Rock and roll piano
January 30, 2010 4:23 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to play the piano like Nicky Hopkins and Richard Manuel?

I'm a fairly accomplished amateur classical pianist; I've played for most of my life. I can read music, I have a bit of theory under my belt, and I enjoy and am good at playing Chopin, Bach, Mendelssohn -- traditional classical romantic stuff. At this point, I'm self-directed (I don't take lessons, and can't really afford to, but I will if necessary) although I studied seriously for about 15 years. I am coming off of a piano hiatus, but it's like riding a bike. I remember pretty much everything, and my hands are fine on the keys (and hey, I can still read music, even though it took me a very long time to learn). I know that I need to practice, practice, practice, and I like doing that, so that's not a problem.

I want to learn how to rock on the piano. I think that I have the theory and the musical skills, but I have no idea how to develop them. Do I want to learn more traditional jazz stuff and then branch out from there? What's the best route for me to take? Should I get a teacher, and if so, what do I look for in a teacher that will be willing to go the "rock route"? I have never played anything that isn't firmly classical -- the most adventurous pieces I've ever played were in twelve-tone. I listen to rock music with pianos accompaniments, and can sort of hear what's going on, but I don't know how the musicians make it happen.

I understand that my question is similar to this one asked in 2008, but I don't mind using books to get a handle on this.
posted by k8lin to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think that I have the theory and the musical skills
but I don't mind using books to get a handle on this.

I'm the opposite of you. I have absolutely no theory or training (couldn't even tell you what note the first key on a piano is). Yet, in my distant past, I managed to fake it on keyboards more than once in a rock context, and got called back for encores.

My "secret" was purely one of listening (ie: hitting a key and if didn't sound WRONG, hitting it again) and feel (ie: focusing on the overall DRIVE of what everybody else was doing, playing the keyboard as pretty much a tuned percussion instrument).

Eventually, a guitar player who liked working with me, got some little color-dots and color-coded my keyboard me. If a piece needed more BLUE, he'd shout "blue" ... and so on.

Key point: I didn't learn this from a book, I just did it.
posted by philip-random at 4:41 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You need to learn to read chords. With your background it shouldn't be that hard. Then you need to get on the piano, be willing to noodle around and try to play by ear what you hear them do. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. One tip is to when you go from one chord to another (example C to G) do so using the chord position quickest to get to (in other words, a C chord has three ways it can be played-first, second and third-so to get from a C in first position to a G you would go from C-E-G to B-D-G instead of going to G-B-D.)

I assume in your training you have enough theory to know chords but just in case you can probably find a book at the music store which will list all the chords with notation. I got a simple booklet for a dollar which also gave you the basic chords for any key.

Classical is a totally different thing from this-if you do decide you need help, don't laugh, but go find a church keyboardist who plays for contemporary Christian worship. They will either point you to someone or be able to help you themselves. But seriously, if you have a good ear and aren't afraid to try, you will probably be able to get pretty far by yourself.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:44 PM on January 30, 2010

My "secret" was purely one of listening (ie: hitting a key and if didn't sound WRONG, hitting it again) and feel (ie: focusing on the overall DRIVE of what everybody else was doing, playing the keyboard as pretty much a tuned percussion instrument)

He's totally right about this, btw. But as someone with some (well, little) classical training and a couple of theory courses, it does help. At least I know why some things work and others don't!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:45 PM on January 30, 2010

If you know theory, you are in wicked good shape. To start, try looking up a simple rock song you like, with a simple beat and chord progression, like, say I Love Rock n Roll by Joan Jett. Try listening to it and maybe sing some little call and response melodies along while you are listening.

Now, look up the chords online. If you need something to read along with, buy the sheet music, but only pay attention to the chords at the top, not the actual notes. Get the song up on your laptop or cd player or ipod or whatever, and just play the chords along, the entire time, on the ones, ala crocodile rock. Once you get comfy with that, start feeling the groove, only play where you feel it. After a while, as you get comfy, use your theory to fill in those little melodies you had come up with while you were singing along. Have fun with it! Voila! You are rocking out!
posted by pazazygeek at 6:09 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh! Try getting a rock song fakebook at the music store. Also, practice playing chords quickly and percussively to a metronome. Playing loud, clean and in time is the true measure of a rock musician with chops.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:12 PM on January 30, 2010

There are plenty of books for this. Here are a few off my shelf: Improvising Rock Piano by Jeffrey Gutcheon, Technique and Theory for Pop Keyboard Players by Preston Keys (really!), Rock Keyboard Styles by Larry Muhoberac. You can likely interlibrary loan a bunch of them and see what you like best. A lot of rock piano is based on standard licks and this kind of book has them written out, perfect for someone who already reads music.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:17 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

consider taking your favorite solo (say, joe cocker's feelin alright), load it into audacity (free) or audition, use the change tempo feature to slow it down to human speed, and play along.

i think the masters have given us their lessons, not in book form, but right there in the music.

