Emerson did unique to his instrument and his patches. Bob Moog was amazed at Emerson’s ability to quickly translate what he was learning into something artistic. “One of Keith’s great talents,” Moog once said, “is to approach a new electronic instrument and without anybody explaining too much about it, to turn the knobs and flip a few switches to see what happens, and then immediately get an idea of that can be used musically.”[iii]
Emerson’s broad musical experience was probably partly responsible for his sense of musical invention with electronic keyboards. Just how to use a synthesizer seemed to come more easily to those who were around jazz and classical music all their lives. Bernie Worrell was another case in point who recognized this: "When the synthesizers came about, my having been brought up classically and knowing a full range of orchestra, tympanis and everything, I knew how it sounded and what it felt like. So, if I'm playing a horn arrangement on keyboard, or strings, it sounds like strings or horns, 'cause I know how to phrase it, how a string phrases, different attacks from the aperture for horns, trumpets, sax or trombones."[iv]
Lucky Man (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, 1970)
The first track I’m including in the podcast is "Lucky Man” from the maiden album from Emerson Lake and Palmer. It was released as a single from the forthcoming album in late 1970 and reached number 48 on the Billboard Hot 100. Of particular note is the Moog solo near the end of the track in which Emerson used the Moog’s ribbon controller. This was overdubbed in one take. Emerson later admitted that he was somewhat embarrassed by having that solo laid down in vinyl for all time, having not really practiced or perfected it for the recording. But the solo stands as hallmark synthesizer sound that you really could not achieve on another instrument. And although Lucky Man did not contain the first example of a ribbon controller solo—Dick Hyman released a single called The Minotaur over a year earlier—Emerson’s solo boldly announced the arrival of a new heavyweight synthesizer master.
Toccata (Brain Salad Surgery, 1973)
Toccata is our first example of a wild modulation. “The sound modulates in two different directions at once,” remarks Brian. “This is, without a doubt, pretty exceptional.”
Brian provides the following guide to the track:
This is a tricky piece, as some of this is Lyra horn melodies (Lyra was Moog prototype instrument), some parts are synthesizer triggered by drums–the solo drums over synth. And also some synth tracking Greg's guitar. But the main noisy lead line here is that interesting patch that glides in two directions.
0:30 Most of the introduction is the Lyra, but at :30 seconds the modular plays–the last note slides quickly in two directions. Up and down.
1:12 It's hard to hear but it's a basic note/pitch that slide both up and down simultaneously, using an LFO that is a square wave (it jumps up/down in a trill). For a few seconds, Emerson demonstrates this quite well. So each pitch is trilling quickly up and down, while sliding outward from the center pitch in mirrored movement. I love it– great idea. Totally an unknown territory musically.
1:39 You can hear the square-wave trill modulation more clearly.
2:31 More of the same.
Brian continues: That sound is interesting as it utilizes the rarely-used Trigger Delays to activate the rise/fall motion only after he holds a key for a bit. So he can play normal notes and parts, then on the end of a phrase he can activate the wild rise/fall when he holds one down. There's also some kind of ring modulator going to make it even more grindey! I think these sounds are some of the reasons his "lead keyboard" style held its own; he didn't always use just a simple patch, he gave it complexity that rivals any acoustic or amplified instrument.
Now we turn to some of Emerson live recordings where we observed what happens in real-time.
Aquatarkus (Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends ~ Ladies And Gentlemen, 1974)
Aquatarkus is a good case in point. This track is from the 1974 live recording called Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends, Ladies and Gentleman. Here we hear more wild modulations plus Emerson’s “great expansive sonics.” This piece was part of the live Tarkus piece for concerts.
A variation of this kind of modulation plus Emerson’s “great expansive sonics” can be heard on this live performance LP. “Aquatarkus” was a part of the live Tarkus concert piece.
In Aquatarkus, Brian explains:
2:22–6:16 Emerson solos using various synthesizer voicings over an extended, modulating drone underneath.
8:26–8:58 Keith uses weaving drones and modulation to create fireworks of sound, not tonal melodic playing as much as sonic expressionism (Brian).This sequence simultaneously features Modular tones that are slowly rising in pitch, contrasted to sharp solo tones that cascade lower.
When problems happen with the Moog, one must adapt. Emerson was great at this. An example can also be heard in the live recording of Mass from Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends. Brian explains.
