Blues Tools – Keys to the Blues with Kevin Anker

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Kevin Anker plays the blues with soul.

Though you may not have heard his name yet, that’s changing. After honing his craft in his home state of Indiana for many years, Kevin Anker now finds himself among some pretty distinguished names in blues, rock and soul music. Working with musicians such as Tad Robinson, Darrell Nulisch and the Fabulous Thunderbirds has kept him busy both in the studio and on the road. As the Blues Tools column has been focusing on keyboard gear these last few weeks, it seemed only appropriate that we get hold of someone who knows the business end of the board, so to speak. American Blues Scene was fortunate enough to speak with Anker recently and learn a little about the man and how he gets his sound.

Anker’s fascination with the keyboard came very early, and at the age of four he began taking lessons. “I had an older brother, and he played piano and I wanted to be like him, so I kept begging for lessons and finally got them.” He learned “watered-down classical stuff, the sort of thing they teach piano players to do,” but as a teenager things changed.

“In high school, about the middle of my freshman year I started playing in bands, garage bands. The first band I played in was definitely more of a classic rock band. But they all graduated. Then I started playing with some guys more my own age and that was more blues and classic rock. I had been getting into that, listening to that for a couple years, and my dad listened to a lot of Oscar Peterson and some bluesier stuff, so it was kind of a natural gravitation toward playing blues music.”

When asked about his early influences, Kevin names Otis Spann, Professor Longhair, Ray Charles, Steve Winwood and Elton John, but also guitarists such as BB King and Buddy Guy’s Chess recordings.

“I thought that stuff was just great. You know, BB King, Albert Collins records and things like that. I just dug the music. I probably did listen to a lot more guitar than anything. I didn’t really focus in on the piano or organ as much as listening to the ensemble and trying to take in that aspect.”

Kevin was heavily vested in performing, and his efforts led to him being recruited into the local blues scene at a very young age, an experience that proved to further expand his musical palette.

“I was seventeen and the band picked up a bass player named Lester Johnson. He had done some traveling with an R&B group in the 50s and had a minor hit or two, and he had a girlfriend who could sing, and all of the sudden I’m not playing just 12-bar blues, learning different song forms and changes, and it snowballed from there.”

Over time Anker’s freelance keyboard work enabled him to make contacts with a variety of musicians. He began working with the stellar Indiana soul and blues musician Tad Robinson, a combination that led to Anker’s playing on a several of Robinson’s recordings including “A New Point of View,” which was nominated for Soul Blues Album of the Year in 2008. Anker’s work with Robinson led to further opportunities.

“Being associated with Tad Robinson I was able to do some recording for Severn Records with Tad and with Darrell Nulisch. For Tad I did New Point of View, Back in Style, then the upcoming one that is untitled still, and for Darrell I did Goin’ Back to Dallas. As a result, when the T-birds session happened, David Earl, Severn’s owner, suggested that maybe there should be a keyboard player. They called me in to kind of help structure some of the material Kim had so that once the guys got in they could pretty much just hit the ground running.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to co-produce it and played on every track but one, and at that point Kim said, ‘Guess we’re going to have to have keyboard on some of these gigs,’ so then they started calling me for gigs when they can fit an extra guy onto the bandstand. It’s definitely been fun. [The album is] a little bit of a rocker, a little bit of a soul tune. It kind of harkens back to their hits in a good way. It gives Kim a vehicle to sing and play a little harmonica, which is the essence of the band. It gives the rest of the band a chance to showcase beyond just the blues and rock that their known for and that they do so well.”

Of course, having good gear goes along with being a good musician, and Anker was pleased to give Blues Tools some insight into what he personally uses to get the sounds that have made him a sought after player.

“I have a slightly confused rig,” he says, chuckling. “I use a Kawai MP8II which is a digital stage piano that I only use as a controller. I don’t use it for its piano sounds. I get my piano sounds out of a Nordelectro rack. The Kawai has wood keys, and having some tendonitis issues it really maks it a lot easier for me to play. The wood absorbs a lot of shock. The plastic keys on a digital piano don’t, so it makes life easier for me. Then I use a Hammond ZK3C for organ. It’s got an extra lower manual keyboard to it so it can be played just like a real Hammond with the two keyboards, and I just run into a QSC powered speaker and that’s basically it.

