June 5, 2007


by Chris Randall

So I decided to expand my keyboard vocabulary a little bit this week. (To put this in perspective, if it was word vocabulary we would be talking about, I'd be stuck why the fuck there are three different ways to spell "there".) Since I am an entirely self-taught musician, and can hold my own on any instrument you don't have to blow in to, I have a fairly well-traveled road for teaching myself how to do something that has served me well for three decades.

In the modern digital age, it takes a bit of a new spin, as I can actually dissect things and get to the "why" of them, rather than just puzzling out sheet music, an intensely boring thing. So, what I do is pick a song (say, for instance, "One For My Baby"), go find a General MIDI file of it that doesn't completely suck (harder than it sounds), load it up in to Logic (which is better for these sorts of things than Cubase, IMO), and proceed to figure out the parts. Then I put my own spin on them, and essentially learn the entire song by rote.

On the plus side, even though I've learned the song by rote, and am thus no more than a trained monkey, all the elements of that song, including some truly massive chords, work their way in to my musical vernacular, and reappear or not as appropriate. One big minus is that I have a hard time transposing a song on the fly; I know three different inversions of an Am7 chord, but I couldn't play any of them a half step down if my life depended on it. Nor could I add or subtract notes just because I thought the chord needed a little sauce or whatever. Nor can I immediately come up with transitional chords (which is annoying.) If they weren't in the MIDI file, I generally don't know them.

Jesus, this story is getting long; you are no doubt wondering if there's a point anywhere in the foreseeable future. Well, sure. I was listening to some old Ron Carter today, with some extremely soulful gospel piano work courtesy of Gene Harris, and I decided to learn gospel chords. I know that there's something added or subtracted from a typical chord progression to make it a gospel chord progression. However, I don't know what that _something_ is. In my search on the tubes of the Interwebs, I discovered a rather unsettling fact: the people that take the time to write about gospel piano on the internet are not Ray Charles. Neither are they Aretha Franklin. They are essentially Pee Wee Herman. To wit. It's like if Sonic State were run by the Lollipop Guild. I think the entire gospel piano industry is run by that fucktard that has been putting perfect pitch ads in Keyboard magazine for the last 30 years. (Bonus points if someone scans the picture of him with his high school muse that appeared in the mid 80s issues; I think that picture speaks volumes.)

So the question of the day, if I could stop digressing, is two-fold:

1. How do you teach yourself to play specific songs if you can't sight read? (Laptop jockeys, I love you like brothers and sisters, but this one isn't for you...)

2. Is there a good readable source of information on the internet about why gospel chord progressions sound different than the same progression played by a jazz or blues player? Is it specific inversions, or a consistently added note?



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Jun.06.2007 @ 9:23 AM
I'd recommend looking into jazz harmony, because when you have grasped that, everything else will come pretty easily. So here's a quick intro:

In jazz, playing the root is the job of the bassist, so piano players tend to leave it out. They will, however, always include the seventh and ninth of the chord unless it is specifically excluded, usually for a certain effect or because it clashes with the tune. So two of the most common basic chord voicings are 3-5-7-9 and 7-9-3-5.

The 3 most common chords are 7 (dominant 7 in non-jazz speak), minor 7, and major 7. 7 has a major third and a minor seventh, minor 7 has a minor third and a minor seventh, and major 7 has a major third and a major seventh. I usually voice seven chords (dominant) with a 13th (same note as a sixth) instead of a 5th, because it gives it more depth (because of the tritone between the 13th and the minor 7th). The II-V-I progression is a good way to practise these systematically, because you can change smoothly between the chords. For example, Cm7 - F7 - Bbmaj7 is a II-V-I in Bb. You can play the chord in the right hand and the root in the left since you probably aren't practising with a bassist and you do need to hear the root. Cm7 I would voice perhaps Bb-D-Eb-G (7935). This allows you just to move your thumb from the Bb to an A, giving A-D-Eb-G, which is a 3-13-7-9 voicing of F7. Bbmaj7 I would then play A-C-D-F (7935). That is the II-V-I. Then move it down a tone, so you start on Bbm7. Repeat until you are back where you started. You also need to do the same cycle one semitone up - then you will have covered all the keys. Then do it with the other voicings - starting with 3-5-7-9 for the m7 and just moving your third finger to get to the 7 chord. You should be able to transpose stuff more easily when your hands know how to find these chords automatically.

These voicings are the core of the jazz sound, but things get more interesting when you add sharp nines, flat nines, sharp fives, flat fives, elevens, sharp elevens and so on.

Eventually, you want to get comfortable with how each interval above the root sounds, and what it is like when they are combined. This lets you hear what effect adding, say, a sharpened eleventh to a chord will have, and once your ear can do this naturally you have a lot of freedom, harmonically. Listen to lots of jazz (e.g. Bill Evans) and try to transcribe and identify the chord voicings. Then compare these to the lead sheet. This should give you some idea about how sequences can be reharmonised to be more interesting.

