Is there an equivalent to a Travis Pick for piano players?
March 6, 2014 6:10 AM   Subscribe

I decided to learn how to play the piano this year, but I don't have the money or time to take lessons. I try to practice (scales, mostly) about 15 min/day. I'm now familiar with most of the major and minor scales, and I bought a poster that shows all of the most common piano chords and that helps a lot. I've been musical all my life, but only read music at the kindergarten level (or musical equivalent). I've written many songs over the past 20 years, and I now have the skills to put chords to them, YAY!!! However, I have no sense of Rhythm or style when it comes to playing piano. With guitar, there are certain types of strumming patterns and picking styles like the Travis pick which you can just repeat as you move through the chord progressions, and it makes for a pretty decent accompaniment to lots of folk and singer/songwriter style music. Is there a parallel with the piano? Are there certain patterns that one can learn to fill in the space between chords? Am I even describing this coherently?
posted by JanewayJunior to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a really lousy pianist. Awful. But I can accompany myself singing, to an extent. It's the basic rock-piano formula: you bang out octaves on the left hand and fill in the rhythm with chords and arpeggios on the right hand. Sort of treating the piano like a drum kit: kick and cymbals on the left, snare on the right.

For the most basic mid-tempo rock pattern, you can try playing straight quarter note chords in the right hand along with root octaves in the left hand on 1, 2&, and 3. That'll set up the basic backbeat with a little extra drive into the 3 to move it along.
L: O     o O
R: C   C   C   C
   1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
At a faster tempo, you might want to play straight eighths on the left hand, accented to drive the beat, while fiddling triads and doublestops in the right hand on the backbeat.
L: O o O o O o O o
R:     C    c C  C
   1 & 2 & 3e&a4 &
Like I said ... I'm lousy. But this gets the job done for hack-it-out rock accompaniment. (You can actually hear a little of this rough style of piano on one of the tracks I posted to MeFiMu a while back [NSFW lyrics]).
posted by uncleozzy at 6:53 AM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, and hopefully someone more knowledgeable than me can point you to some resources, which will probably explain it better than my attempt below. It's really basic, apologies in advance if it's too basic for you.

I think you can play roughly the equivalent of how you would strum/pick on guitar. At the most basic level just hit the root (bottom) note of the chord with your left hand, and the full chord with your right, on each beat. This would be like just hitting down strums on the beat. Playing the chord again on the half beat as well is like doing an up strum as well. Speed it up and play eighth notes like what uncleozzy said.

You can also do an alternating bass - on the first beat, hit the root note of the chord with your left hand, play the chord with your right hand on the half beat. Then on the second beat, play the fifth with your left hand (eg, if you're playing a C chord, you played a C, now play a G in your left hand. It'll sound better if you play the G lower than the C) and hit the chord again on the half. Third beat - back to the root or, if the chord changes on this beat - play the root or 5th of the new chord, whichever has you playing a different note. This works for folk and country songs. Try it with Blowin in the Wind or Shelter from the Storm.

For a different feel again - in your right hand, play the highest 2 notes of the chord (in whichever inversion you happen to be playing) on the beat, and the lowest note of the chord on the half beat. Like the feel of Imagine. This is simple and effective for most slow pop songs.

So then to create a feel more like picking, play the bass note in the left hand and arpeggiate the chord with your right - like Unchained Melody. You can play the notes of the chord in any order and it will (mostly) still work, and be more interesting. However you'd pick it on guitar you can play on the piano.

BTW I would really recommend that you learn the chords as well as their inversions if you haven't already. Sometimes certain chord voicings will sound better than others - and be easier to play! For instance if you're going from a C to a G, it is easier to play C as C-E-G (C being the lowest note) and then the G as B-D-G than to shift your whole hand up to play G-B-D.
posted by pianissimo at 7:35 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Piano teacher here who teaches standard stuffy classical music as well as students like you.

Here is your free, simple lesson:

Listen, listen, LISTEN to a lot of piano heavy music. Based on the background you provided, that is going to be the most effective way for you to learn what you are trying to do.

Notice in both recordings that 1) Typically the LH plays root note octaves (with some movement sometimes between chord roots), and 2) The RH chords move as little as possible, so learn the inversions of your chords.
posted by TinWhistle at 8:45 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

This definitely exists.. .there is a seemingly infinite array of piano instructional material.

I remember having a cheesy book back in the 1990s which explained how to do it for various styles. Like "Stevie Wonder riffs" , "van Halen", "Boyz II Men" , "Devo" etc.

I wish I could be more specific but I believe the best place to start with this is the materials put out by the Berklee School of music. I think their entire method is geared towards popular music improvisation. Try these out:

this youtube video will give you an idea of what to expect. If you look for more videos from Dave Limina , he covers a few other styles, but same sort of pop-blues-improv.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:47 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just got myself a copy of EZKeys. You can drag/punch in whatever keys you want, and then have the software play those chords in any style you can imagine. It's great for hashing out ideas, and playing along to.
posted by monospace at 7:02 PM on March 6, 2014

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