In this article I will give a brief overview of playing in a rock piano style. Playing rock and other popular styles is a rewarding way to develop your understanding of the piano, and music as a whole.
The written music available for popular styles like rock piano comes in a range of different forms, from fully notated arrangements to simple lead sheets. Lead sheets are a type of musical shorthand that have a set of chord symbols written above a notated melody with lyrics. In some cases you may only have the lyrics and chords to play from.
If you are playing from a fully written out arrangement, you simply need to learn the piece as you would for any other style. You may find that rock piano arrangements are fairly easy to memorize, since they often use repetitive patterns of notes and chord progressions. Once you have learned the piece, take the time to study the different techniques that the arranger used. Pay special attention to accompaniment patterns in the left hand, as well as the different chord shapes and voice leading in the right hand. Many of these techniques will readily transfer to other arrangements, as well as give you ideas for developing your own rock piano arrangements.
As we have already mentioned, lead sheets are a type of musical shorthand for notating music. To play from a lead sheet will need to have a good understanding of different chord shapes and some principles of voice leading, the art of connecting chords together. You should also consider whether you are planning to play a particular piece as a soloist, as an accompaniment for yourself or another singer, or as a section player in a larger ensemble. You will also need to be somewhat familiar with the piece you are learning. For example, you may know the song from a commercial recording. If you are not familiar with the song, take the time to listen to any recordings you might find.
Begin to build your arrangement by playing the written chord changes as block chords in a steady quarter-note rhythm. Voice the chords in the right-hand with the thumb around middle C. This register is good for playing chords in. They will the stay out of the way of the vocal line, which is typically in a higher register, and the bass part, which will be an octave or two lower than middle C. Pay attention to your voice-leading. Connect the different chords by moving the hand as little as possible, using inversions. Try not to always start the first chord in root position.
Now learn the chord progression in a similar manner with the left-hand, again with the thumb around middle C. Once you can play the chords with hands separately, try playing them with the hands together. If you can do this, you now have the foundation for several basic arrangements of the song that you can apply in many different contexts.
If you are in a band, playing the chords with both hands offers many possibilities for creating different accompaniments and rhythms on the fly. For example, in common time, the left-hand could play steady quarter-notes while the right-hand plays a dotted quarter-note, eighth-note rhythm.
If you are accompanying yourself or another singer, you can play the chords in the right-hand, with the left-hand playing the root notes of the chord changes also in quarter-notes as a simple bass line.
If you are building a solo arrangement, you will probably play the melody in the right-hand with the chords in the left-hand in some repetitive rhythmic pattern. Simple quarter-notes, or a dotted quarter-note plus an eighth-note pattern in the left-hand can be quite effective in a rock piano style.
Playing rock piano can be a rewarding practice for any piano player regardless of their main style. It helps builds the player’s technique, understanding of harmony, and general appreciation of music. My hope is that this introductory article gives you a starting place to further your studies.
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