listening, hearing is probably 90% of the battle, imho.
posted by kimyo at 8:37 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I good starting place would be Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits. Johnny Johnson, Chuck's piano player, wrote the book on R&R piano.
posted by wsg at 11:57 PM on January 30, 2010

imho in rock it's a lot about the beat. The groove or way you swing it (as they would say in jazz) - microtiming. Also a different energy. I think that if learning rock, as opposed to classical (but similar to jazz), the recording should be your "sheet music". What I'm saying is that I'm n-thing the people who said to play along (slowing it down as well - I am currently trying this gadget which can do it in portable form).
posted by yoHighness at 4:40 AM on January 31, 2010

I'll second Improvising Rock Piano by Jeffrey Gutcheon, originally published in 1978. It's out of print, but it shouldn't be too difficult to find used or via interlibrary loan. You're not going to learn specific songs from it as much as the playing styles and mannerisms of influential rock pianists like Johnny Johnson, Allen Toussaint, Carol King, Leon Russell, and Elton John. It fully acknowledges rock's rhythmic origins in blues and gospel music, and so you get a ground-up understanding instead of memorizing a few chord progressions. And it totally turned me on to New Orleans R&B, which I think an ear for is important when listening especially to likewise-appreciative Brit rockers like Nicky Hopkins.

But if you're coming from the classical angle, please note that rock (and jazz) is mostly a social music. You get a lot more out of practicing for an hour with other musicians than you do practicing several hours by yourself. I highly recommend finding a few non-committed musicians of the same level and just jamming. Also, it wouldn't hurt to learn a little drumming, for left hand strength and a feel for syncopation and backbeat - especially considering both instruments are played with downward motions.
posted by marco_nj at 7:02 AM on January 31, 2010

I taught myself to play drums and guitar, and how to sing -- well enough to be in gigging bands for many years. As far as keyboards go, I'd love to learn but only play some accordian so that's not much help. However, at some point I'll apply myself and when I do I'll be listening to the phrasing of the pianists I admire, like those you mention in your question. I also like Gary Brooker from Procol Harum, and Harry Nilsson and Billy Joel, as well as any number of other people. So I'll immerse myself in those folks.

I also strongly agree with what marco_nj says: you gotta get out there and jam. Remember that the piano is part of the rhythm section, too, as he suggests, so don't ignore that left hand. Get into boogie-woogie and stride. Professor Longhair. Therein lies the truth.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:32 AM on January 31, 2010

As someone who started out playing classical music for many years, then switched completely to jazz and rock, I strongly advise against learning from books. The hardest thing you'll need to learn is branching out from pre-prepared, written material, and you'll also need to work on your ear. You can't learn these things from books.

Working on your ear is simple: transcribe. You should do this more than anything else when you practice. Start with something simple, say, the rhythm part on a Booker T song, and then eventually move on to transcribing solos. It also helps to play things that you've transcribed in all twelve keys, to really understand what's going on at a level that's not tied to a particular set of chords.

To learn to improvise, you just need to play along to recordings and play whatever sounds good to you. Take ideas you learned from recordings when working on your ear and try to adapt them to your own style.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:15 AM on January 31, 2010

These are all great suggestions! Thanks!

It is probably too late for a follow-up question, but how do I physically hear the pianists in some of these songs? When I listen to them, even really loud on my headphones, they're all obscured by the singing and drumming and electric guitars and all that other noise. Is there a good way to sort of isolate the sounds? I can do it with my ear somewhat, but not well enough to really know what actual chords they are playing. Do I need to focus on songs that have piano solos at this stage?

I have a good ear and learned how to play by ear first, and then switched over to reading music later (which was very difficult for me). So developing my ear at this stage in the game isn't too necessary; what I need to develop is my ear for hearing piano in a rock song.

I'd love for this to be a social thing (yeah, rock is definitely social music) and I like those suggestions. But I do not want to go into something without any idea at all of how to play a certain way, and I currently know no one who would want to noodle around playing music with me for hours until I sort of figure out what is going on. I am also very shy and want to have some rock under my belt before I ask someone to collaborate with me.

I particularly liked the comment that a musician with chops can play loud, clean, and in time. I feel like I have a bit of a way to go before I can play clean, so I don't want to bore the death out of any possible collaborators with my fumbling at this stage.
posted by k8lin at 9:44 PM on January 31, 2010

I think a really good place to start is to learn that 50s rock piano (earlier I mentioned the song Crocodile Rock -- it's a great example of how the piano works both percussively, rhythmically and melodically.

I would suggest listening to a lot of Elton John and also some of the old greats -- particularly Jerry Lee Lewis. So then I was looking around on youtube and I found this guy, who has some AWESOME lessons:

How to play Great Balls of Fire
How to play You Shook Me All Night Long

What's awesome is that he shows you that most of these songs are just playing the actual root chord at each change, and then filling in notes in between.

Good luck! When you get better, post some stuff to the music site!
posted by pazazygeek at 7:11 AM on February 1, 2010

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