Michael Jackson created some of the most universally memorable — and downright funky — music of the last century. His hit “Billie Jean,” from the best-selling album of all time, Thriller, makes great use of synth bass and strings to lay down a hard groove and mysterious vibe. Want to learn the central bass riff and chordal stabs that make the tune instantly recognizable? If your axe allows it, split your keyboard at middle C with a slightly grungy, Minimoog-esque bass sound in the lower register and a string sound with a fast attack (such as a marcato patch) in the upper register. Listen to the track a few times, walk through the simplified examples below, and play along, on the floor, in the round. . . .
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Ex. 1. Here’s the first right-hand chord, just the root and fifth of F#min.
Ex. 2. Next, move both notes up a whole step to D# and G#.
Ex. 3. The third right-hand chord is the exact same shape, a half step higher: E and A.
Ex. 4. Here’s how your left hand should lay on the keyboard in order to play the signature “Billie Jean” bass line, which is transcribed in Example 5. Just play the notes under your fingers in this order — 1, 4, 2, 1, 2, 4, 5, 4 — and you’ve got it.
Ex. 5. Here’s the bass line and right-hand part in traditional notation. Be sure to count along to time the right-hand stabs just right, and don’t forget to line up those hits with the appropriate bass notes in the left hand.