Stevie Wonder’s music has a sweet spot in jazz - it’s an infectious combination of singable, lyrical, catchy pop melodies combined with at times complex and advanced jazz harmonies that would prove challenging to any jazz soloist. For many music fans Stevie Wonder’s music represents a great intersection between jazz and pop. This makes his music a great choice for players who are seeking material to develop some jazz chops while developing repertoire that will be well-received by a larger audience. An often-overlooked aspect of the Stevie Wonder hit-song “You are the Sunshine of My Life” is his use of the whole-tone scale in the intro. This scale is often studied in jazz circles. Let’s check it out.

The whole-tone scale is a hexatonic scale, which means unlike typical major and minor scales which contain seven notes, the whole-tone scale only contains six notes (“hexa” = six; “tonic” = tones, so “6-tone scale”). Also unlike major and minor scales (of which there are 12 unique scales, each with their own key signature), there are really only two whole-tone scales (more on that in a minute). The whole-tone scale is constructed by moving exclusively in - you guess it - WHOLE steps!

Let’s create an example. First choose any starting pitch. We’ll start on the note ‘C.’ Now move upwards, always by whole-steps, until you reach ‘C’ again. If done correctly the notes of the scale will be: C, D, E, F#, G#, A#, C. The reason we say that there are only 2 unique whole-tone scales is because if we start the above scale on any of the notes we just discovered, the same notes will result, just in a different order. For example, start the scale on F# and you’ll see that the same notes are used: F#, then G#, A#, C, D, E, and back to F#. Same exact notes because we are only moving in whole-steps. So the only other whole-tone scale will consist of all the notes we did not use, i.e., C#, D#, E, F, G, A, B, C#. 

That’s what the scale is, now let’s check out how Stevie uses it. The intro to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” starts out with 2 chords - B major and F# dominant 7. For those who like to think in Roman numerals this is a simple and common “I” to “V7” chord progression. Remember how I mentioned that Stevie uses jazz harmonies? Well, on that F#7 chord, he treats it as an F#7 with a sharp 5, a natural 9, and a sharp 11. Let’s aggregate those notes:

F# (root), A# (3rd), D (#5) E (7th), G# (9th), C (#11). Now let’s put those notes in order starting with F#: F#, G#, A#, C, D, E. 

Lo and behold, it’s an F# whole-tone scale. Still not convinced this is what Stevie was thinking when he played this chord? Well then check out the actual notes he played: 

Notice in measures 3 and 4 that Stevie Wonder plays major 3rds in the right hand, up the whole-tone scale, starting with the notes ‘D’ and ‘F#.’ Cool sound, right?

So what have we learned from this? First, that the whole-tone scale is made entirely of whole-steps. Second, that there are only 2 unique whole-tone scales. Third, that the whole-tone scale can be played over a dominant 7th chord and will contain the extensions natural 9, sharp 11, and sharp 5. And fourth, that the whole-tone scale can be used - as Stevie used it - to create major third pairs that can be played up and down the scale.

Rock organ soloing requires a different approach than jazz soloing. In the jazz context, keyboard solos are usually played at the piano and built around advanced harmonies and chord substitutions, various chord scales, quirky-syncopated rhythms, and left-handed comping. By contrast, rock keyboard solos are frequently played on a number of various keyboard instruments, including the organ. Also in contrast to jazz, rock solos are often built around simpler harmonies, one or two chord scales, and basic left hand structures. In this article we'll take a look at some tips for developing your rock organ soloing skills.

Rock Organ Soloing: Eric Clapton's "Layla"

We'll begin with a classic rock song - Eric Clapton's "Layla." The intro and chorus of this song are built around only 3 chords: D minor, Bb major, and C major. Here's the opening riff. It's usually played on guitar (in the original) but sounds awesome when played or doubled on rock organ.

rock organ soloing 2

These are also the same chords used for the chorus, including the gritty rock-heavy guitar solos (the chords for the verse are different). Since soloing over this tune usually happens on the chorus, we'll focus on these chord changes.

Rock Organ Soloing: What Does the Left Hand Do?

