Welcome to Backstage Pass, our brand-new interview series that takes you behind the scenes with some of the most influential figures in the music industry. In our first session, we had the pleasure of speaking with Jordan Rudess, one of the most accomplished and innovative keyboardists of our time.
Jordan Rudess is a virtuoso keyboardist, pianist, and composer best known for his work with the progressive metal band Dream Theater, supergroup Liquid Tension Experiment, as well as his prolific solo work and collaborations with other artists. He is renowned for his dazzling technique, incredible improvisational skills, and unique approach to sound design, which have earned him a grammy award and a legion of fans worldwide.
In this exclusive interview, Jordan shares insights into his creative process, his favorite gear and software, and the challenges and rewards of being a touring musician in the digital age. So sit back, relax, and get ready for a backstage pass into the world of Jordan Rudess.
Moises: Can we start with something that you experienced or learned at the Juilliard School of Music that you will never forget?
Jordan Rudess: I started attending Juilliard's preparatory division when I was nine years old. I stayed there for about ten years and it doesn't matter what kind of music I make now - whether it's rock, electronic, classical, or jazz - the experience at Juilliard set me up.
This taught me how to practice, be patient, and think through things. It was strict, but I am grateful for the opportunity and consider it one of the biggest things that set me up for the future. Even now, as I learn to play guitar, I reflect on the training I received at Juilliard and how it shaped my approach to music.
M: What is your daily vs on-tour practice routine?
JR: My daily practice routine varies depending on whether I'm preparing for a tour or not. When getting ready for a tour, I focus intensely on the music because I need to be fully prepared for the stage. Practicing for me is not just about playing the notes, but also about practicing how I want to feel when I play, such as being calm and relaxed.
When I left for this current Dream Theater tour, I waved goodbye to a lot of my prized precious instruments like my Steinway piano or my new osmose Expressive E keyboard because, you know, some of the things that I was enjoying doing at home are not gonna be part of what I do on the road. The other thing that happens practice-wise on the road for me is, you know, I'll play a show and then I realize that, okay, well it went well, but maybe it doesn't feel as comfortable. So I make notes and I go back and I'll sit in my dressing room - I have a little practice keyboard in the dressing room - and I'll review it and I'll sit there and I'll just make sure I have those parts together.
When I'm not preparing for a tour, I might play just for the joy of it, translating the musical thoughts in my mind through my fingers. I practice more guitar than the keyboard these days, as it offers a new perspective and helps me gain more skills. I believe practicing the feeling of playing is just as important as practicing the notes. Like when I sit at the keyboard after playing the guitar and looking at the fretboard, my view of it changes, and it's really pretty cool.
But the biggest thing I like to share with young musicians concerning practice is that practice is not about just playing the notes and the pattern and, you know, figuring out the fingering and doing it over and over and over again. It's not all about that at all. It's really about once you figure out the basics and what fingers you wanna put on the note on the guitar or the piano or the violin or whatever, it's then you have to practice how you want to feel when you play it. Because unless you practice the feeling that you're gonna have when you're playing like a difficult passage, the chances are when you're in front of an audience, in front of your classmates playing for somebody else, and there's any pressure, you'll fall.
M: What does your setup look like?
JR: It's all about maximizing the potential of one or two instruments. I'm not into having a bunch of keyboards with different sounds; I prefer to dive deep into one powerful synthesizer workstation. For me, that's the Korg Kronos, which is responsible for about 95% of my sound. I know how to program it and use its synthesis capabilities to the fullest. I even sample sounds from other sources, like my tapping on a glass, or manipulating a favorite virtual instrument in the Kronos.
Another reason I stick with one instrument is musical. When keyboard players bounce around different keyboards, it can disrupt the flow of their playing, so I use a pedal to switch between different sound combinations on the Kronos without lifting my hands from the keyboard. This lets me play smoothly and get the sounds I want without distraction. During a typical show, I'll make about 400 sound changes, all from my trusty Kronos.
M: What do you struggle with in music?
JR: As a musician, I think it's important to recognize our limitations and build a musical vocabulary of things we can do. I have practiced certain things and learned different riffs that become like my words, my musical language. However, there is a stopping point to my vocabulary, and I'm always being gifted with other ways of looking at music from all around the world.
For example, my company's application is called GeoShred, which I invented with my partners at Stanford University. I thought it offered people a new approach to pitch bending, but then I saw people in India playing it for Carnatic music and controlling pitch in a way I cannot do.
I'm always trying to learn and grow, but sometimes it's a struggle, like learning to play guitar after playing piano for 59 years. However, being patient is essential when learning anything. It's like learning a new language, which I appreciate because it's not easy, and it's probably a struggle, but we have to be willing to go down these roads and be accepting of others.
M: What is your favorite feature in the Moises App?
