term you use, there's no denying that Sir Elton John belongs in that
decades into his career, after some 50 albums (more, if you count all
compilations), John remains more vital than ever. Both his classic
and his new releases continue to sell in the millions. He performs
of electrifying concerts each year. And every time Sir Elton records or
performs, Yamaha is right there with him.
Elton has used Yamaha Disklavier® Grand pianos exclusively
first played one many years ago. "When it comes to my piano," he says,
"Yamaha shares my philosophy that anything short of perfect simply
good enough. I feel that I can always rely on my Yamaha piano to give
the Yamaha connection is more than piano-deep. The company also
most of the electronic instruments and sound gear that help ensure that
Sir Elton's concerts live up to the singer's notoriously exacting
says Sir Elton, " understands my needs as a professional musician and
has circled the globe countless times. It has been played everywhere
the Kremlin and the White House to Gianni Versace's living room. They
wanted to put it into the Smithsonian, but Elton John said, "No! I
need it to play."
"Piano A," the first and favorite of Elton's four 9-foot Yamaha
DCFIII Concert Grands.
probably the most played, most traveled piano on the planet," says
Bradley, Elton's tour director. "Actually, Elton has four touring piano
systems, which are represented by the letters A through D. Each system
involves a Yamaha Disklavier piano and a rack of gear. There's also
E, a 7'6" Yamaha Grand in London that's used for most of the studio
But Elton's deepest emotional attachment is to Piano A."
A was the instrument that made Elton switch to Yamaha from the brand
used before," says Dale Sticha, Elton's piano technician for the last
"That piano has seen so many things: the Princess Diana memorial, the
Awards. I really believe there's some magic there. Elton has become
attached to it, and now it's a part of him. I don't want to call it a
but it's definitely a musical partnership."
recounts how the partnership came to pass: "At one point about twelve
ago, before Elton played Yamahas, he suddenly decided that the piano
been playing was too muddy. He simply walked offstage one night and
me he couldn't play it anymore! I immediately called Yamaha and asked
there was a piano in New Orleans, where we were. They told us there was
one at the university, which was apparently being used for orchestral
We went and picked it up, and it never went back. I think several
won Elton over: the weighting of the keys, the faster response time,
brighter tone. At any rate, it instantly became the A piano and has
are audiences actually hearing Piano A at Elton's concerts? Absolutely,
says Sticha. "Everything you hear really comes from him. There's no
or tapes or anything like that. The piano is miked, but it's also a
controller that triggers other sounds such as strings and the electric
piano on 'Daniel.' So instead of Elton having to switch instruments, we
make the piano become those instruments. Also, the piano triggers
piano modules that reinforce the acoustic sound. The audience usually
a layered mix of acoustic and electronic pianos, which all run through
the Yamaha 01V mixer in Elton's rack."
has long relied on Yamaha P300s for his supplemental piano sounds, but
he's currently switching over to the Yamaha Motif. "All the Motif
are fantastic, and Elton is very happy with them." And Elton, of
pilots everything from the Piano A keyboard.
are Piano A's days numbered? "Maybe," sighs Sticha, "Elton has played
so long and so hard that it's showing signs of wear, though Yamaha's
work hard to keep it going. Maybe it is time to be thinking about a new
Elton and his team have already done more than just think about A's
"Our problem," says Bradley, "is that A has been the one used for the
three-hour touring shows, while the others tend to be flown around for,
say, special one-hour performances or a single-song television
Because they've been played so much less, they inevitably feel stiff by
comparison. But we recently managed to get pianos B, C, and D into one
place at the same time for rehearsal, and the boys from Yamaha came out
for a little conference. They looked at the pianos' action and
else, and now I feel we have three excellent pianos that are very
Elton agree? "Well," says Bradley "Piano A is in for service right now,
so Piano C is going up onstage for tonight's concert, and Elton is
very happy with it. In fact, he says he's over the moon with how his
are performing right now, and he couldn't be happier regarding the
he gets from Yamaha."
