Walking bass notes can be a fun way to accompany playing chords with your right hand. The usual way to do this is simply to walk the low piano notes up and down the scale of the chords of your right hand. This can work particularly well on blues songs, which is perhaps no surprise. However this method of playing piano usually works well while playing on your own. When playing with a band it is often a good idea to stay away from bass lines on the piano and let the bass player handle them. Because they are in the same range, the piano bass notes tend to clash the the bass guitar notes. It’s often better to vamp on mi-range chords and play fills as the music calls for it with your right hand.

The exception to this is when you are playing a solo. During a solo, you can go crazy with both hands. The rest of the time you are one player in the band. The overall goal is to compliment the unit as a whole which can be an amazing experience when it happens. You may find that playing with a band can be an intensely frustrating experience as well and you do not want to be the source of the frustration!

So bear this tip from the experts and let the bass player handle the bass lines when you are on stage.

Another issue that affects onstage musicians is the matter of sound monitors. These are an amplified speaker system that is usually placed at the front of the stage in the direction of the band. Instruments can be piped through each musician’s individual monitor speaker at whichever level they choose to help the bland stay in touch with the other members of the bend. Quite often it is just vocals that are needed to be heard, especially when a musician is on the far end of the stage from the lead singer.

While sound monitors are great in theory, when individual musicians turn up the volume level too loud, the whole thing can spiral out of control. Usually the next guy cannot hear himself, so he turns his up and the rest of the band follows suite to the dismay of the poor mixer who loses control of his ability to mix sound due to the excessive volume coming from the stage.

A band’s musical energy tends to feed the audience, which in turn feeds the band. which is why it’s important to work out your piano chords and scales and riffs in other keys using step patterns and note relationships. This also goes for getting your right hand bass notes in order so that they do not clash with the bass guitar. Doing so ahead of time makes for a more polished and successful performance.

Top players enjoy using grace note when they play music, these are “passing notes” that make the music sound more interesting.

The Blues genre, which many consider the root of Jazz and Rock, often feature the guitar to evoke emotion from the music usually by bending guitar strings in the solo.If you have ever listened to Freddy King, BB King or Albert King, you will understand what I’m talking about here. Many blues influenced rock guitarists use a similar technique in their songs. The same effect can be achieved in other types of instruments to, like the trumpet, saxophone and harmonica for instance. Another way of bending pitch that was used more in the eary days of Blues was the bottleneck or slide guitar, where the sound was produced by sliding a cut-off neck of a glass bottle up and down the strings.

Unfortunately bending notes on the piano is a bit trickier than any of the above-mentioned instruments. Instead of “bending” notes, we must use our fingers fast. Usually how this is done is to mix in notes that are not part of a scale, to achieve the effect of “sliding” down or up the target note. Some notable musicians who utilized this style of playing were Otis Span, Oscar Peterson and Ray Charles.

To do this yourself, if say you’re playing a blues scale in the key of G, you try to “roll” the C, C#  onto D. You do this by playing these notes very quickly. You can then “roll” the D and F close together while the low G (played with the thumb) rings through. When playing down the scale you may slide from C# onto C and Bb to G.

You can, of course do the same thing in any of the other keys, G was just an example. Of course in certain keys you will not be able to do this in the way that you want to. Rather than “slide” you will have to play each instead which requires the insertion of an extra finger and does not produce the same effect. But when the key is right and you execute this technique correctly, you’ll add a certain “flair” to your music. This technique tends to work best with Blues Piano Chords and Scales, but there is no reason why you can’t do it in other scales and modes of play.

Most budding piano players, at some stage struggle with motivation when learning piano chords and scales, but at some point you might wish to have a go at playing in a band and you will quickly discover that your effort has been well worth it! Joining a band can be a cool thing, but making the transition to a band for the first time is a learning experience that you will at some point need to go through. Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind as a keyboard or piano player in a band. Not a definitive guide to be sure, but some observations from experience.