Ok, this is a pretty important tip. Real rock organs usually have two manuals, which means an upper and lower keyboard. Usually the organist will have one sound preset for one manual (perhaps a loud gritty sound for soloing) and another sound for the other manual (for comping - i.e., playing chords). However, most of us don't gig with real Hammond B3s, so we mere mortals end up using synthesizers with organ sounds. If this applies to you, here are some "do's" and don'ts":

  1. Don't comp with your left hand in the same way you would in a jazz piano context. The organ has a completely different sound than the piano. Chords need to be voiced for the organ's particular sound and range.
  2. Don't play bass lines with your left hand if you have a bass player in the band. Playing bass lines is his/her job. If there is no bass player then playing bass lines is fair game;
  3. Do play chords and comp with your left hand. But consider simple structures (like triads), register (too low or too high can sound bad), and sound/timbre (perhaps if you're playing a synth, this might mean splitting your keyboard to have a comping sound in the left hand and a lead/solo sound in the right).

Rock Organ Soloing: Less is More

Are there many scales you could use for soloing over these simple three chords? Yes. But does that means that some exotic scales are going to sound better or more advanced? No.

Allow me to introduce the minor pentatonic scale - 5 simple little notes. You can (and should) play this scale over all three chords in the chorus when practicing and soloing. After all, Eric Clapton does. (And if you want to use the blues scale, that will work and sound great, too). Below shows the D minor pentatonic scale and how it relates to each of the 3 chords.

rock organ soloing 3

Rock piano soloing requires a slightly different mindset than jazz piano soloing. In the jazz piano context, the right hand is free to play lots of chromatic tones, altered scales, and shifty rhythmic figures. The left hand often plays rootless voicings that use extended harmonies (i.e., things like 7ths, 9ths, and 13ths are common). These are some of the characteristics that give jazz piano solos their unique sound. What are the characteristics of rock piano soloing? In this article we'll explore that question in detail because recognizing these characteristics can help us develop specific practice exercise to develop our rock piano soloing skills.

Rock Piano Soloing: Common Characteristics

First let's explain a common misconception. There is a big difference between a rock piano solo and a solo piano section. For example, when asked to name some famous rock piano solos players sometimes say "Layla," or "Don't Stop Believing." But these are examples of tunes with solo piano sections. Tunes like "The Way It Is" or "Jessica" feature piano solos. What's the difference? A solo piano section features the piano prominently, perhaps without any other accompaniment. It is a scripted part of the song (like the ending to "Layla").  Piano solos generally describe a portion of the song where the pianist is permitted to improvise by navigating the chord changes (such as Bruce Hornsby's solo in "The Way It Is").

Unlike jazz, rock piano soloing does not usually involve lots of chord changes. In rock the chord changes are often largely diatonic and do not use as many chord substitutions or extensions as in jazz. Knowing whether the chord changes are diatonic is an important consideration, because if the chords are diatonic it means they all come from the same key. And if they all come from the same key then we can usually use one scale to solo over all of the chords.

Rock Piano Soloing: "The Way It Is"

Let's look at a couple excerpts from Bruce Hornsby's famous piano solo over his hit "The Way It Is."

rock piano soloing 1

What information can you gain by looking at this solo? First, the solo is in the key of G major. Second, all of the chords in these 4 measures are diatonic chords (meaning all of the chords come from the key of G major). Third, all of the notes used in the solo are from a G major scale. Because these are diatonic chords, the notes of a G major scale will "work" (sound good) when used to solo over all of these chords.

Now let's look at the next four measures of Bruce Hornsby's solo.

rock piano soloing 2

Again we notice that the chords are diatonic, as are the notes used in the right hand solo. The right hand solo has a very apparent rhythmic idea that is being used. Notice also that the left hand is simply playing the roots of the chords, not the actual chords. This is an approximation and not exactly what Bruce Hornsby played in his left hand, but it demonstrates how simple the left hand can be in a rock piano context.

Rock keyboard soloing is an important part of a keyboardist's development. Soloing in any context requires that the player is familiar with chords, scales, and keys. Rock is no exception. So in order to go deeper with this you need to learn a couple helpful scales that the pros know (and use masterfully). In this article we'll look at some ideas that can help get you started improvising and discuss some pointers to help you fine tune your sound.

Rock Keyboard Soloing - The Pentatonic Scale

This is one of the most powerful scales in rock music. It's a favorite among rock keyboard and guitar solos. The word "pentatonic" means "five tones." And lo and behold, this is a 5-note scale. In major mode it's built using the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degrees. In minor mode it's built using the 1st, 3rd, 4tg, 5th, and 7th scale degrees. As you can see below, the major and relative minor pentatonic scale consist of the exact same notes, so there are only 12 pentatonic scales in total.