“For a Leslie effect I started using a pedal called a Neo Instruments Ventilator lately, and for all the hype you hear over the years about how something sounds exactly like X, Y or Z, how they finally got it right and all that, this pedal really does actually sound like a miked 122, so it kind of takes a lot of variables out of situations where you don’t have to worry about miking a Leslie, you don’t have to worry about ‘Am I going to need to have my monitors so loud that the mics on the Leslie are gonna feed back before its loud enough for me to hear?’ I can get that exact same tone without having all the extra worries and hassles of dealing with a Leslie.

“You know twenty or twenty-five years ago I’d move a Hammond and a Leslie and a big old Yamaha electric baby grand which, you know, real strings and harp and weighed about eighty thousand pounds and sounded like junk, and then I kind of moved away from the organ for a while, so I quit moving it and worrying about all that extra weight and then I started getting back into playing it again and eventually managed to get this XKIIIC which is about three hundred pounds lighter, so it’s a lot easier to make a gig on an organ when you’re not having to worry about are you going to be able to stand up after moving the organ. Yeah, and everyone tries to get their load-out done before you so that they don’t have to help.”

Anker confesses that he somewhat breaks tradition with his amplification choice. “Yeah, I’m kind of not a fan of keyboard amps. I have yet to hear a good one. There are people who disagree with me, but a piano is a full range instrument. The thing basically extends the whole range of human hearing and as a result you really need quality equipment designed for full range sound reinforcement. You basically need PA gear. You can find good powered monitors that really aren’t going to cost you an arm and a leg that are nice and compact and produce unbelievable full range sound, where a lot of the keyboard amps that you run into are bigger, heavier, cost the same or more and have crappy sound by comparison – lots of coloration from the EQ controls, using piezo tweeters, which sound real harsh especially with digital pianos as opposed to using a compression driver, things like that that you don’t have to spend any more to get a great sounding speaker. I think the QSCs run 700 bucks or something like that, and you have plenty of power and plenty of tone. I have the QSC K10.

“I’m actually writing an article for Keyboard Magazine. It’s due out sometime around September or October, and it’s about getting a good mono sound for piano – how to prepare a stereo sound for mono, or how to find good mono sounds to start with so that you can get that full range of sound from the instrument.”

Anker says his preference in using digital gear over the real McCoy often boils down to the playing situation. “There’s nothing quite like a well-maintained Hammond. You know, you can’t – they still haven’t figured out how to get that. There’s just something about it that they’re missing. There’s a vibe that none of the digital emulations have gotten yet. But that said, when I’m on tour, and I’m playing a Hammond that’s provided, a lot of times the Hammond isn’t very well maintained, or the Leslie isn’t very well maintained, or both of them aren’t very well maintained, so you end up with a sub par organ that isn’t as good as digital emulation that I would be playing at home. So a lot of it’s situational.”

When asked about his current opinion of available gear for blues players, Anker said, “Right now the majority of the digital pianos are pretty darn good, and there are some out there that are really excellent. You know, it’s hard to replicate a thousand-pound, vibrating beast, but in terms of convenience factors and things like that, pretty much all the manufacturers today have a really good digital piano sound and good electric piano sounds that can translate well onstage and in the studio. As far as the organ sounds go, if you’re getting a dedicated Hammond clone then you’re in even better shape, because you’ve got the Italians right now, who – I don’t know why, but they’re Hammond nuts – have a few different products. One of them’s a fifty-dollar piece of software called VB3 that you can run on your computer. There are a couple of people who have licensed it to use that in their hardware organs, and that – it sounds as close as anything out there right now, and it’s pretty scary close. Then there’s this Crumar Mojo organ that sounds pretty stellar, and then Hammond’s current crop of organs are also pretty ridiculously great-sounding instruments. And you can get all kinds of form factors from just a single keyboard, to two keyboards, to keyboards you can take apart and set on a lower keyboard and make it look like a full Hammond – there’s a whole host of options that sound great and look cool.”

If you’d like to hear some of Kevin’s work, check out his recordings with Tad Robinson and Darrell Nulisch. He also has upcoming work with Bryan Lee and, of course, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. You might also get lucky enough to catch him live, or check in with him on Facebook.

Find more on Kevin Anker on his Official Website