Left Hand Power Parts

Keyboard techniques for using your left hand
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As a southpaw, I’ve always been aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of being more comfortable using my left hand. Here are five keyboard techniques for using your left hand that both lefties and righties should find time to explore.

1. Stride

Ex. 1 examines the technique of stride piano, a style of left-hand comping that was popular in the 1920s and ’30s. In this style, the left hand characteristically plays a four-beat pulse with a single bass note on the first and third beats, and a chord on the second and fourth beats. Among the players that made this style popular were Fats Waller and Art Tatum. Stride can definitely be a workout for your left hand, especially when the tempos are fast. This style also can sound like two parts are happening at once (e.g. bass and chords), freeing up the right hand to play melodies so that the sum of the parts sounds like an entire band.

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2. Wide Stretches

Being able to span a wide range of notes with the left hand is particularly helpful when trying to fill out sound on the piano, as illustrated in Ex. 2. Using wide intervals, such as tenths in the left hand, can add a rich and sonorous sound under your right hand, making a piano arrangement sound broad and full. Composer Claude Debussy was a master of this, as was Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose hands were so big that it was said he could reach an octave and a half from pinkie to thumb!

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3. Percussive Comping

Percussive (or two-hand) comping is a technique where the left hand gets into the mix of what the right hand is doing within an accompanying pattern. This style is demonstrated in Ex. 3. Here, the left hand usually fits into a linear pattern where there is a steady pulsating beat and both hands are working together to keep the pattern going, similar to the way a drummer might play a two-handed pattern. Stevie Wonder and Dr. Lonnie Smith are masters of this kind of comping.

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4. Walking Bass

The walking technique (seen here in Ex. 4) is simply playing a jazz bass line the way an actual bass player would. Organ players do this a lot with their left hands (or feet utilizing the organ’s bass pedals if they are so inclined). Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco are two masters of this style of keyboard bass playing.

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5. Sound Effects

The left hand can be used for parts that are more along the lines of sound effects, as in Ex. 5. Some of these techniques include mashing down a cluster of keys to create a thick wash of noise, or a long glissando across the whole keyboard to create excitement between musical phrases. It’s a very effective way to add unexpected flair and surprise to a solo or part. Organ players utilize these techniques often, as do pianists such as Cecil Taylor.

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Practice Tip

“When it comes to keyboards, there really is no opposite way to approach the instrument physically like you can with many others. That being said, lefties who play the piano often come across aspects of playing that are potentially easier for them than for right-handed people,” says Matt Beck, a multi-instrumentalist who plays keyboards and guitar with artists such as Matchbox Twenty, Rob Thomas, and Rod Stewart. Beck’s most recent solo outing is Anything Which Gives You Pleasure. Find out more at myspace.com/mattbecktwenty and twitter.com/mattymay.