Rock keyboard soloing 1

Why is this scale so powerful and widely used? Because with these five notes, you can create some awesome patterns and licks. And if you're playing over chords within the same key (known as diatonic chords), you can use this one scale over all of the chords.

To get you started, here's a great pentatonic pattern that you should practice in a number of different keys.

Rock keyboard soloing 2

Here's just a little example of how to use this pentatonic pattern over a simple rock groove using a synth lead sound. When soloing using a synth lead sound you'll generally want to comp (i.e., play chords) using a different sound. In the audio clip below the chords are being played on an electric keyboard sound. (The chords are all diatonic - C major, A minor, E minor, F major, 2 bars apiece):

Rock keyboard soloing 3

Rock Keyboard Soloing - The Blues-Rock Solo

The blues scale is another hugely powerful scale in rock music. It's built by adding one additional note to the pentatonic scale. In the example below we've written a C blues scale. The scale includes the same notes as the C minor pentatonic scale, with the addition of the raised 4th (F#).

Rock keyboard soloing 4

Here's a great bluesy-rock piano lick that all rock keyboard players play (or have played at some point along the way). It's an easy one, but an essential lick that you need to have.

Rock keyboard soloing 5

To hear this lick used masterfully, check out Chuck Leavell's classic piano solo on The Allman Brothers' "Jessica."

One last rock solo pointer: be careful to note the difference between the use of your left hand in jazz as compared to rock. In the jazz world, keyboard players use rootless voicings and extended harmonies in their comping. In rock music, the role of the left hand is different. Sometimes the left hand simply plays the roots of chords (or root and 5th). Other times the left hand plays chords, but often they are simpler, triadic based harmonies that are much less dense than the type of chords used in jazz. Again, check out the left hands chords used in the "Jessica" solo.

Rock organ tips. That's our topic here. But we'll take a slightly different approach than normal. The organ looks like a piano keyboard, but the two are vastly different instruments in many ways. This seems obvious, right? Well, let me tell you about a gig in which the information I'll share below was not quite so obvious.

A man approached me on a gig and asked if I would mind if he sat-in for a few tunes later on in the night. He was a pianist who seemed to have the necessary credentials in order for me to say "sure."

When he came to sit in he wanted to play organ (on my synth). He also wanted me to stay on the bandstand and play the other keyboard (I had two on-stage). He wanted to play "Brown-Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison. The band knows this tune well. No problem, right?

At this point I'm going to relay the rest of the story with my "rock organ tips" and allow YOU to figure out what happened on the gig.

Rock Organ Tips #1: Volume

Be sensitive to the sound of the the band, the volume of your instrument, and the kind of tune you're playing. If you're too loud for the drummer, it's a good possibility you're too loud overall.

Rock Organ Tips #2: Economy of Notes

The organ has a very different timbre than the piano. Big thick chords that sound good on the piano can sound great on the organ, but issues such as register, range, and density are important considerations. Also, the organ has a lot of sounds that can be created using the drawbars. Sometimes less is more when it comes to the sheer number of notes you should play.

Rock Organ Tips #3: The Sustain Pedal

Real organs don't have sustain pedals. Synths do have sustain pedals, which allows the player to sustain notes on the synth in the same manner that you would on a piano - very "un-organ-like." Make sure you realize this, otherwise sustaining too many notes on a rock organ patch will sound... well... sometimes kinda bad.

Rock Organ Tips #4: Interplay

In order to work with the other players in a band, you have to listen to the other players (See Tip #1). Although I was on the other keyboard, I was forced to play very sparingly because there was simply no room for me to play much of anything. This is why musicians always preach the power of "listening." Without that skill, other players can feel left out.

Rock Organ Tips #5: Bass Notes

Low notes on the organ can sound just as big, resonant, and low as the electric bass. So if there's a bass player on the gig try to stay out of his/her domain. And regardless of whether there's a bass player or not, the bass notes usually provide the root of the chord - so make sure you know the right chords or it will undoubtedly cause confusion.

* The underlying point of all of this is certainly never to shame anyone or make players feel too insecure to try something new for fear of making a mistake. The point is to help raise your awareness of two things: preparedness and listening (which are very closely related). The musician in the story above was a good musician who approached the organ as a piano. Big mistake. So pay attention to your role - at the instrument, within the song, within the band, within the venue. Start by listening to and watching the pros. Wanna get started? Here's some awesomeness from Larry Goldings with James Taylor to help get you started!