Usually it is a good idea to stay away from playing left hand bass lines on keyboard when you are working with a bass player. Sometimes however, it can work depending on the music you are performing. Early rock as well as R&B pieces can work exceptionally well in this regard.

When playing you should be conscious of laying back in the grove in time with the drummer and not “rushing” when in a supporting role. The same does not apply when soloing and an experienced drummer will hold back so as to allow your solo to have appeal. A good band should sense where the soloist is taking them and back them up and while taking the lead is a great way to express yourself, playing a supporting role can be equally as satisfying.

An experienced keyboardist once told me, if you do “rush the beat” in the role as a rhythm pianist, watch out for flying drum sticks!

A few more general observations:

Do not “overplay” when playing with other musicians in a band. You should attempt to inject subtleties into your music and allow the melody to shine through the piece. Fast complicated finger work is OK, but only when in the correct context of what you are playing, otherwise you risk capturing the attention of your audience, leaving them dazed from the onslaught of advanced technique. While it is tempting to show off your technique by playing at a million notes a minute throughout a song, it is a mistake to treat music as a race and you risk leaving your audience emotionally flat and underwhelmed.

Working with a good music teacher will help you adapt to playing in a band, as will spending time with other musicians. If you are a young player and still at school, try and take the opportunity to play in school music performances, Even if you are forced to play the kind of music you don’t like, you will learn a lot from the experience of performing with other musicians and you’ll gradually develop your own musical attitude and style as your experience and level of skill increases.

While technique is extremely helpful in broadening your knowledge of music and offering you more choices of material to play in improvisations, an essential element that cannot be simplified to music notation, chords or scales is “feel” for music. This is commonly referred to as “soul” and can be thought of as an extension of your spirit and emotions within relation to the music. While music rules are important, they should serve only to help you express yourself and in breaking music down into components that you can understand. Your personal perspective and originality is what will make you stand out as a piano player in a band.

For piano players who wish to achieve mastery, or may wish to simply become competent, knowing the important Piano Chords and Scales is a must, but also having some knowledge of important piano playing modes (based on these scales) is an important skill. In our previous articles, Part 1 and Part 2, we covered the Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes. In this article we will address the remaining important playing modes as well as cycle of fifths.

Relative Minors

All keys within an octave have their own relative minor. For instance, A minor is a relative minor of C major. To find a key’s relative minor, you can either count six notes up from the key’s root note or count down three half steps. Both methods will take you to the major’s 6th note. By playing the notes of the major starting from it’s 6th you create the Aeolian scale, or you can play a minor chord with the 6tth as the root. So while the relative minor of C major is A minor, the relative minor of G is thus E minor. You may have seen a chart that depicts each chord’s relative minor like this one:

Locrian Mode

On the final note of the major scale, the seventh note of the major, (B for C-major). By using B as the root or tonal center, you play the notes of the major an octave higher to produce the Locrian Mode of play. This mode is not commonly used for soloing, because it is “unstable”, not having a perfect fifth. It contains a diminished fifth instead making it an odd fit on top of most musical pieces.

Typically you will find yourself playing the Dorian, Aeolian and Mixolydian modes a lot when soloing and improvising.

Here is a basic reference you can use in the case of the key of C based on C-major:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C C Ionian mode
D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D D Dorian mode
E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E E Phrygian mode
F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F F Lydian mode
G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G G Mixolydian mode
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A A Aeolian mode

To become a better piano player, you can work on getting used to playing the different scales. Don’t be afraid to experiment and create new melodies with your right hand while using your left to lay down chords. It is also a good exercise to practice these to background music. No doubt it will feel a bit awkward at first. You may find that trying new things is difficult at first, especially when combining right and left hands at the same time. You may even find your hands beginning to hurt, the longer you play. Some will frown on the idea and urge you to stop when you are feeling tired in your hands, but many skilled piano players advocate plowing through your discomfort, especially when learning something that is advanced and technically demanding.

