I’ve always been drawn to artists who have a unique sound and a style that you can immediately recognize. One of my favorite musicians has always been the legendary pianist, singer and songwriter Leon Russell. I love how he often used guitar-like techniques in his piano work. The more I began to explore the guitar and listen to old blues records, the more I began to hear various guitar mannerisms in his playing. In this lesson, we’ll look at applying guitar techniques to the keyboard by exploring some of Russell’s pianistic tendencies.
1. Guitar Ostinatos
The “straight” eighth-note ostinato bass figures the left hand of Ex. 1 evoke bass patterns that guitarists like John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins would often play. Russell was one of the top session piano players in L.A. as a member of the famed “Wrecking Crew.” His knowledge of recording and how instruments would work in a mix allowed him play alternating eighth-notes as a way of making space for other instruments sonically, especially allowing the bass room to move. You can hear this kind of pattern on Joe Cocker’s version of the song “The Letter.”
2. Guitar Bends and Hammer-Ons
Many of the piano fills that Russell plays are seemingly influenced by the way a guitar player bends notes. He often makes use of grace-notes in a way that mimics a note being bent, especially on “blue notes” like thirds and fifths. Russell also regularly injects his comping with rolls that aren’t unlike guitar “hammer-ons” (picking a note hard and allowing a second note to ring out right after, usually when approaching the third). Ex. 2 shows a turnaround where the glissando up to the third on the B chord and the A chord simulates a guitarist “hammering-on.” Note that the ending figure is also similar to classic blues guitar licks.
3. Ballad Piano Style
Russell’s style of playing a ballad on the piano was very influential at the time. Countless artists such as Elton John were influenced by this style, to the point where it became the blueprint for ballad piano playing. The alternating bass ostinato pattern and arpeggio-driven rhythms seen in Ex. 3 can be heard in the guitar playing of artists like Pop Staples, Furry Lewis, and Mississippi John Hurt. It’s interesting to note that many of the guitarists mentioned here derived their playing styles from attempting to emulate the gospel pianists that played in their churches—so thus we come full circle!