I recently bought a baby Martin acoustic guitar on a tour stop IN Chicago. Learning guitar has reminded me that guitarists learn chords and strum the rhythms they feel. As a kid, I took years of classical piano lessons, reading music from a book. While this was a great foundation that I highly recommend, when I started playing pop music, I had to learn how to play chord progressions with the rhythms I feel.
The heart of pop music is its groove. So this month I’ll discuss playing “rhythm piano” in a pop chord progression. The chords we will use are F, C, G and A minor (a VI, I, V, vi minor progression in the key of C). These four chords (in whatever order you choose) have been played countless times throughout the history of pop music. My goal this month is to play these chords in such a way that they give the track motion and feel, and here are five different ways to do just that.
1. Rhythmic Figures with Eighth and Ghost Notes
Ex. 1 utilizes three main components to create motion in the piano part. First, there is a rest on beat one of each bar. Second, the right hand accents beat 2 and the “and” of beat 3, a tried-and-true comping rhythm often played on keyboards or guitar. And third, the use of single notes played on beat 3, beat 4, and the “and” of beat 4. I play these notes with my thumb: I use the thumb a lot to play ghost notes that fill space in between chordal accents. This gives forward motion and makes it sound like there is more then one part being played. The listener primarily hears the chords, but also feels the ghost-note rhythm.
2. Non-Chordal Tones
The feel of this groove is defined by the use of syncopated eighth notes and notes other than the 1, 3, and 5 chord tones. In bars 1 and 3 of Ex. 2, both hands accent beat 1, the “and” of beat 2, and beat 4. In bars 2 and 4, the left hand accents remain the same, but the right hand accents beats 1 and 4, creating a two-bar pattern. I am also adding seconds and fourths, which are called suspensions, to create movement and harmonic variation. The G in bar 1, the D in bar 2, and the B in bar 4 (all seconds of their respective chords) and the A in bar 3 (the fourth of the chord) create a new harmonic identity.
3. Arpeggios and the Eighth Note Pulse
Remember those arpeggios you practiced and played in your classical pieces? Ex. 3 creates arpeggios in the right hand from same four chords we’ve been playing, with a bit of syncopation, and adds a quarter note pulse in the left hand underneath. Bars 1 and 3 have triad arpeggios. Bars 2 and 4 have a steady eighth note pulse with tones common to both chords.
Ex. 4 demonstrates how using the interval of a sixth to connect chord tones is a great way to create motion and countermelodies. In bar 1, the G and B on the “and” of beat 2 are passing tones connecting the root and third on beat 1 to the third and fifth on beat 4. Remember to listen to the melody to make sure your note choices and rhythms don’t clash. Experiment with the use of sixths in all four bars.
5. Rhythmic Punches and Single Note Hooks
Maybe there’s no guitar on the gig and you’re free to play busier. Or maybe the guitar is playing whole note chords. In this scenario, we can get more rhythmic and play a muted-guitar-like or horn-like figure. This becomes a rhythmic hook. There are two variations of this in Ex. 5. Bars 1 and 2 have chords accenting beat 1 and the “and” of beat 2 along with a single note line at the back half of the bar. Bars 3 and 4 have a whole note on beat 1 with a rhythmic single-note figure played while the whole note sustains.
You can mix and match these concepts to create motion of your own, and in a four-bar section you can use combinations of these ideas. Also, while I’m talking mostly about the right hand, try out different left hand parts, too. What you play in the left hand depends mostly on what the bass player is throwing down.
“Listen to what other instruments are playing. The choices you make should depend on how your part grooves with the other players rhythmically and harmonically,” says keyboardist and composer Clifford Carter, best known for his work with artists James Tayor, Patti Scialfa, Idina Menzel, and others. Carter is currently touring with Cyndi Lauper, performing concerts in the United States and Europe. Find out more at cliffordcarter.com.