Elton John piano comps - a tutorial/braindump

Uploaded by billhiltonbiz on 04.03.2011

I've had an email from Mitchell who says "I have a question about the song Amoreena by Elton John.
I have the chord structure, and I have no problem with that, nor with the inversions and so on.
My problem is going beyond the mere chording of the song
to add some of the runs and overall flavours that Elton puts into the tune."
Okay, that's a good question.
Before I get going giving you some sort of answer, let's sort out a couple of ground rules.
First of all, if you're watching this I'm going to assume that, like Mitchell
you're okay with the different chords and how chord progressions work
and you understand terms like 'comp' and 'cadence' and 'dominant' and 'suspended ninth' and all the rest,
because I don't want to have to spend time explaining that.
If that terminology isn't familiar to you, you'll still get something out of this video
but it might be a good idea to look back at some of my earlier videos
where I go through all the different basics of harmony.
Secondly, Mitchell is particularly interested in Amoreena,
so if you don't know that song it might be a good idea to have a quick listen.
There are several good versions on YouTube and I'll include a link to one of them.
Now, this isn't going to be a walkthrough video.
Mitchell knows, because he's seen my videos before, that I'm not in the business of doing walkthroughs.
What I'm going to do is talk a little bit about Elton John's style,
mention a few bits and pieces about the way he writes songs, which is really relevant,
so bear with me while I talk about that.
I'm also going to give you some examples of the techniques he uses, using the chord sequence,
or part of the chord sequence, of Amoreena as a starting point.
With all that in mind, let's have a look at that chord sequence of Amoreena,
or at least the chord sequence of the verse,
and think about some of the ways we can build on it to come up with a comp.
Like I said, I'm going to focus on the chord sequence of the verse.
All the chords for the song are available online - just google Amoreena and they they will be.
The song is in G. The chord sequence for the verse goes like this:
[Plays chords for verse of Amoreena]
Then that pattern just repeats for the second half of the verse.
[Plays chords for verse of Amoreena]
You'll see I was doing a very basic comp there. Just a little bit of movement
between the left and right, so if you want to start out with something really basic,
just watch again what I was doing there.
Keeping it very simple, a little bit of movement but fairly plain.
Now, to understand how Elton John approaches comping,
you need to realise that when he was a kid he had a very thorough,
traditional musical education starting at a young age.
If you watch videos of him playing, you can see that just from the way he holds his hands on the piano.
There is loads of balance and control and he is completely at ease with all the big stretches
and complicated sustains and all the rest.
So bearing that in mind, I want to think about three different strands of Elton John's music
that influence his comping style.
The first is hymns and church music.
That sounds weird, I know, but bear with me.
Then we're going to talk about the influence of the blues which is also tremendously important.
Then the influence of classical music. So church music, blues and classical music.
They all kind of feed in. He uses all three as a toolbox when he's putting together his comps.
You can hear them all in Amoreena.
So first of all, hymns. In an interview once (I'm not sure if this is online but it's out there somewhere)
he was talking about his songwriting. Elton John said "When in doubt, I write a hymn."
Okay? When in doubt, I write a hymn. You can hear that hymnal influence in loads and loads and loads of his music.
How does that come out? First of all he uses very simple chords. Very simple, strong chords:
ordinary major and minor chords, there's the odd dominant seventh, a few minor sevenths,
so there's a B minor seventh later in Amoreena.
Occasionally there's a diminished, again one of those crops up later in the chorus section of Amoreena.
What you don't hear are very deliberate, elaborate, jazzy chords.
Every now and then he'll hit something like a major seventh, but not often.
Generally everything is very simple just like it would be in a hymn.
So when you're comping an Elton John song, rule number one:
don't elaborate on the chords too much. Take the chords very much at face value.
Another very hymnal thing he does is he is very fond of suspensions.
Taking a chord like, as we see in Amoreeena, D minor and suspending the fourth.
Again, that's something you get in church music.
[Plays an exmaple of a suspension in church music]
Loads of suspensions in church music and like I say, you hear it in that second chord of the verse of Amoreena.
[Plays suspension from Amoreena]
Also think of the intro to his song 'Tiny Dancer', which is something like:
[Plays intro to Tiny Dancer]
Okay, notice that is a really characteristic Elton John sound.
So he's got the ninth, or the second, it's usually called a ninth in this context,
resolving on to the third there.
