Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Play Like Elton John

Anyone who plays rock or pop piano today has a little bit of Elton John in them. Though influenced by the balladeers, blues-men and barnstorming rockers that came before him, Elton created a style that has become universal in pop music. Characterized by a focus on rhythmic accompaniment that allows the lead vocal to take center stage, Elton's piano playing isn't especially flashy but it is dramatic, emotive and creates a solid backbone for any song. What this means for beginners is that Elton's songs and playing style are really not that complicated or hard to learn!

So where do you start learning to play like Elton? With a Yamaha keyboard it's easy to use a MIDI file to learn the piano or keyboard parts to a song - MIDI files will let you:
  • Mute the piano part
  • Listen to the piano part alone
  • Slow down the track
And more, so you can customize each song to fit your learning and practicing needs. Try out some the suggestions below, complete with designations for finding the piano channels in each song, and feel free to consult this guide for more tips on learning with MIDI files.
  • Your Song
    Right hand - channel 5. Left hand - channel 4.
    Difficulty: Easy

    Elton's first hit is a great place to start in your attempts to master his style. As Elton himself says, "it may be quite simple", but the piano part, consisting largely of arpeggiated chords is typical of many of Elton's ballads. learn this one and you're well on your way.

  • Nikita
    Right and left hands - channel 4
    Difficulty: Easy

    "Nikita" hails from 1985, the heyday of the synthesizer, so you won't find any of Elton's usual piano sound here. However, the song's synth lines are still very much piano based and their relatively simple rhythmic pattern makes this song a fun way way for beginners to get their feet wet with Elton's music.

  • Candle In the Wind
    Right and left hands - channel 2
    Difficulty: Intermediate

    Elton's solid, rhythmic piano playing anchors this emotional ballad. With heartfelt lyrics eulogizing the life of Marilyn Monroe (or Princess Diana, in version performed at her funeral in 1997), the real challenge of this song is learning how to sing along while playing without losing the rhythm or choking up.

  • Crocodile Rock
    Right hand - channel 6. Left hand - channel 7.
    Difficulty: Intermediate

    Elton's style is certainly indebted to rock 'n' roll piano legends like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and "Crocodile Rock" is one of the best examples of his rock roots. To get the right feel for this hard driving song, you'll need to play with some speed and confidence, but with a little work and this MIDI file to guide you, you should be rocking along in no time.

  • I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
    Right and left hands - channel 4
    Difficulty: Intermediate

    Despite its title, the style on display in this song isn't exactly the blues, but the blues-inspired light pop balladry that Elton is famous for. In addition to providing a classically catchy chorus, this song also is a good example of how Elton's characteristic style works in 6/8 time.
Once you've learned the basics, creating your own performances of Elton John's songs is as easy as loading up a style, playing simple chords (or even bass notes alone) with your left hand, and handling the melody with your voice or right hand. Yamaha’s keyboards come with a ton of built in styles, but for the times you can’t find the perfect style to accompany the song you want to play, there are Yamaha's Premium Styles, which offer new accompaniments that you can add to your keyboard's library. Styles can do a lot, but don't let that scare you off - if you're new to styles, Yamaha keyboardist extraordinaire Peter Baartmans will walk you through the basics in this video.

Here are some suggestions for styles especially well suited to Elton John's songs:
  • Sad Rock
    Use this style to play "Sad Songs (Say So Much)", which reached the number 5 spot on the Billboard Top 100 in 1984. It's a perfect example of the classic 1-4-5 progression. Try it in the key of C Major, and you'll be playing like Elton in no time!

  • CCCP Ballad
    This style is perfect for "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", originally released on Elton John's 1974 album Caribou, but much more popular for the duet version with George Michael.

  • Reg's Bossa
    Reg's Bossa is perfect for Elton John's "Sacrifice". Speed it up a bit to play "Nikita" from the 1985 album Ice On Fire, or slow the tempo of this style and try the soft rock classic "Daniel".

  • Standing Rock
    Standing Rock is a style file for the rockin' side of Elton John's catalog. Designed for the first single off 1983's Too Low for Zero "I'm Still Standing". Also suitable for "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", which was Elton's first number 1 single in the UK, and duet with Kiki Dee.
There are even more ways to learn and play your favorite Elton John songs with sheet music, lessons and play-along CD packs.
  • Essential Elton John
    Keyboard Signature Licks
    Learn the trademark keyboard techniques of one of the most distinguished artists in pop-rock! This book/CD pack details Sir Elton's distinct stylings by breaking down 10 of his best songs.

  • Elton John - Greatest Hits 1970-2002
    Piano/Vocal/Guitar Artist Songbook
    This fabulous sheet music collection features 34 of Elton's all-time greatest hits in the easy to read yet comprehensive Piano/Vocal/Guitar arrangements.

  • The Best of Elton John - EZ Play Clavisoft
    With this Clavisoft book and disk pack, you can learn and play along with nine classic Elton John songs on your keyboard. Includes EZ Play sheet music and MIDI arrangements for each song so you can easily learn to play the chords and melody for each song, and the perform with a full backing track.
Best of luck learning to play like Elton, and have fun! As always, feel free to contact us or leave a comment if you have any questions.

- Doug