The understated pop elegance of the piano parts on Adele’s latest album, 25, provide the perfect accompaniment to her soaring vocals. Let’s examine a few ways to get Adele’s piano sound on your own tracks.
1. Rhythmic Chording
Ex. 1 is inspired by Adele and Greg Kurstin’s smash hit “Hello,” the opening track of 25. The song begins with a steady, rhythmic ostinato that supports the vocal. You will see the rhythm in Bar 1 quite often in modern American music: A dotted quarter note followed by a tied eighth note adds motion to the time feel. The chordal notes come from the A Aeolian mode (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A). When coming up with your own chord progressions, try to harmonize the Greek modes in triads. That way, you immediately have seven diatonic chords that work well in the selected key. The notes of the left hand are in octaves to give a little more punch to the bass.
2. Diatonic Harmony
Ex. 2 has more diatonic harmony and is influenced by the track “When We Were Young” from 25. The left hand now only has a single note in the bass to thin out the sound. The progression I’ve come up with is classical sounding in nature and illustrates some of the interesting harmonic possibilities contained in the major scale; in this case, the Bb major scale (Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb). The half-note rhythm works well with an involved vocal on top. Sometimes you just need to paint the harmony.
3. Pedal Power
Ex. 3 adds the sustain pedal and changes the meter to 3/4 time. The right hand strikes the triads, catches the chord in the pedal then fingers the rest of the bar lightly. This progression is in the key of G major (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) and is influenced by the piano part on Adele and Ryan Tedder’s song “Remedy.” As you near the end of each bar, gently let the sustain pedal up and press it down again after the next chord is struck. The single notes are just arpeggios of the chords and have a harp-like effect when played with the pedal down. On the last bar, let the E minor chord ring.
4. Delightful Delay
Ex. 4 is inspired by “Sweetest Devotion,” and it is meant to be played with a delay effect on the piano. We’ve put our example in 4/4 time with a delay repeat that happens every quarter note. Experiment with EQ on the piano part, such as a midrange boost, so a particular frequency is highlighted. This technique can create the perfect space in a mix for an unusual piano part.
5. Sus Chords and Syncopation
Ex. 5 is a study in the use of sus (suspended) chords and syncopation. Influenced by the stabby piano rhythms of Adele’s song “Water Under the Bridge,” this part is supported by a simple one-note bass line and features a sixteenth-note syncopation at the end of every other bar. This gives the track a slightly aggressive motion. Try putting the sixteenth-note hits on different sixteenth-note subdivisions to explore how they alter the feel. The harmony is in the key of C major (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) and features a few unusual chords in the last bar. The Amin/D makes a Dmin9 sound without the third, and the G/A is what jazz guys call a 7sus4 chord. Experiment by combining triads over unusual bass lines and you will come up with your own cool voicings, too!
“Try playing some of these examples with the soft pedal down at times, as it coaxes a warmer, more bell-like sound from the piano,” says keyboardist and composer Brian Charette, who has performed and recorded with artists such as Joni Mitchell, Michael Buble, and Rufus Wainwright. Charette won Downbeat Magazine’s “Rising Star Organ” award in 2014 and recently released the album Alphabet City. His new book is entitled 101 Hammond B-3 Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use. Find out more at briancharette.com.