Elton for Elton:
Talk with Monitor Engineer Alan Richardson
John is such an audio perfectionist that the only person he trusts to
front-of-house mix is Clive Franks, a noted producer who has worked
the singer since 1969. But the job of mixing for the pickiest ears in
venue falls to the man at the side of the stage: monitor engineer Alan
responsible for everything Elton hears onstage," says Richardson. "I've
been mixing monitors for him since '96, and I feel we have a really
relationship. He understands that there will be nights when it's not
perfect, but he knows that I'm usually good for 90% of a perfect show."
90% figure may err on the side of modesty — his reliability
him gigs with Kenny Loggins, Bob Dylan, Steve Miller, Bon Jovi, and the
late Frank Sinatra, who always referred to Alan, already far beyond
as "the kid."
tend to stay with artists long-term," says Richardson. "That's because
the more I get to know them, the better job I can do for them. Elton
that I'll give it my all, and I know that he is completely
I like his perfectionism. It keeps me on my toes and keeps me
Frankly, it can get boring working for someone for whom 'pretty good'
good enough. But Elton wants to give his best performance every single
night, and he performs best when he doesn't have to worry about the
he's hearing onstage. When he feels comfortable with the mix, we're
many singers only care about hearing themselves in the monitors, Elton
expects a full, active mix. "He wants it to sound like a record," says
Richardson. "He wants to hear the toms, the drum overheads, every bit
percussion. Essentially, I create a full studio mix for him every
incorporating almost every mic onstage. And Elton isn't a 'set it and
it' sort of guy. It's a fly-by-wire situation that's different every
one reason Richardson prefers to keep his gear as minimal as possible.
"People are amazed at how simple my monitor rig is," he says. "I don't
use much outboard gear because it tends to dirty up monitor sound.
the artists have got a 60,000-watt PA pointed away from them, and all
can hear of it is the muddy wash bouncing back from the rear of the
so they need clarity. If you start adding gear, you risk fogging it up."
fact, the ongoing search for simplicity has inspired Richardson to
to a new mixing board. Until recently he used a Yamaha PM4000M, a
cousin to the PM4000 Clive Franks uses out front. But both engineers
currently adopting Yamaha's new PM1D console. "I haven't had much
time with it yet, because it's so new," says Alan, "though it's a step
up in quality from the Yamaha 02R I use for Elton's solo piano shows,
I love the sound of that mixer. Both boards have instant recall, which
I also love, but in addition, the PM1D lets you store all your settings
onto a PCI card small enough to fit in your pocket. That means I'll be
able to simply carry the card with me and have instant access to my
settings on any PM1D anywhere in the world. That's going to be a major
an Elton John fan were to step onstage to hear the singer's personal
would anything surprise them? "The volume," says Richardson. "It's just
phenomenal. People always have a hard time believing Elton's onstage
is as loud as it is. He just likes to feel his entire body vibrating
the sound of his voice. Trust me — it's pumpin'!"
Mahon: Elton's Trigger Man
Mahon has been Elton John's percussionist and backing vocalist for five
years, but sometimes he still feels like pinching himself onstage.
are some of my favorite songs," he says. "When I sing something like
I have to remind myself, 'Hey — I'm singing it with the guy!'"
Mahon's expertise in both acoustic and electronic percussion makes him
uniquely qualified to realize Elton's huge songbook onstage. He
both the subtle hand-percussion shadings of the early material and the
rhythm loops that drive many of the newer tunes.
heart of Mahon's custom-designed setup is a set of six Yamaha DTXTREME
pads. "They truly feel like acoustic drums," he says. "They're mounted
like toms, so they have a very tom-like feel. I also like the fact that
they're small enough to fit closely together. Some of the other
pads are just monstrously large."
rig also includes a dual-trigger Yamaha bar pad and a DTXTREME
trigger. The nine control surfaces drive a Motif. "The Motif drum and
sounds are just great," enthuses Mahon. Also onstage: a Yamaha MX12/4
and a 12" Yamaha Peter Erskine signature snare. "It's a beautiful maple
drum with a vintage-style finish," says John. "I play it with brushes
a few songs and man, it just sings."