 

In this article we'll be discussing a classic Stevie Wonder track, "Isn't She Lovely." We'll take a look and a listen to this tune and cover some of the basic keyboard necessities to get started playing this song. One of the things about Stevie Wonder tunes that makes them ripe for cover by jazz artists are the chords. Not only does Stevie use lots of extensions in his harmonies (things like 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths) but he also uses lots of chord progressions that are very frequently encountered in the jazz language. It is very common to see ii-V-I progressions in Stevie Wonder tunes.

Isn't She Lovely: Checking Out the Original

One of the first steps in learning any tune is to become deeply familiar with the original. We do this for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly for the following: first, simply by listening we can start to memorize things like form, tempo, meter, intro, endings, etc. We don't need to be at our instrument to memorize those aspects of the song. Secondly, we want to be able to accurately play the original before we start embellishing or stylizing it as our own.

It's also important to note that Stevie played keyboards, drums, and harmonica on this track, in addition to the vocals.

Isn't She Lovely: Learning the Chords

The chords of the song are fairly easy. By now (having listened to and investigated the song a bit) you should know that it's in the key of E major. And you should also know that there are really only 2 sections, an 'A' and 'B' section. In the 'A' section the chords follow the following progression: vi, V7/V, V7sus, I.

Plugging those chords into the key of E major we have the following: C# minor 7, F#7, B7sus4, E major 6.

You probably heard that there are multiple keyboard tracks on the tune (if not, go back and listen for them again). The two keyboards are playing different voicings of the same chords. As a single keyboard player playing this tune in a live situation you have a couple options if you're trying to get as close to the original as possible: combine the parts into one hybrid part (easiest), or split your keyboard into two zones, one for each keyboard sound (more involved). For most players option 1 is most common, so here are the chords for the 'A' section:

Isn't She Lovely 1

Isn't She Lovely: Rhythmic Comping

There is some very particular rhythmic comping going on all over this tune. We think it's much easier to internalize this rhythmic comping by listening as opposed to reading off sheet music. For the complete breakdown of what's going on and demonstration check out the Isn't She Lovely lesson of this tune which also includes improvisation tips.

Isn't She Lovely: Jazz Covers

There are lots of jazz covers of Stevie Wonder tunes for the reasons we mentioned above. Now that you've checked out the original a bit you may have greater appreciation for the creative liberties taken by others when covering this tune. Start by checking out this version by a great jazz pianist, Aaron Goldberg.

Michael Jackson's music is some of the most classic pop/rock music of all-time, so we wanted to feature this Human Nature tutorial because so many students have been interested in Michael Jackson tunes. Human Nature is a particularly great tune to explore because of the beautiful, lush left hand chords as well as the classic right-hand melodic hook. We'll take a look at some of the thick, dense left-hand chords used in Human Nature that sets it apart from other pop/rock tunes. We'll also look at the iconic right hand melodic theme that introduces the song.

Human Nature Tutorial: The Chords (Intro)

One of the cool things about the chords used in the Human Nature intro is that they are not diatonic. The song itself is really in the key of D major, but the chords in the intro and verse alternate back and forth between various keys. The intro is a 4-measure phrase that moves from Gmaj7 to A major in measures 1 and 2, and Fmaj7 to Emin7 in measures 3 and 4. The rhythm of that harmony is as follows:

Human Nature tutorial 1

Listen to the original recording of Human Nature and read along with the 4-bar phrase above so that you can hear the rhythm of the chord movement.

Human Nature Tutorial: The Voicings (Intro)

This is the really fun part of diving into this recording. Of course, this song has been played by many artists, and many keyboard players. So we're not trying to transcribe the voicings on Michael Jackson's recording, but rather look at how these chords can be voiced at the piano.

Let's check out one way in which you may play these chords in a solo keyboard context:

Human Nature tutorial 2

Now let's break down what's going on in these chords. These are some big chords - 5 notes per voicing (except for the Emin7 chord), all played only with your left hand.

How is that Gmaj7 chord voiced (spelled)? Well, (from the bottom up) we have the root (G), the 9th (A), the 3rd (B), the 5th (D), and the 7th (F#). I would suggest playing these notes with the fingering (from bottom up) 5-4-3-2-1 (one finger per note). See if you can identify the chord tones and extensions used in the other voicings.