JR: It's hard to pick just one favorite feature of the Moises App because the combination of features is what makes it amazing, but if I had to choose, I would say the Smart Metronome is pretty incredible. When I upload an audio file, the app figures out the beat without me telling it any BPM, and I've never seen it make a mistake. Plus, I can cut the time in half or double it and choose a metronome to play along with the music I just uploaded. It's really smart and innovative.
But that's not all. The AI Audio Separation feature is a miracle on its own. After separating the tracks, I can balance each instrument's volume with its own slider. And sometimes I forget that the app is also displays the chords perfectly in time. It makes things so much easier for me, especially when I want to do virtual duets. I don't have to write anything down - I just look at the chords on the screen.
Overall, I think the app's user interface is very clear and intuitive. It's exciting to live in a time of such advanced music technology, and I wake up each day eager to explore what amazing cool stuff Moises has to offer.
M: Could you share the last artist or genre that you played in Moises? Why did you choose it?
JR: The last thing that I put into Moises was a Jeff Beck song. It was interesting because it doesn't have vocals, right? So it was like a little bit of a test for separation. The most straight-ahead thing to do is to get the vocals, the bass, the drums, the piano, and I was able to use that as a tool ‘cause I was able to slow it down and it did take out a lot of what I needed, the main part that I wanted to be removed.
As far as doing something that I wanted to present to the public, it was a Matthews Pelli track, which worked incredibly well. Like sometimes you just go, “Wow. How does it do that?” Even though I was kind of told a little bit about how it does that, I still wanna know more, like you send your audio, then the magicians take a magic wand and wave it over the audio file and then they send it back to you and it does that. I think that must be how it's done.
M: What are some of your favorite memories from working in music?
JR: I remember my friends at Juilliard very fondly. I would literally sneak to a practice room as far from my teacher's studio as possible because I wanted to play not only classical music, I wanted to go and play some blues, boogie-woogie, and jazz.
When I was around 13 or 14 years old, someone came to Julliard School looking for piano players to audition for a television commercial for Johnson & Johnson's Band-Aids. The president of Juilliard told my teacher about it, and my parents and I went for the audition. When I got there, I saw around 70 actor kids and a few from Julliard. They asked me to play a piece of music and make it dramatic because I had long hair. I played an arrangement of Grieg's piano concerto and won the audition, beating out all the actor kids.
I spent a day in the recording studio playing the piano and the next day at the Plaza Hotel filming in the grand ballroom wearing tails in front of a nine-foot piano on their grand ballroom stage. The whole experience was so much fun. The commercial came out, and people have seen it. It's available on YouTube for people to check out.
Joining Dream Theater was a significant step that opened up my world, as we played in many places worldwide, expanding my network of friends and experiences. Over the years that I've been playing with Dream Theater, I've just met so many friends and had so many experiences walking around interesting towns. It's been really awesome and I guess as far as memories go, the easiest things to remember are the bigger shows, the ones that are really, truly exciting.
It's just so powerful. I mean, we just played Rock and Rio in Brazil and that was unbelievable. I don't know how many people were there, like 80,000 people. The place is completely packed as far as you can see anywhere. And the rush, that kind of feeling of overwhelming energy from the crowd when you walk on stage, it almost makes you not able to play. It takes a lot of experience to not freeze, and that's why I was talking about practicing the headspace you wanna be in because that feeling could make you tighten up and not be able to do what you really have to do.
M: How do you want to be remembered as a musician?
JR: The most important thing to me is that the musical communication that I do comes from the heart. I play a lot of different kinds of music, a lot of technical music, progressive music, all different kinds of things, but when I play and somebody feels something that is very dear to them, warms their being or their heart, relaxes them, or they just have a really positive experience… This is what I want to last.
I mean, it could be the rock side of what I do, or it could be something that I display on the piano where I'm just thinking and the music is flowing out. I want people to carry that with them. Of course, as a musician, there are things I will leave behind. You know, the recordings that I make. If it can touch them - if it can warm their soul or their being and they remember me for that - then I'll be really happy.
M: Basic vs Bold?
JR: When it comes to playing music, I believe that it's always possible to create a beautiful sound no matter what someone's technical ability is. I encourage beginner players to focus on making a nice sound and not to try to play something that is too difficult for them. Playing simple chords with intent and focus can produce a really nice result musically and can be a calming experience for the player and the listener.
However, while playing it safe can be a good thing, we can't always do it if we want to grow and learn. In life, we need to be willing to face struggles and be open to new experiences. The struggle doesn't have to be painful, but it does require patience and a willingness to learn without getting frustrated.
Personally, I'm currently working on a challenging guitar technique involving three-octave arpeggios, and it's taking a lot of patience and effort. But with time and practice, I know that I can improve and eventually master it. Overall, I believe that creating beautiful music requires a balance of playing it safe and pushing ourselves to learn and grow.
Curious to hear the full interview with Jordan Rudess? Check it out below or on our Youtube channel!
Stay tuned for more interviews with other influential figures in the music industry, where we'll explore their creative process, insights, and experiences.