5 Ways To Play Like Leon Russell and Elton John

Leon Russell and Elton John have sent the music world spinning with their recorded collaboration The Union.
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Leon Russell and Elton John have sent the music world spinning with their recorded collaboration The Union. For over 40 years, these two giants have been the gold standard for rock piano composition and performance. Only five years younger than Russell, Elton John has long claimed Russell as one of his greatest influences. Elton’s landmark 1970 album TumbleweedConnection best demonstrates the combined influence of Russell, Americana music, and Elton’s own nascent genius.

Both Leon and Elton have a firm grasp of Gospel, blues, country, and rock ’n’ roll, and have each built upon those styles to create their own distinctive musical personae. Below are five examples of musical devices that demonstrate the similarities and differences in their piano and compositional work. For this lesson, I draw primarily from their 1970s recordings. For your own research, listen to Leon on his own Leon Russell, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and Freddie King’s The Best of Freddie King: The Shelter Years. For Elton, check out EltonJohn, Tumbleweed Connection, and his fantastic live album 11-17-70.

1. Rock Riffs

Ex. 1A is a typical Leon rock riff, employing octaves in the right hand over a “four on the floor” pattern in the left hand. Notice how the melody notes are separated: They’re not always played staccato, but they’re certainly not legato either. This should be played clearly and distinctly. 

1A Leon's Riff - Piano

Ex. 1B is Elton’s take on the rock riff. He often leaves his right hand in a fixed position, here playing an A major chord with the root in the top and bottom fingers, while developing the melody in the interior of the chord. Notice how the octave notes drone along with Elton’s punchy rhythms. His left hand accentuates the syncopation. Each phrase ends with a quick G and D chord over the A bass. This helps break the riff up while keeping the rhythm rolling. 

1B Elton's Riff - Piano

2. Harmonic Ballad Tension

Leon is renowned for writing affecting minor-key ballads that employ chromatically descending bass lines, as on his songs “Superstar” and “A Song for You.” Ex. 2A demonstrates a typical right hand sound of his that uses minimal movement as the chords change. He tends to use space effectively—note the absence of unnecessary fills on the resolution at the end. 

2A Leon's Ballad Tension - Piano

Ex. 2B shows how Elton often creates tension by way of a pedaled bass, with the right hand chords changing over the pedal. This is essentially the opposite of Leon’s example 2A. A hallmark of Elton’s sound is his rolling arpeggios over a pedaled tonic. This builds tension until an eventual musical climax and denouement. 

2B Elton's Ballad Tension - Piano

3. Mid-Tempo Techniques

A steady right hand, eighth-note chord pattern (again using distinct separation between notes), often accompanies Leon’s voice in his mid tempo songs. Check out his song “Tightrope” for an example. Ex. 3A is a bluesy walk-down variation built off the C7 chord. It ends with a Gospel-style II7-V7-I chord progression. 

3A Leon's Mid-Tempo - Piano

In Ex. 3B, Elton uses arpeggios to keep his sonic train rolling in mid tempo. Elton often will insert a non-tonic bass note in a chord (a la the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”). Here, I’ve referenced that effect by using an F# in the root of the D7 chord in the second to last measure. Check out Elton’s “Your Song” and “Levon” for more chordal embellishment.

3B Elton's Mid-Tempo - Piano

4. Piano Intros

Sometimes simple works best. In Ex. 4A, a Leon-esque melody sets the stage for a vocal entrance. In bar 2, I’ve quickly used a B as a passing root of the G chord, before heading to the G root and then resolving to the D minor final chord. Space is the key here. 

4A Leon's Intro - Piano

In the Elton-flavored intro in Ex. 4B (not unlike Ex. 2B), I’m using a pedaled note (D) in the bass, setting up the vocal with a building tension. A slightly flowery, arpeggiated fill leads us into the last chord—an Elton trademark. 

4B Elton's Intro - Piano

5. Turnarounds

Ex. 5A is something you might find Leon playing on a Freddie King record. I’m using an A7b9 chord on the II7 chord to lead into an Eb7 (the bVI chord), and a D7b9 (V7 chord) for the big blues turnaround. The right hand keeps driving the beat along the pulsing left-handed bass line. Notice how the Gospel-tinged D7#5 dramatically sets up the last chord (G), harmonically resetting for the next section of music. 

5A Leon's Turnaround - Piano

Ex. 5B is an Elton-style turnaround. It’s no secret that Elton John was a huge admirer of the great New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint. With syncopation on and off the beat, this turnaround gets the music ready for the next verse or chorus. The use of the Amaj6 and Gmaj6 chords imparts a decidedly New Orleans flavor to the music. Elton often uses these kinds of chord colors and syncopation for his extended piano jams. For reference, listen to his live versions of “Honky Cat” and “Madman Across the Water.” 

5B Elton's Turnaround - Piano

Keyboardist, composer and vocalist Jeff Kazee is a longtime member of legendary rock band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. In addition to producing their latest album Pills and Ammo, Kazee has toured and recorded with Bon Jovi, G. E. Smith, and Dar Williams. Most recently, he played all keyboards on the Crystal Bowersox album Farmer’s Daughter. Follow him at twitter.com/jeffkazee and facebook.com/jeffkazeemusic.

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