Human Nature Tutorial: The Hook/Keyboard Melody

This is the melodic line that makes Human Nature the classic MJ tune that it is. It's a 4-bar phrase made up entirely of 8th notes and although it takes some practice, it's a lot of fun to play (which is why it's been sampled so frequently in pop music).

Notice that the line is really a 2-bar phrase that is sequenced (meaning it repeats in bars 3 and 4 but changes slightly to adjust to the new chords in those measures). For example, the C#s that are used in measures 1 and 2 (over Gmaj and Amaj) don't fit as well in measures 3 and 4 because the new chords are Fmaj and Emin - so they become C naturals. This is a concept that you can and should use in your own playing and writing - sticking with a single simple idea and adjusting it to conform to the chord changes as necessary.

Human Nature tutorial 3

When learning to play rock piano one of the most important skills you can acquire is learning to play all of your major triads (and later minor triads) in each of the 12 keys. The major and minor triads that can be found within a particular key are referred to as the “diatonic” triads. This is a term that you may have heard before but perhaps not fully understood. In this article, we’ll do three things:

  1. make sense of the term diatonic;
  2. I’ll show you a great exercise that you can use to practice this diatonic major/minor triad concept; and,
  3. I’ll show you a couple of the most popular rock tunes of all-time that are built almost entirely on these triad exercises.

Diatonic

This term often confuses students but is actually quite easy to understand once explained. Think of any major scale (for example, D major). The notes contained in that D major scale are diatonic to D major (ie, the notes D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#). The notes not contained in the scale (ie, the notes outside of the key, meaning D#, F, G#, A#, and C) are called chromatic. That’s it. Pretty simple, right?

D major

Diatonic Chords

Diatonic chords refer to the chords which can be created within a key by following a few easy steps.

Step #1: Number each note of the scale in order.

Step #2: Stack 3rds on each note of the scale to build triads (3-note chords).

Step #3: Identify and play (and memorize) these diatonic chords.

 

Steps 1-3

Notice anything different about Steps 2 and 3 above? We switched from using regular numbers to Roman numerals when we labeled the diatonic chords. In music theory, we talk about individual notes by using regular numbers and chords by using Roman numerals. We also talk about chords by their Roman numeral name. So, if someone asks you to play a IV chord in the key of D, you would play a G major chord. (We also use upper and lower-case for major and minor, respectively).

Diatonic Chord Exercise

Here’s a great exercise that gets you playing through many (not all) of the diatonic chords in a given key. In your left hand you will simply play a descending major scale one note at a time. In your right hand you will play various inversions of the diatonic chords. Check it out!

Diatonic Chord exercise

This exercise gets you playing through many of the diatonic chords AND the various inversions of those chords. If this chord progression sounds familiar it’s because it’s the same chord progression that Billy Joel uses in his hit song “Piano Man” (although he plays it in the key of C major). This progression is also very similar to the chord progression used for the intro of Elton John’s song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” It’s an often-used progression in rock music and an excellent exercise for learning your diatonic chords and their inversions. In order to get the most bang for your buck, be sure to practice this progression in a few different keys and use your metronome!

Previously we discussed 3 tips for building rock piano chords and playing these chords in various ways. Learning all 12 major and minor triads, inversions, and being able to double certain notes are critical first steps in playing rock piano chords. But once you've got that down, check out three more tips we have in store for you below. This article will show you how to build dominant 7th chords, inversions, and will explain how to interpret slash chords.

Rock Piano Chords Tip #4: Build Dominant 7th Chords

Dominant 7th chords are a staple in jazz playing, but they are also very common in rock music, so you'll want to master them and add them to your rock piano chords database. Being able to build dominant 7th chords one at a time in all 12 keys is the first step, of course. So we'll again look at the formula for constructing dominant 7th chords.

The first 3 notes of a dominant 7th chord are simply a major triad.

rock piano chords 7

To that major triad we are going to add a minor 7th, and that's all there is to constructing dominant 7th chords.

rock piano chords 8

Rock Piano Chords Tip #5: Dominant 7th Chord Inversions

Once you've learned all of the dominant 7th chords in root position you should then begin practicing the dominant 7th chords in the various inversions. As we've already seen with major and minor triads, we can play chord in root position, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion. But because dominant 7th chords have four notes in the chord (root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th) there is another inversion that you should be sure to practice - a 3rd inversion that has the 7th as the lowest note in the chord.

rock piano chords 9

Rock Piano Chords Tip #6: Slash Chords

Slash chords are commonly encountered in playing and reading rock music. Many students are a bit confused when it comes to playing slash chords but it's actually quite easy. Slash chords are sort of like music fractions - we have a top number (chord to the left of the slash) and bottom number (note to the right of the slash).