[Plays intro to Tiny Dancer]
In some versions of Tiny Dancer (I know we're getting off Amoreena, but this is good, useful stuff)
he does something like this:
[Plays variation of intro to Tiny Dancer]
He brings in the B flat, which is a fourth above F which is outside the key he is playing in
(which is C). He goes to the fourth above the fourth, if you like.
That's a really characteristic Elton John sound. You get it Candle in the Wind, in loads of his other songs.
So, key of C, subdominant, the fourth is the F and the fourth above the fourth is the B flat.
Really common.
[Plays variation of intro to Tiny Dancer]
So, suspending those fourths and those ninths wherever you come across them.
I mean, that's almost a bit of a cliche of rock piano, isn't it.
[Demostrates suspensions]
Elton John kind of pioneered that. Very characteristic Elton John sound.
Other stuff that is hymn-like: the way he harmonises a lot of his songs.
I know we're getting into his songwriting. This is really relevant.
Some of them are harmonised very much like him, so again think of Amoreena, think of the second phrase you get.
[Plays Amoreena]
E minor, G7, C.
That's really kind of hymn-like. Lovely.
So, very hymn-like harmony there, and finally it's worth mentioning that in loads of his songs,
time and time again, he uses a plagal cadence,
what's sometimes known as the church cadence, which is resolving from - if you're in the key of G - C to G.
From four to one. Instead of resolving five, one (dominant, tonic) he resolves subdominant, tonic.
That's somtimes called the Amen cadence. Very churchy, and again you get it loads in Elton John.
He does use the dominant a lot but it tends to be in funny places.
If you think about Candle in the Wind, good example, he uses it at the start of the chorus,
and the verse finishes on a B flat, but then instead of going to the tonic to start the chorus,
he goes straight to the dominant.
[Plays Candle in the Wind]
Again just filling round the chords a little bit to give a little bit of extra magic.
Thinking about Candle in the Wind, we're getting off Amoreena again, it's quite a hymnal thing to do.
Finishes the verse...
[Plays Candle in the Wind]
If you know a lot of hymns, you'll find that kind of construction very, very familiar.
Dragging it back to what we're supposed to be talking about, when you're comping Elton John songs,
try to incorporate that sense of playing something a little bit churchy.
Keep it solid, keep the chords pure, explore those suspensions.
[Plays suspensions]
Put that to one side, let's move on to the blues.
After the first verse there's a chorus of Amoreena where he changes key slightly actually.
[Plays chorus of Amoreena]
Then we come back to the verse. The second time through the verse, he starts to do something a bit bluesy.
A little bit like this, I'm not going to play it exactly because I can't quite work it out exactly,
but it's something like this:
[Plays second verse of Amoreena]
It looks complicated, isn't particularly. We're still on that chord sequence of - roughly -
G, D minor with a suspended fourth (he turns it into something very close to an F,
which it is anyway, it's really the same as an F9) to C back to G.
[Plays second verse of Amoreena]
Those are very, very standard blues licks, based on thirds.
He's going for the G7 with tremolo, the kind of bluesy sound, then he goes into these blues licks.
I've made quite a few videos about those, so check out some of my earlier videos on blues licks.
Really they're very simple, they all tend to sit on your hand quite easily.
[Demonstrates blues licks]
So again, when you're working on the comp, and we'll talk about how to drag all this together at the end,
work one or two of those in as well, one or two of these little bluesy touches.
The tricky thing you will find with those is that it takes quite a lot of mental effort to sing over the top,
so if you're playing that Elton John comp, presumably you'll want to sing
(it might be someone else singing, in which case it's not a problem)
doing that and singing at the same time is a little bit challenging.
So take it steady, it will take a lot of practice to master it.
Something else he lifts from the blues are crush notes. You hear them right in the intro to the song.
[Plays Amoreena intro]
A crush note or grace note if you want to use the classical term,
is just moving from one note very quickly to the one usually a semi-tone above it (a half step above it).
If you're going black to white, if you're playing this kind of music
(jazz or blues) you would usually do it with a single finger.
I've got a video on crush notes back in my timeline somewhere.
There's one point where's there's a really lovely bit.
Again it's in that very hymny bit where a couple of times he's got the E minor, G7, C.
