Growing up in Nashville, I was steeped in Southern styles of keyboard playing—which of course are rooted in gospel and the blues. I learned how to play these styles, and rock ’n’ roll, by working in bars, music venues, and recording studios, and by copying the styles of great keyboard players such as Chuck Leavell, Reese Wynans, Ray Charles, Doctor John, and Matt Rollings. There’s just something about the simplicity of the harmony, and the playful combination of joy and sorrow in these styles, that has always resonated with me. Here are four off-the-cuff, improvised examples of things I might play that have a soulful Southern feeling. With those styles, I think it’s more about how you play than what you play. If it feels right, it probably is right.
1. Blues Grooves and Riffs
This has two influences: Steve Winwood for the overall piano groove, and Chuck Leavell for the octave-riff piano fill. When I’m playing the full G7 voicing (F, G, B, D, G), I like to use the thumb of my right hand to play both the low F and low G. It’s much easier that way.
2. Blues Shuffle
Here’s a piano improvisation over a Blues shuffle that I like to play. The I-II-IV chord changes (G7, A7, C7) aren’t a typical blues progression; if anything, they’re closer to something you might hear in gospel music.
3. Churchy Organ Cadence
The organ improvisation below showcases the augmented III7 chord (F#7 in this case), which, in my opinion, is one of the most soulful ways to move from the I chord to the minor vi chord. Here, instead of descending to a straight D chord, I play a churchier D7 over A chord to lead to the G chord. This is another one of my favorite moves.
Here's a typical double-time Gospel piano vamp. It showcases the I to IV chord progression over a walking bass line in octaves. This one is fun to play, especially with a band. If, however, you're playing with a good bassist, lay off the heavy left-hand lines and just stick to root notes, tenor-register chords, and fifths. Let the bass player handle the walking.
In addition to fronting his own groups as a leader, singer, songwriter, and keyboardist, Gabe Dixon has played keyboards with Paul McCartney, O.A.R., and Supertramp. His new album One Spark is out this month on the Fantasy/Concord label. Find out more at gabedixon.com.