In this lesson, we’re going to take a look at four classic rock pianists with highly recognizable piano styles and the ways they incorporate those styles into their songwriting. Each of these artists has such a strong musical identity on the piano that, by taking a fragment of music and developing it pianistically (as they might have done), one can see how they have created a unique musical identity in their songs.
1. Start with a Melody
Ex. 1 is referred to in jazz terminology as a “descending minor line cliché.” It’s found in many forms of music, from folk to classical to jazz to rock to Broadway. There are myriad opportunities to write a melody that plays off the descending bass line, and with the included minor, minor-major-seventh and minor sixth chords, you’ve got built-in drama and atmosphere. This is a great starting point for a pianist/composer.
2. Like Billy
Ex. 2 illustrates what Billy Joel might do with this melodic passage. Joel grew up loving Frédéric Chopin, Paul McCartney, and Ray Charles, as well as his slightly older contemporary Elton John. You can clearly hear the influence of Chopin ballades in the left-hand accompaniment pattern here, and the melodic phrasing is not unlike the way Sir Paul phrased some of his unforgettable melodies. One can imagine Billy Joel playing something like this fragment as an intro before coming in with his vocal, singing the same melody in the first verse of one of his 1970s ballads. It’s almost all “legit” classically derived sonorities until the very last bar, with a little country/R&B-ish piano lick to remind us that what we are listening to is a pop song.
3. Here’s Elton
Sir Elton John draws from a similar bag of influences as Billy Joel, such as classical, gospel, R&B, as well as the Beatles and Beach Boys. Ex. 3 shows how Elton might lean a little heavier than Billy on gospel piano stylings, specifically pentatonic melodies tucked inside thick, rich right-hand chords. The chromatically moving bass line extends the drama and adds extra poignancy; you can find similar harmonic moves in Chopin ballades and Beethoven sonatas. Note the almost continuous use of the pedal, making the texture glassysmooth throughout—a perfect backdrop for Elton’s soaring vocal style.
4. Preston Piano
Billy Preston, well-known for his sideman work with Little Richard and the Beatles, had a string of solo hits in the early and mid-’70s (the heyday of the piano-based singer/songwriter). Having come up from the African-American church in his youth, Preston’s piano style owes a huge debt to gospel music, seen here in Ex. 4. As in the Elton example, you can hear rich right-hand chords containing a syncopated, fast-moving melodic line. Unlike the Elton example, there is a strong, staccato, almost march-like rhythmic pulse throughout, broken up at the end with a powerful syncopated tag (or a gospel cadence). This could also be a song’s intro, possibly followed by a verse that provides a similar rhythmic texture under a vocal that is carrying the same melody.
5. The Wright Way
The often-underrated keyboardist Richard Wright was a major factor in Pink Floyd’s success, both through his innovative instrumental textures and his often-overlooked compositional prowess. His deceptively simple piano playing drew from a mixture of classical, jazz and R&B influences. In Ex. 5 you can mostly hear classical and jazz, with a characteristically surprising harmonic modulation at the end.
Keyboardist, producer, and composer Andy Burton has toured with artists such as John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright, Curtis Stigers, Ian Hunter, and Robert Plant. Burton currently plays, sings, and arranges soundtrack music for HBO’s hit television series Vinyl. Find out more at twitter.com/andyburtonmusic.