Hope that made some sense!


Jun.06.2007 @ 3:08 PM
link [www.amazon.com]">link [www.amazon.com]

Jun.06.2007 @ 3:59 PM
Secret trick: use passing dimished chords. Play this, for example: I - vi - IV - #iv dim - V - V sus4 and back to V - I. And use plenty of dominant 7s. Other than that, its beauty lies in its simplicity, it's a music made up of mostly I IV V chords.

Jun.06.2007 @ 5:09 PM
What is A-7. Are you in C major, G major or F major.

(In C major)

Check the nature of A-7

A-C: min 3rd

C-E: maj 3rd

E-G: min 3rd

Now keep the same intervals and start with C



take the Eb and spell a major chord (3-b3-3)


or create a chord with the notes of A-7 with Eb as the root.
passing chord?


Do the same with G



Jun.06.2007 @ 5:30 PM
penzoil washington
i'll write a bit off the top of my head not having read the many comments.

what era of gospel are we talking about? presumable pre-1970 stuff before James Cleveland et al brought in all those fruity chord changes in.

if thats the case, basically don't play any chords altered beyond a minor seventh and you're good.. no ninths, rarely sixths, etc. Turn around chords on the V are often with a raised fifth. You'll need to know several inversions of the chords to play the progressions easily, but there are so few chord progressions in traditional gospel that if you learn about 10 songs you know them all. Aretha is an excellent model, as you mention. Typical gospel progression will include I, ii, III, IV, V, V!, and that's about it.

I have a pretty hefty collection of gospel going back to acapella quartets of the twenties through the fifties when all the groups featuring future soul stars (sam cooke, wilson picket, etc.) were the new thing. If you should want anything...

It's fun to play that stuff - enjoy!


Jun.07.2007 @ 6:38 AM
I was in a similar situation as chris:
playing keys+guitar quite OK, but not well organized across stlyes, not being able to play the same song in different scales fluently (sticking to good old C, Am, E, F and G...), being able to improvise "by ear" and not really structured etc.
My way out were the books by JOHN MEHEGAN (volume 1 is already enough...). Although a bit old-fashioned, this is the basic theory on which all our "heroes" based their playing in the 60?s and 70?s, and it is still valid (for me at least). Once you are over the first 10 pages, everything falls together and makes sense:
Jazz Improvisation 1: Tonal And Rhythmic Principles by John Mehegan

Jun.07.2007 @ 11:05 AM
I noticed that someone above (dan) is talking about jazz voicings. Although what Dan says is not necessarily inaccurate, it doesn't apply to gospel music. Gospel and jazz come from similar roots, but they are completely different in implementation.

Dan talks about 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, but those don't really have a place in what most people accept as 'gospel' music. There are virtually no such extended chords in the music of Aretha Franklin.

Also, in most jazz, the offbeats are the important beats; 2 and 4 are usually accented more than 1 and 3. In gospel, the rhythm is much straighter because gospel has roots in church music (chorales), which are intended to be understood by the congregation.

Finally, jazz keyboardists generally use sharper, more angular rhythms than most gospel players. Listen to how Bill Evans or Thelonious Monk stabs the keyboard. That doesn't work in church because the keyboardist has to lead the choir and the non-musician congregation. Gospel music reflects this.

These are just guidelines; they are violated often, however, they are violated in a context that makes them still-applicable. It's like how Bach often violates the rules of traditional harmony. He does it in such a way that even the violation fits within the framework of traditional harmony.

( Good discussion; I'm going to link to it on my site: link [www.thisisnotalel.co...]">link [www.thisisnotalel.co...] )


Jun.07.2007 @ 5:51 PM
penzoil washington
and if you learn to play gospel, all those sixties R&B songs are a breeze, eh? I forgot one chord, and that is the IV 7th chord with a raised root (forgot what you call that). ie:
the classic build to a gospel turnaround:
CMaj, EMaj, FMaj, F7+1, CMaj, G, C, G, C.

Jun.07.2007 @ 5:54 PM
Agreed, I was talking about jazz. Mostly because that's what I know more about, but also because I thought it made sense to learn about that. After all, as you say, gospel is then just a question of leaving the more wacky things out. Plus I find it pretty interesting stuff to know about anyway.

As another note - for more gospel style music, adding a sixth to major chords can be a good way to add some depth without changing the tonality of the chord too much.


Jun.09.2007 @ 7:30 AM
A little late to the party but I somehow had this "how the gospel sound" thing processing way in the back of my brain. And this morning it finally compiled.

Basically it's all about the bass line. The rest can just be simple major & minor triads, as long as you have that octave on the left hand doing the gospel piano bass thing. It's "white keys on the piano" simple, really. What I fooled around with is just a big C-major triad, then up to D-minor, then back down to C-major. The left hand just did that octave and stepped through C# or walked up from A. Instant gospel if you just imagine a typical melody on top of that.


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