How to play Rock & Roll piano


13 June 2022
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By John Geraghty
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Songwriter, pianist and music producer John Geraghty presents Part 2 of his brand new series. In this lesson, he takes a look at the legends of the Rock & Roll era, and gives a step-by-step guide on how to play their biggest hits on the piano.

 

This series will cover many piano genres including Contemporary Classical, Blues, Country, Latin, Rock & Roll, New Orleans, Jazz, Pop, Funk, Boogie Woogie, Ragtime, Rock, Gospel and Ballad style. Each article will demonstrate plenty of playing techniques and tips to help broaden your musical knowledge and repertoire of different genres.

 

Where did Rock & Roll originate from?

Rock & Roll first came to prominence back in the late 1940s to early 1950s, with DJ Alan Freed using the phrase ‘Rock & Roll’ to describe up-tempo rhythm and blues records he played on his Moon Dog House Rock and Roll Party radio show in Cleveland, Ohio. USA.

The typical set-up for a Rock & Roll band at that time would have been drums, upright bass and either piano or guitar as a featured instrument along with a lead vocal. Famous Rock & Roll artists include Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.

 

Let's start by learning some left hand bass lines

The following bass lines typically follow a 12-bar blues chord progression, which goes a little something like this:

C-C-C-C-F-F-CC-G-F-C-C. 

Let's take a closer look at the playing style of some of the biggest names in Rock & Roll.

 

The Jerry Lee Lewis style

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in 1935 in Louisiana, USA. He started to play piano aged nine, and a year later his parents mortgaged their farm to buy him his own piano. His first major hit was Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On, becoming a hit on the pop, country and R&B charts. His follow-up single was Great Balls of Fire, using his ‘Killer’ stage performances, like jumping onto the piano or setting the piano on fire while playing to a frenzied audience. No other artist wanted to follow his act.

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On is played as a shuffle in 12/8 time signature.

 

Great Balls of Fire is played in straight quavers.

 

The Little Richard style

©Michael Ochs Archive

Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) was born in December 1932 in Macon, Georgia. He had a string of hits including Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, The Girl Can’t Help It and Lucille. He started his musical career singing gospel in Pentecostal churches in the deep south. He left home performing rhythm and blues in medicine shows and nightclubs, which is where he adopted the nickname Little Richard. His famous ‘vocal whoop’ was inspired after hearing Louis Jordan’s Caldonia, along with adopting his trademark pencil-thin moustache.

Tutti Frutti follows the same 12-bar blues progression as before, only this time in F major. At the end of this bassline you’ll find yourself singing “A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom!”

 

Lucille also uses the 12-bar blues chord progression in C major. Once you get the hang of it, transpose it into F and then G.

 

The Fats Domino style

Fats Domino (born Antoine Dominique Domino Jr) was born in February 1928 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Selling over 65 million records, he was one of the pioneers of Rock & Roll music, being one of the first Rock & Roll artists to sell more than 1 million copies of a song, his first single The Fat Man

Fats Domino was notably an inspiration to other Rock & Roll artists, no more than Elvis Presley who described him as ‘the real king of Rock & Roll.’ His hits include Blueberry Hill, Ain’t That A Shame and I’m Walkin’.

Blueberry Hill’s bass line is played in a 12/8 time signature. The original key is E major, though the piano is not in tune - it must be a Rock & Roll thing! Give it a go.

 

 

Right-hand playing techniques for Rock & Roll

If you have a copy of Pianist 122, take a look at my score inside – Follow The Birds – and add the right hand licks to these new basslines! If you don’t have a copy but would love to give it a go, you can get yours here.

 

Glissando

You’ll hear glissandos on Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls Of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. The glissando is played by ‘swiping’ either up or down the keys as fast as the music takes you. 

 

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Playing tips:

  • Play with your thumb at roughly a 45-degree angle when ‘swiping’ down
  • Hit the first note hard and then soften all other notes
  • Practise playing it over Jerry Lee Lewis’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On bass line

 

Repeated quaver notes

Repeated quavers can sometimes work using the same notes over all three chords, i.e., C, F and G. Try playing it over the Great Balls of Fire, Tutti Frutti and Lucille bass lines.

Try repeating the same riff over the shuffle bass line in Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Experiment going from Gb to G in different parts of the bar, like under the second bracket shown below.

 

Playing tip:

  • Play them twice as fast… if you have the stamina!

 

 

Riffs

Try out the riffs shown in the brackets below. These can be played over C bass lines. Transpose them all into the keys of F and G.

 

Playing tips:

  • Mix them up!
  • Experiment with playing them over the different bass lines shown earlier in this article, in both 4/4 and 12/8 time

 

 

How to ‘comp’ chords

When you’re not showcasing your piano solo skills, you’ll need to ‘comp’ while accompanying either a singer, other soloist or to fill in the gaps in between playing licks and riffs. 

 

Playing tips:

  • Practise each chord separately first
  • Mix and match the rhythms using on- and off-beats and syncopated rhythms inside the bar and overlapping bars

 

Here's a piano piece I’ve written in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis called Harry’s Boogie.

 

Things to remember!

 

✔ Follow the 12-bar blues chord progression

✔ Practise the bass lines first - without looking at your left hand

✔ Transpose your favourite ‘licks’ and riffs into the keys of F and G 

✔ Learn everything off by heart

 


Next up in the How to Play series, we take a closer look at Country Piano.

 

About the author

John Geraghty is a songwriter, music producer, pianist, author, teacher and entrepreneur. Although John is a classically trained pianist, his passion lies in songwriting and music producing. He has studied most genres of music including pop, jazz, gospel, country, and blues piano.

He is the author of Playing By Ear – A Songwriter's Way. His teaching method is simple and direct: "Leave out everything that is not necessary and teach the student what they really want to know.