Once you’ve practiced something repeatedly, you’ll get to the stage where it seems a little easier next time you sit down to attempt it. Eventually it will become second nature to you which is what you are ultimately aiming for.

It is important for piano players who wish to get good to learn the important Piano chords and scales, and it is also extremely useful to know the different playing modes. These are useful for improvisation, most solos are played in one of several “modes”. In our last article: Piano Modes, we covered the Dorian, Aeolian and Phrygian modes. In this article, we will move onto some of the other important modes that top piano players use.

Lydian Mode

Lydian mode, like some of the other modes we mentioned in the last article follows the pattern of the major scale, but has it’s tonal center on the 4th note of the major. For the C-major scale, the Lydian mode then starts on note “F” and follows the C-major notes up to “F” in the next octave (this also applies to any other key of course). Lydian mode is a major scale as it features a major third.

Mixolydian Mode

Likewise, Mixolydian mode begins on the fifth note of the major scale and follows the major scale notes an octave higher. Using C-major, Mixolydian starts on note “G”, which is it’s root note and tonal center. Mixolydian Mode is another major scale as it features a major third. The Mixolydian scale is thus: G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G and is actually a popular scale used to solo with.

Aeolian Mode

Stepping up to the sixth note of the major scale, Aeolian mode begins on the 6th note (which is “A” for C-Major and one note up from “G” of Mixolydian mode). This scale is the natural minor that was mentioned in the previous article. Like many of the other modes it uses the same notes that are found on the major scale from which it is derived. Because it is a natural minor you could play this over a minor chord of it’s tonal center (Am in the example above) and it will sound good. An interesting variation is to play the octave down with your thumb and form an Am7.

So you see, although there is a lot to take in, learning the different playing modes on piano is not that difficult. Most as you have seen can be derived from the steps of it’s relative major scale pattern. We are not done yet, however, in the next post I will discuss relative minors, cycle of fifths and the Locrian Mode of playing. Stay tuned…

It would be negligent of us to leave out the blues scale. This is because this scale is widely used in the rock genre for solos, but it is much more versatile than this, being used prominently in Country, Jazz and of course Blues music. Chances are when you listen to a guitar solo, the guitarist is playing blues licks and piano players can use the same progression in their solos.

The step for a blues scale is:

W+H, W, H, H, W+H, W

Where W = whole step and H = half step.

Thus in the key of C, the notes are: C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C.

This is also a great scale for practicing your fingering. You would typically place your thumb on C, 2nd finger on Eb, 3rd on F, 4th on F# and then roll your 1st finger (thumb) underneath your 4th which serves as an anchor to play G and then Bb with your 2nd and so on if you wish to keep playing up the keyboard. To go down the keyboard, play Bb with your 2nd, G with your thumb which serves as an anchor in this direction, then play F# with your 2nd finger, thumb on F, 2nd finger on Eb and thumb on C.

This is not the only way you do blues scale fingering, but it is one way to works for some.

You do not need to play in a blues band to benefit from playing blues piano chords and scales. There are scores of songs that have a bluesy sound and feel to them. It is worth practicing this scale in every key – for each key, you simply follow the pattern described above, but it might take some practice to get the pattern perfect in certain keys. Perhaps the best way to practice your blues scales is to find a bluesy track to serve as backing music and then practice your scales to the music. You could even write and record your own chord progression to practice with, in fact it would be a great exercise to practice both your chords and improvisation in one go.

Older styles of music utilize blues progressions and scales more so than music does today. There are plenty of 50’s,60’s,70’s and even 80’s music that are influence by bluesy music, scales and chords, or you can go back directly to the roots and seek out blues music itself to play or improvise against. The blues is a lot of fun and sounds good too! Finding a good blues pianist who plays solos and improvises a lot is an excellent way to discover the limits to which the piano can be stretched in this genre.

 

The concept of modes simply boils down to the step pattern intervals between notes. Whether notes are black or whit is irrelevant, it’s the interval between them that matters. When a musician improvises in a solo, he will usually play notes within a musical scale. Most of these scales have special names. Being familiar with common scales is useful as you extend your knowledge of piano chords and scales.

