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