5 Ways to Play Like Jimmy McGriff - KeyboardMag
A lesson from the July 2015 issue of KEYBOARD

You might not have guessed it, but the great soul and blues organist Jimmy McGriff studied at the famed Juilliard School of Music. He also studied privately with many of the great organists like Jimmy Smith, Richard “Groove” Holmes, and even the classical organist Sonny Gatewood. McGriff gets a great, gritty organ sound, especially on the records he recorded during his funk period. Let’s check out Jimmy McGriff’s style.

1. Boogaloo

Ex. 1 illustrates a typical McGriff “boogaloo” pattern, inspired by one of his most famous tunes, “The Worm.” This is played on the lower manual. Lets use the drawbar setting 80 8000 000 with vibrato/chorus at C3 and Leslie off, and the first pedal drawbar pulled all the way out. (We’ll keep these lower manual settings for all of the examples). Our bass line is shadowed in the pedals, marked with an X on the B in the score to notate the default ghost-note position. (If you’re using bass pedals, try playing an easy toe-heel movement in the first two bars for both chromatic motions). Because all the comping in this style of organ playing is done by the right hand, your voicings should be a little widerthan typical piano voicings.

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2. Blues Riffs

Ex. 2 demonstrates some McGriff-style blues riffs against a solid left-hand groove. I’ve supplied a slightly varied bass line. On a virtual organ, turn the distortion up. On a real Hammond B-3 or equivalent, just crank up so the tubes get overdriven. The top manual drawbar setting is basically a Jimmy Smith setting; we’ve pulled out the eighth drawbar just a little for a whistle effect. In Bar 2, shake the notes slowly with a loose wrist. In beat 3 of bar 3, notice the triplet-feel lick.

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3. Stop Choruses

Ex. 3is influenced by McGriff’s regular use of stop choruses, where the left hand and foot “splash” on beat one every two bars. In the right hand, we use the F blues scale. In the first two bars, we have a fairly common blues cliché—notice the descending Fmin7 arpeggio in beat 3 of Bar 1. In Bar 3 after our second stop we switch to the D blues scale, which lends a decidedly major color to the mix. The line ends with a built-in chromatic embellishment of the major third in the last notes of the phrase.

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4. Funk Grooves

Ex. 4 focuses on sixteenth-notes. We’ll use a different drawbar setting. Switch your Leslie to fast, turn the percussion off and dial up 80 8000 008. This is often called the “silk” setting. When playing pedals on a funk groove like this, stay loose and try to grab big accents with real bass pedal notes while tapping a light ghost-note on the B pedal for the rest of the time. It’s important to stay relaxed. If you tighten up, it can cause the time to rush. The silk setting is great for sneaky riffs and subtle colors. Note how in this example, both hands complement each other. When the left hand is busy, the right is relaxed and vice versa. This interplay creates the undulating feel here.

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5. Percussive Plinks

Ex. 5 is inspired by McGriff’s work on the song “Splanky,” whichwas Count Basie’s nickname used to describe the high, tinkly riffs he often played on the piano. The drawbar setting for the top manual is sometimes referred to as “Vibraphone;” the drawbars are all silent except for the fourth, which is at full volume. The sound is made mostly by the harmonic percussion, which speaks very prominently. Pulling the fourth drawbar all the way out adds a little treble to cut through the powerful bass.

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 “I sometimes like to pull a few strange drawbars out on a standard organ setting to impart a sound of my own,” says keyboardist and composer Brian Charette, who has performed and recorded with artists like Joni Mitchell, Michael Bublé, and Rufus Wainwright in addition to leading his own jazz groups. Find out more at briancharette.com.