Some of the names of modes include:

  1. Aeolian
  2. Locrian
  3. Lydian
  4. Ionian
  5. Dorian
  6. Mixolydian
  7. Phrygian
  8. Pentatonic

Each will provide their own unique color to a piece of music. The most natural mode to most players, due to the fact that it’s notes are those of any standard major scale is the Ionian Mode. (C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C – in the key of C).

Dorian mode is easy to memories as it simply starts on the second note of a major scale and goes up in sequence. (D,E,F,G,A,B,C,D – in the key of D).

The Dorian mode step pattern is thus W-H-W-W-W-H-W.

When playing in the C-scale, by starting on D and playing up the C scale to the next D note an octave higher you’ve just played the D minor Dorian scale. This is quite useful, given that by knowing a C-major scale, you also know everything you need to know about playing Dorian scales, you just need to remember that the second note is the tonal center.The natural minor scale is the Aeolian scale and is different from the Dorian minor scale by one note, a flat sixth is played, but this subtle change can result in a different feel when played in music. In summary, the important notes of Dorian mode are the tonal center note which is the root and creates it’s minor characteristics and it’s major sixth which differentiates the Dorian scale from the natural minor or Aeolian mode of play.

If you were to make your way up to the third note of the C-Major scale to “E” and make this the new tonal center, you form another scale in which you can solo with. This is Phrygian mode, which is often used in Flamenco music. You simply play the C-Major notes (or whatever major key) starting from “E” instead of “C”, so you see by simply learning the notes of major scales you already have the knowledge you need to play in three modes for soloing.

While the scale has a “minor” sound to it, it sounds “weaker” against an Em chord, but much stronger against E-Major. Phrygian mode works well against an E-major and F-major sequence.

An important component of becoming an expert piano player is memorizing piano chords and scales. Learning to play in different piano modes is also important, especially if you wish to become a professional musician or play a role in a band that requires a lot of improvisation. In this article we will discuss minor pentatonic scales. To review other piano modes, refer to our previous articles Piano Modes Part 1, Piano Modes Part 2 and Piano Modes Part 3.

Pentatonic scales are slightly different than the scales we addressed in other articles. Instead of possessing seven notes, they are made up of only five (hence the “pent). The pentatonic scale is made up of five notes all within the same octave. It is believed the pentatonic scales dates back to ancient times. Claude Debussy and other composers have used pentatonic scales to great effect in their music.

Minor Pentatonic Scales

Minor pentatonic scales follow the step pattern as follows:

W+H-W-W-W+H-W (where W = whole step, H = half step)

So for example the C minor pentatonic scale is: C, D#, F, G, A#, C.

The same step pattern relationship applies in all twelve keys.

Major Pentatonic Scales

This is in contrast to the major pentatonic scale, which follows the pattern:

W-W-W+H-W-W+H

Experimenting with both the major and minor pentatonic scales opens up a whole new world of soloing possibilities. There are also more chord choices which you can make up by adding one ore more notes to a standard pentatonic scale. These scales are used quite a lot in rock music, pop music and many other styles and are a first step to playing blues scales. You will find they sound much more “edgy” than major or minor scales when played over a “rocky” chord progression. This has made the pentatonic scales among the most popular to play on guitar in rock music, but they also translate well to the piano. If you plan to join a rock or pop music band, knowledge of the pentatonic scales will not be wasted.

A common question new piano students ask is what should their practice sessions focus on? They are not sure whether they should spend their time practicing piano chords and scales, or something else altogether. Most students simply wish to know how best to utilize their time spent learning how to play and in learning music theory in general.

The answer is, it depend on what your ultimate goal is. Chords and scales are undoubtedly a very important component of mastering piano. Learning scales will help you improve your finger dexterity. They will help you familiarize yourself with the keys of the instrument. Piano scales are also ingrained in music theory. When you know which key you are in, if you know your scales, your fingers will automatically “know” the configuration of they keys that need to be played without you having to consciously think about it.

