When it comes to rock keyboards, chops and speed often should take a back seat to parts that can cut through the band and drive the music. Check out John Lennon’s churning and broken chords, Elton John’s moving gospel inversions and crashing left-hand octaves, or Roy Bittan’s driving right-hand patterns, and you’ll hear how simple and clear chord movement, strong inner melodies, and parts with compelling forward motion have become the essence of modern rock and pop piano. One way to amplify your right-hand chordal playing is to use your left hand to support the top note melody. This technique is the first step in unlocking the left hand from a limited bass-only role, and will give your playing more sound, power, and dimension.
Ex. 1. Start with a clear chord progression, like the I-IV-V shown here. The Eb chord momentarily moves down to the Bb chord over an Eb bass, then back to basic Eb, then to the Ab (the IV) and finally the Bb (the V). The top notes of the right-hand chord are a strong melody. The off-beat syncopation is repeated in the second bar and gives the whole phrase continued forward motion. Add the left hand playing octaves and you have a simple and direct sound.
Ex. 2. As shown in 2a, break the right-hand chords into eighth-note groupings of three, three, and two, and the phrase suddenly has drive and forward motion. Accent the first note of each grouping and change the pedal every time the chord changes. Try a variation in 2b: three, two, and three. The quicker chord change on the “and” of beat 3 gives the phrase more syncopation, and a slightly different feel. In the heat of battle, you might be switching at will between many variations. Add the right-hand thumb on the accented beats in 2c, playing a chord tone under the melody. Here, the interval of the sixth on the accents works well, and as long as the damper pedal is down, the thumb note will ring through, so quickly re-striking the thumb won’t sound or feel odd.
Ex. 3. Add the left hand in two stages: First, use the left hand’s thumb in the middle register on the accented beats, as in 3a. This third note completes the chord, and moves in tenths with the melody. Consider the thumb of your left hand as part of the right hand structure, with everything moving together. Playing like this can get you out of the “piano songwriter” rut where the left hand only plays roots and the right hand only plays chords. Spreading the triad between two hands and playing in larger intervals like this is a much different sound than the close voicings of Example 1. When you’re ready, add the bottom: a root in the fifth finger, held down until the chord change. If you’re feeling brave, lift your hand and give a quick pickup note or phrase to take it to the next change. If you’re pedaling right, you’ll never notice the gap.
The same principle can apply in a more chordal style, as in 3b, where the left hand thumb is moving into the right-hand range to support the top voice. The fifth finger of the left hand can play the bass note, and maybe even slip in some embellishments.