Let’s face it. Despite being a cornerstone of early rock ’n’ roll (think Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino), the honorable piano man too often must fight for his legitimate place in the rock ’n’ roll landscape. One of the rock pianist’s greatest challenges is coming up with effective song introductions. An intro part has to do three things: Cut through the band, be catchy, and most of all, rock! Two revered pianists that have best exhibited these skills are the late, great Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry’s original pianist) and Leon Russell.
A longtime member of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Jeff Kazee also appears with Jon Bon Jovi, and plays in Early Elton a piano-driven power trio dedicated to Elton John’s trio tours of 1970–’72. Find out more at myspace.com/jeffkazeemusic. Scroll down for audio examples and other web extras.
Here are a couple of piano introductions in Johnnie and Leon’s style, as well two variations on an intro from a tune I co-wrote. Together, they make up a study of some of the devices that make great piano intros rock.
Click sheet music thumbnails for larger versions.
Ex. 1. Leon Russell’s Style
One of Leon Russell’s signature sounds is the use of fourths and fifths in a patient yet driving riff, usually found in the lower middle part of the piano—roughly the C4 area and below. These open voicings give power and gritty funk to a song. Russell will often answer his own riff with a bluesy response (measure 2, beat 3), or offer an angular right-handed octave melody to keep the part moving (measure 4, beat 3), before returning to the original motif. Starting with a steady “four on the floor” left hand on the chord’s root lets the right hand take care of business before any further development occurs.
Ex. 2. Johnnie Johnson’s Style
Johnnie Johnson’s combination of big band-like chord stabs and quickly repeated notes and phrases influenced seminal rock guitarist Chuck Berry’s own playing and recordings. I kick off the Johnnie style with a couple of stabs in the right hand (measures 1 and 2), and employ a little dissonance in those first clusters before quickly releasing to the major third (E). This gives the song a playful edge right out of the gate. This track calls for a swing versus straight feel—I’m keeping a steady, left-handed, eighth-note boogie pattern and slightly swinging my right hand figures. Listen to drummers like Earl Palmer and Jim Keltner for an example of this rhythm that has propelled many classic rock tracks.
Ex. 3. “Cross that Line” Intro
On the recently released Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes recording Pills and Ammo, I co-wrote a tune called “Cross that Line” that starts with a huge “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”-like chord from the Jukes, and is complemented by a descending piano intro riff. It’s simple enough, using descending sixths again, and I use it throughout the song as a connecting device between sections. Although inspired by Leon Russell and Johnnie Johnson on my initial idea, I ended up with a figure that pays homage more to Ian McLagan of Faces and Nicky Hopkins of the Rolling Stones.
Ex. 4. “Cross that Line” Variant
Once again, from “Cross that Line,” here’s a variation on the opening piano motif, appearing later in the song. A little more staccato in its delivery, this part pops through and helps drive the verse towards the chorus in a playful manner.
- Audio examples - refer to sheet music above, or on pp. 28-30 of the August 2010 issue.
- Video: Kazee's band Early Elton live at the Bitter End.
- Download Southside Johnny's Pills and Ammo to hear more of Jeff's playing.