Mahon first made his name singing from behind a drum kit, not a
rack. "When I moved to LA from Canton, Ohio, in 1983," he recalls, "I
doing a sort of Phil Collins thing, singing while drumming. After that
I played with some smooth jazz guys and with Al Stewart of Year of the
Cat fame. But when Chuck Negron re-formed Three Dog Night, they asked
to play percussion and sing, and I really enjoyed it. I like the fact
as a percussionist, I have more of a chance to sit back, listen, and
the overall picture of the music."
the drum-set background influence Mahon's style? "Absolutely," he nods.
"I don't consider myself a master percussionist by any means, but I do
tend to get along with drummers very well. Part of that is a matter of
just staying out of the drummer's way and remembering that the drums
the real foundation. I think of the percussion as the next little layer
is a perfectionist when it comes to making rhythm loops groove
with the band's realtime playing. One technique he relies on is to chop
a two-or four-bar pattern into eight-note slices. "Then," he explains,
"I play each slice in real time, triggering it with a pad. That way,
feel locks in better, and if Elton decides he wants to play something a
little faster or slower, I don't have to mess with time-stretching."
course, Mahon isn't the only perfectionist in the group. "Elton is very
particular about tempos, tones, and harmonies," says John. "He has
detail in his onstage monitors, even my smallest percussion things.
I played a tiny little bell sound at the end of a song, and he said,
not on the record, is it?' There was nothing nasty about the way he
it — it's just that he knows exactly what he wants. Trust me,
One Man Orchestra
you might ask, does the world's most popular pianist rely on a second
to put his music across live?
very simple," explains Guy Babylon, a 13-year veteran of the Elton John
band. "Elton plays the piano, and I play everything else. Sometimes
means synthesizer sounds. Sometimes it means clavinet. But the majority
of my work involves emulating the sounds of an orchestra." And since
band never relies on sequenced or taped tracks, Babylon has his hands
especially when it comes to replicating the ornate Paul Buckmaster
arrangements of such Elton classics as Levon.
that Guy's complaining. "It's a blast re-creating all that old Paul
stuff. Obviously, I can't exactly duplicate every tiny detail from the
record, but I try to re-create the most audible parts, which are
the string section's top and bottom lines. Of course, I fill in the
parts, too, but I emphasize those outer ones."
it would be possible to trigger all the orchestral sounds from a single
keyboard, Babylon chooses to perform with four separate controllers.
not just for show, testifies keyboard technician Tony Smith, also a
of the Elton team since the '80s: "Almost every keyboard gets used on
song. Guy does so much!"
like to think of each keyboard as a separate instrument for each song,"
says Babylon. "One might be woodwinds, one might be brass, one might be
strings. And sometimes I like to have different string sounds on two
so I can double the same part with each hand, because the little
in touch give it a more realistic texture. But of course, I don't
have the luxury of using both hands for a single part!"
where Guy's feet come into play — he also sculpts his sounds
via foot controller.
"Using pedals keeps everything much more musical," he states. "At this
point, I can't even feel comfortable at a keyboard without having my
on a pedal."
uses Yamaha Motif synthesizers for the lion's share of his orchestral
including all those luxuriant strings. It's ironic, given that he was
reluctant to investigate the Motif. "I thought I had my system all set
up," he recalls. "Then I tried the 88-key Motif strictly as a
keyboard, not even caring about its sounds. It felt great —
it had a nice,
realistic piano feel, good and solid. But soon I started integrating
Motif sounds and liking them a lot. I fell in love with the string
in particular, especially some of the smaller chamber ensembles
just beautiful. Now I'm changing my entire system so that it's based
tech Smith, who has also worked with Prince, the Who, INXS, Bryan
and Devo, shares Babylon's enthusiasm for the Motifs. "They're
keyboards with great sounds. They're very sturdy, but then Yamaha
makes good, sturdy products. Guy's new rack will also include a Yamaha
01V mixer. I used 01Vs when I worked for Tina Turner, and they were
solid and reliable."
says the Motifs will permit him to simplify his keyboard rig: "I'll be
using a few software-based synths and samplers, but the
sounds will come directly from my keyboards, with very few external
modules." Another simplifying factor is the Motif's "performance mode,"
which allows players to store four sounds complete with splits and
"Performance mode lets me pull up everything I need for each song with
a single program change," notes Guy. "I never have to worry about doing
any changes within a song. That's great, because I worry enough about
playing the right notes at the right time!"