The first few measures of Billie Joel's "Piano Man" are filled with slash chords.

rock piano chords 10

So what's really going on in these slash chords? How do we interpret them correctly?

The chord is broken up into 2 parts: the chord to the left of the slash, and the note to the right of the slash. The chord to the left of the slash is the chord that you will play with your right hand. The note to the right of the slash is the note that you will play in the bass with your left hand. So a slash chord, such as the one in measure 2 above, says "play a G major triad but instead of a 'G' in the bass, play a 'B' in the bass." If you play in a band, this information is helpful to the bass player as well, as he or she would play the note to the right of the slash as opposed to the root of the chord.

In this article we're going to be discussing some tips for playing rock piano chords, an essential skill that is needed for all rock pianists. Knowing your rock piano chords helps you to quickly learn songs, transpose songs to new keys, write your own tunes, and find different "spellings" for the same chord. I'll show you a few important tips for learning to play some essential rock piano chords in all 12 keys, and be sure to check out the full video lesson on rock piano chords, too!

Rock Piano Chords Tip #1: Build Major and Minor Triads

Have you ever heard people talk about how math and music are related? Well, whether you believe that or not there are a few "formulas" in music that are comparable to math. Here, I'll show you a formula that will help you build a major and minor triad in any key - absolutely essential stuff as this is the bread-and-butter of rock piano chords.

In order to build a major triad, we need to find the first 5 notes of a major scale. Below are the first 5 notes of a C major scale.

Rock piano chords

Now let's look at the "formula" for building the first 5 notes of a major scale. We call these notes scale degrees. The 1st scale degree is also called the root. In order to move from the root to the 2nd scale degree (C to D) we move up a whole-step. From the 2nd to 3rd, another whole-step. From the 3rd to 4th, a half-step. And from the 4th to 5th, a whole-step.

rock piano chords 2

In order to build a major triad, simply play the root, 3rd, and 5th all at the same time.

rock piano chords 3

And in order to turn this major triad into a minor triad, simply lower the 3rd degree a half-step.

rock piano chords 4

 

Want to learn Rock Piano? Get started with my Rock Piano Chords lesson, absolutely FREE. Get started today and learn how to play any rock chord at the piano!

Rock Piano Chords Tip #2: Learn the Inversions

Using the above formula you'll be able to build all 12 major and minor triads. But there are other ways to play these chords. When the 1st scale degree (the root) is the lowest note in the chord, it is said that the chord is in root position. But what if we changed the order of these notes? Instead of the root being the lowest note, we could move the root up an octave so that the 3rd is the lowest note. This is called 1st inversion. And we could then move the 3rd up an octave so that the 5th is the lowest note. This is called 2nd inversions.

rock piano chords 5

Rock Piano Chords Tip #3: Adding a 4th Note

This tip will teach you an easy way to beef up the sound of your chords. We're going to add a 4th note to our triads by doubling the lowest note of the triad up the octave. For example, if we take our C major triad in root position (in which the 'C' is the lowest note) and double that 'C' an octave higher, we get the following chord:

rock piano chords 6

We can double the lowest note an octave higher on all of our chords, and doing so will result in denser, bigger-sounding rock piano chords.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Part 1 of our article "Gig Tips for Pianists" we discussed some very important aspects of gigging, including where to find gigs, selecting repertoire, and general etiquette pointers. Here we'll discuss some more gig tips that cover a range of topics.

Gig Tips #4: Gear

Gear - meaning keyboards, synths, controllers, amps, all that fun stuff - is a constant temptation for musicians. Everyone wants to have the most awesome-sounding (and looking) gear. The pursuit of such toys will usually result in a hefty price tag and a good amount of distraction. Here’s my 2 cents: better gear won't make you sound any better. Only practice and performance experience will do that. It might make you look cooler, and it might be more fun to spend time learning all the bells and whistles of a new toy, but it will never make you a better player. If you can afford great gear then by all means go get it. But great players can make mediocre keyboards sound amazing.

Gig Tips #5: Should I Play Free Gigs?

