I am a huge Stevie Wonder fan. No big revelation there because most musicians pay homage to the great Mr. Wonder. But I didn’t always recognize the genius behind his music. So in the event that there are some fans of funky keyboard music out there that haven’t checked out Stevie’s remarkable catalog, may I present my “3 Reasons Why Stevie Wonder Should Be In Your Practice Room.”
REASON #1 = Stevie is a Jazz Fan Who Writes Funky Pop Music
I’ve been to a couple Stevie Wonder concerts and watched/listened to hours of his performances, and I’ve always been impressed by his willingness to perform classic jazz tunes (with his own spin on them, of course). Not savvy? Check this stuff out:
- Stevie playing John Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps”;
- Stevie playing Chick Corea’s hit “Spain”;
- Stevie plays (harmonica) with jazz greats Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.
I’m not saying that Stevie should be regarded as a jazz heavy-weight. I’m saying that Stevie’s love of jazz greatly influences his writing. Check out some of these unmistakable jazz influences on his writing:
- his use of 7th chords and altered upper extensions on songs like “Sir Duke,” “Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing,” and the chorus of “Superstition;”
- the rhythmic intensity of the funky instrumental track “Contusion”;
- the blues-inspired progression (with time signature changes) of “Living for the City.”
REASON #2 = Stevie Can Show You the Difference Between Being a Pianist and a Keyboardist.
Much like Herbie Hancock (another incredibly versatile musician), Stevie Wonder was not a purist who insisted on staying true to one type of format or genre, nor was he late-to-the-game when it came to advancements in music technology. He saw a chance to explore new sounds and therefore new ideas, and by doing so he became a pioneer who ended up writing hit, after hit, after hit.
As I’ve said in many of the funk lessons I’ve taught, playing different sounds on a synthesizer will inform what and how you play. Although both keyboard instruments, playing an acoustic piano is completely different from playing a clavinet in terms of touch, response, decay, sustain, timbre, articulation, resonance, and range. This might seem obvious, but I learned the nuances of each of these instruments from hours of playing along with Stevie Wonder tunes.
Many of Stevie’s songs are keyboard-centric, meaning that the essential aspect of the song is played on a keyboard instrument. But Stevie is equally at home playing on an acoustic piano (“Lately”), Fender Rhodes (“I Wish”), clavinet (“Higher Ground”), or synthesizer (“Village Ghetto Land”).
REASON #3 = Stevie Understands the Importance of Groove
I’ve said it countless times but it’s worth saying again: playing music is all about groove. And by “groove” what I really mean is a commitment to the relationship between time, rhythm, and feel. Listen to songs like “I Wish,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” or “Higher Ground” and check out how groovy the keyboard parts are. Forget about the notes and just focus on how the keyboard locks up with the drummer and bass player to create that “pocket.” This is different than, say, the piano-centric aspect of what Billy Joel or Elton John are all about. Greats though they are, they are pianists in a rock setting while Stevie’s songs are generally built on a singular, rhythmic, keyboard hook.
Many students don’t understand the importance of groove, sometimes pushing it aside in favor of more enticing practice options like blues scales and licks. I fell into that camp for many years, wondering why my playing didn’t have that polished, advanced sound even though I was playing the same scales and licks as advanced players. Answer = I had a weak sense of time. What changed? I started focusing more on my commitment to time. Now I’m much better at practicing with my metronome, play-along tracks, and the original recordings.
So what are you waiting for? Get to your keyboard and start checking out some Stevie magic now!