He puts in a beautiful crush B flat to B. Something like this:
[Plays crush note from Amoreena]
which I think is lovely. Let's listen to that again.
The trick there to get that right is not to let the crush note dominate the chord.
You can hear there's a lot of pressure going on to that B.
The technique you need to use is to make sure you're just giving that little bit of extra pressure to the
higher notes and not putting any more weight on that than you have to.
That wasn't too bad.
Hear that? That was fine.
That wasn't quite enough!
It's difficult to do. You can tell, when you try doing stuff like that,
what a really good touch Elton John has.
That quality of touch is his classical training coming through.
Which, let's move on to our third strand, you can also hear in his comping.
So, for exmaple, every now and then he plays a scale run.
That happens in the middle section, or chorus or whatever it is.
[Plays scale run from Amoreena]
As you can see, the tricky thing is he does it in octaves.
If you want to make that easier you could do it as a normal one note scale.
He's comping a bit like this, standard rocky comp.
If you're not sure about that kind of comping, check out my videos on basic pop comping, I cover it.
Then he launches into... or something similar.
You could just go:
[Plays one note scale]
That's a little bit easier. Playing the octaves by themselves isn't that difficult,
but when you start putting a left hand in it does get quite difficult.
If you listen to him, he does it absolutely bang on the nail every time and that's the classical influence on him.
All the hours he spent as a kid playing scales, going through stuff by
Mozart and Clementi and Kuhlau and all those guys.
Another very classical thing he does is use a lot of arpeggios, broken chords.
He habitually spreads his big chords anyway but often he'll use a full rhythmic arpeggiation.
He does that a tiny bit in Amoreena, where he comes down the chords.
How does it go?
[Plays arpeggios from Amoreena]
Okay, but you hear it a lot more in songs like Tiny Dancer.
[Plays arpeggio from Tiny Dancer]
so that's a broken chord.
Especially in these really ballad type songs like Candle in the Wind.
[Demonstrates arpeggios from Candle in the Wind]
Very, very classical, almost influenced by Debussy and people like that. Loads of broken chords.
If you're playing more ballady kind of Elton John, you can work those in.
There's a little bit of it in Amoreena, it's more of a bluesy kind of song though, so it doesn't work quite as well.
So, Mitchell - hello again - back to you.
To answer your question, what do you do with all this information that I have just dumped on you?
Take the chord sequence, play it through lots and lots of times and after a bit
try to incorporate just one or two of those ideas and techniques.
The little classical runs, the suspended notes, the bluesy touches.
After a while and a lot of practice, add a couple more.
Listen to the way that Elton John does it, play around, and soon you'll start to get close to his kind of sound.
When I say a lot of practice, I mean he himself will have played these through five, six, seven, a hundred,
a thousand times before performing them.
He plays them slightly different every time which is one of the reasons I don't like to give walkthroughs.
I don't want to give you a walkthrough of this because first of all I don't believe in walkthroughs,
I think it's far more rewarding to work it all out for yourself.
But also because there isn't a walkthrough - there isn't a single answer, because he improvises,
he tends to play it differently every single time.
There are loads of different versions of Tiny Dancer for example on YouTube.
Listen to the way he does it differently. Sometimes you get the straight
[Plays Tiny Dancer]
or whatever it is, and sometimes you get the added fourth I was talking about.
[Plays variation of Tiny Dancer]
He's an improviser, he does what he feels like doing.
So follow in those footsteps.
Take the chord sequence, play it loads of times, begin to add in the bits and pieces,
listen to what he does, but like I say, it does take a lot of practice,
in particular if you're trying to sing as well.
But you know, nothing worthwhile is easy, it's worth sticking at
because when you can do it it's a lot of fun.
So there we go. More broadly: everyone else, if you're watching this and don't know a load about Elton John,
if you're not really familiar with his stuff, get to know it.
He's had such an influence on nearly all the pop piano that has followed him.
You know, Ben Folds, Lady Gaga, loads of people like that.
Okay so there we go, that was a kind of massive, massive brain dump.
I hope some of it has been useful, if you have any questions stick them in the comments on the YouTube thread.
I'll happily get back to you.
As you can probably tell, this is the kind of thing I find absolutely fascinating to discuss.
There we go, Mitchell, I hope that has helped, yourself and anyone else,
as I said, if you have any more questions or if any of that doesn't make sense, just let me know.