This is a constant argument among musicians, especially college players who are getting some of their first tastes of what it means to be a professional musician. One side suggests that playing gigs for free takes money out of musicians' pockets because people won't pay when they can find musicians for free. The other side argues that free gigs are more about getting experience, exposure, and marketing yourself. I think the latter is the better argument. Musicians need to start somewhere and often these free gigs are excellent venues for getting your feet wet and learning what it means to play in public, build a 1-2 hour set of repertoire, and perhaps work with other players. In reality there will always be free gigs, so view them as an opportunity, not an obstacle, to further hone your skills and build your network.

Gig Tips #6: Practice Time

Practice time is a valuable commodity and an essential part of music performance and composition. There is really no way around the fact that practice makes perfect. Like many adults I have a wife, kids, a home, bills, a job, and a mass of miscellaneous “to-do” items on a daily basis. But just like going to the gym, practice time is more about getting to the piano than hoping to find a 2-hour block of free time. So rather than try to fit in 1-2 hours per day of practice and feel bad about myself when I inevitably fall short, I find 20 minute chunks a couple or three times throughout my day. And I’ve become incredibly efficient with my practice. I practice rhythmic and ear-training games in the car. I listen to music throughout the day and practice active listening and transcription by ear. And when I get to the piano I get right down to business, not wasting time playing for my own listening pleasure but working on whatever my current project or goal might be. A little tip: Always try to get up from the piano a more improved player than when you sat down, no matter how slight the improvement.

We’d love to hear your thoughts so please use the comments section below to chime in, or suggest your own gig tips!

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This article is going to focus on a variety of gig tips for musicians, but primarily pianists. Over the years I've gotten many different questions from students and advancing musicians about gigging, being a professional musician, music business, and the ins-and-outs of finding work and performing. I'll attempt to answer some of those questions here. Feel free to ask about anything you don't see here in the comments section below. And also check out Part 2 of this article for even more gig tips.

Gig Tips #1: Repertoire

This tip is for all musicians but primarily for pianists, because pianists often find themselves performing in a solo, cocktail-style context. In this setting, be sure to have a list of songs ready that people will recognize. The occasional obscure tune is cool, but they should be sprinkled in with more familiar tunes. Remember that your performance is your calling card and regardless of the caliber of your playing, people generally like to hear songs they know. This usually entails a fair amount of ballads, jazz standards, show tunes, and pop tunes (think Beatles, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder). A (very) quick short list of cocktail piano "must-haves" includes the following:

  1. Body and Soul
  2. The Days of Wine and Roses
  3. Summertime
  4. Georgia on My Mind
  5. My Romance

Gig Tips #2: Where to Find Gigs

Piano gigs can be found in lots of places - retirement homes, senior centers, museums, colleges, weddings, churches, coffee houses (do they still have those?), private parties, banquets, bars, jam sessions, and restaurants. The idea here is to be open-minded. People need music for all sorts of occasions. And once you get a gig in any of these places, realize that it is highly likely that your presentation there will lead to your next gig. That's because finding gigs is all about networking and making a good impression. Networking and being personable is as important as being a good player. The hard part is finding that first gig. Remember "the three 'P's" - be persistent, professional, and prepared. Scope the scene at the venues listed above regularly and repeatedly to find your opportunity in, and approach whoever is in charge with a professional, courteous demeanor. When you get your chance to play be sure you're ready. Practice, practice, practice!

Gig Tips #3: Gig Etiquette

This goes hand in hand with tip #2. A huge part of gigging actually has nothing to do with being a great player. Seriously. Being a great player is always important of course, but sometimes a bigger part of getting and keeping the gig is being professional. This means a few very specific things that will ensure you make a good impression and help secure future gigs:

  1. Be punctual. Never show up late for a gig. Tardiness is one of the quickest ways to lose a gig. Event planners hate it and always notice it.
  2. Communicate clearly, effectively, and promptly. If the person paying you emails you a question about the gig, respond directly and as quickly as possible. Conduct yourself as a business owner, remembering that the customer is always right.
  3. Dress like a pro. If you don't know what to wear, ask. Better to be over-dressed than under-dressed for a gig.
  4. When on the gig be super-personable, charming, and courteous, regardless of whether you like the gig (or the players) or not. Sometimes the worst gigs (and players) can be your connection into a great gig (with great players).

In Part 2 of this article we'll talk about gig tips involving gear, pay, and practice time.