You should certainly learn your scales, but don’t become too obsessed over time. They should not be your end goal, unless you wish to become a hard core theorist. Usually it is productive to practice piano scales when you “warm up” at the beginning of a session. Play them once or twice and them move onto something different. In time you’ll improve and scales will become second nature. You’ll be able to play them accurately and without thinking too hard about playing them.

When you’re first learning your scales it is wise to learn them slowly. This way the “muscle memory” of your body learns the mechanics of playing them and in time the pattern will become intuitive.

Another useful skill of a master pianists is to develop your ear’s ability to recognize the intervals between notes. This too will come with practice.

It all comes down to what your goal is as a piano player. To answer the question of what you should practice, you need to first ask yourself why you are learning piano? What’s your end goal? Is it to have to ability to play sheet music on sight. Do you wish to compose and improvise in scales? There are two types of general pianists. Those who play by ear and can improvise well and those who can sight read sheet music extremely well (play by sight).

Very rarely will you find a piano player with the ability to do both well, but they are out there! As you progress it may pay dividends to figure out with type of piano player you belong to and cater your practice along those lines.

Also do not forget that playing piano is not simply about hitting the right notes. Piano playing is about playing with the right expression with the music. Playing music is about expressing emotion as much as it is about scales and chords. You may be the most technically competent player in the world, but if you can’t play with “feeling”, you’ll sound hollow and repetitive.

piano scalesThe things you most need to practice when learning how to play piano are piano chords and scales. Unfortunately, the thought of practicing chords and scales on piano does not usually inspire dizzying heights in motivation. Learning scales and chords, particularly scales is boring and considered more of a burden by budding pianists. Well I hate to say it, but if you want to get good at playing piano, you need to practice scales and chords. You need to practice them over and over until they’re as natural as breathing! Harsh words, but never hath a more true sentence been spoken!

Despite the obvious drudgery and tedium, it will be crucial to developing your own personal technique and way of playing the piano in the long run. Knowing the major scales and understanding how they relate to tunes and melody is the cornerstone of getting to know the rest of your instrument as well as playing well and knowing how to make music sound interesting.

Notes in a scales tend to be played in order, either going up or down in pitch. Most piano scales are eight notes long, with the first and last notes being of the same pitch an octave apart. The beginning of a piano scale is known as the “root note”, the root being the key of the scale and could be any of the twelve keys in an octave. Chordal and tonal relationships apply to each and every key you may wish to play in. While all keys may have their own unique mood, very often you will be required to transpose a song from one key to a more desired key so that the music that you play is aligned with the key that other band members are playing to, or to suit a signer’s vocal range. Knowing how to change key is a crucial skill as a top musician.

Scales are made up of a sequence of full steps and half steps. While some white keys are right next to one another, others are broken up by a black key. When two white keys are adjacent, the interval between them is a half step. Two whites separated by a black is a whole step. Two halves equals one whole, step-wise.

In any major scale (also called an Ionian scale), the pattern relationships is:

W, W, H, W, W, W, H

Where W = whole step, H = half step

By applying this pattern you will be able to figure out the major scale of any key you wish. In C-Major it is relatively straight forward to play the C-Major scale on the keyboard as this scale features only the white keys, but it can be derived from this pattern as follows:

  • C to D (whole step)
  • D to E (whole step)
  • E to F (half step)
  • F to G (whole step)
  • G to A (wholestep)
  • A to B (whole step)
  • B to C (half step)

But not matter which of the twelve keys you work in, there is no bearing on which notes happen to be black or white, what matters is the step distance between keys, C-Major just happens to be all white.

There are many more scales in addition to C-Major, our aim here is simply to demonstrate to you what a scale actually is. For a more thorough account of this topic, visit our page on piano chords and scales, which addresses all of the major scales in turn.