Mass (Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends ~ Ladies And Gentlemen, 1974)
In this example, Emerson finds a glitch in the Moog ribbon controller and turns it into a tool. “Mass” is another part of the Tarkus taken from their live recording. Brian explains:
9:00 Keith solos using the ribbon/linear controller. It's an incredible freakout, finding the between-pitches sounds keyboards do not usually make. He's using a glitch in the material of the ribbon to create a machine-gun stuttering, while sliding pitches around manually with the ribbon.
For contrast, Brian points us to another live version of Mass on heard in the podcast, focusing on the ribbon glitch and solo and a massive Moog module sequence.
9:18 Another version of the ribbon glitch and solo. Longer!
19:47 Beginning of another great sequence of experimental sound, bass, ribbon controller and modulated white noise. “Shifting between the thick bass sound and the percolating drops of sound and noise,” explains Brian. “He really did these improvisations all the time, very fascinating use of the range of the Moog!”
From the Beginning (Trilogy, 1972)
We have a remembrance from Keith himself about his use of the Minimoog. For the Trilogy album, he provided a beautifully lyrical Minimoog solo for the otherwise acoustic track, “From the Beginning.” “One thing I remember about making Trilogy,” explained Emerson, “is I played the solo of my life on the Minimoog. . . . Getting it in tune was always a challenge. It was 4 AM and after playing the solo, I listened back to the tape and said to the engineer “Where’s my solo?” I could tell by the stunned look on his face that it wasn’t there. He said “Umm, I thought it was there.” I said “You’ve wiped it off, haven’t you?” It was the middle of the night and the engineer was very tired. But Greg stepped in and said “Oh come on Keith, you can do another one.” I said “At 4 o’clock in the morning? So, I did another one. Even now when I listen back to it, it’s okay, but it’s just slightly out of tune."[v]
We include the official released version in the podcast plus an alternate take of the solo. Note that the alternate take is entirely different, note for note. Again, this is done using the Minimoog.
Keith Emerson’s musical legacy is one of seamlessly crossing borders between genres. As Brian says, Emerson’s music was “really experimental. While most musicians usually lie in one camp or the other– tonal and tuneful or non-tonal experimental. Keith was pretty great at both, and not afraid to go there.”
My thanks to Brian Kehew for contributing his comments and know-how to this edition of the podcast.
1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Lucky Man” from Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970 Island).
2. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Toccata” from Brain Salad Surgery (1973 Manticore).
3. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Aquatarkus” from Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends (1974 Manticore).
4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Mass” from Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends (1974 Manticore).
5. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Mass” live, from Puerto Rico, 1972. Excerpts for contrasting the Moog solos.
6. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “From the Beginning” from Trilogy (1972 Island).
7. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, alternate Minimoog solo, “From the Beginning.”
Plus background music excepted from the following recordings:
· Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Trilogy” from Trilogy (Island 1972).
· Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Abaddon’s Bolero” from Trilogy (Island 1972).
· Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “When The Apple Blossoms Bloom In The Windmills Of Your Mind I'll Be Your Valentine” from Works (1977 Volume 2).
From Thom Holmes:
· My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.
· My Blog: Noise and Notations.
· Brian Kehew (and his book, Recording the Beatles).
· Here’s a link to the story of the Emerson Moog Modular System from 2014 in which Brian figured prominently.
· The Electronic Music Education and Preservation Project (EMEAPP), where the Emerson Moog Modular is currently housed.
· Brian Kehew and Keith Emerson in the video documentary, 50th Anniversary of the Moog Modular Synthesizer.Published on Oct 11, 2014.
[i] Keith Emerson, quoted in the video documentary, 50th Anniversary of the Moog Modular Synthesizer. Published on Oct 11, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7TJyPAyTiQ [ii] Brian Kehew. In correspondence, March 30, 2017. “Most Moog players used it as "a glorified organ" - a commonly-dropped criticism, but one really unfair considering the huge range of the instrument.” [iii] Bob Moog, quoted in the video documentary, 50th Anniversary of the Moog Modular Synthesizer. Published on Oct 11, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7TJyPAyTiQ [iv] Bernie Worrell, website: http://bernieworrell.com/bio.html [v] Prasad, Anil. Keith Emerson: Meshing Sonorities. Interview in Innerviews: Music Without Borders. 2015. http://www.innerviews.org/inner/emerson.html