Jazz Piano Left Hand Techniques
by Ron Drotos
‘Oh, Lady Be Good!’ by George Gershwin • Dénes Dosztán – piano
First Part: the “stride piano” technique.
One of the biggest questions that aspiring jazz pianists ask me is, “What do I do with my left hand?” Once you get a sense of what’s possible for the left hand, you can then decide which technique to use on each tune you play. A lot of this will depend on your own approach to each song and also on the style of the musicians you’re playing with as well
as the particular playing situation you’re in.
To give you a good sense of this, I’ve arranged the great jazz classic “Oh, Lady Be Good” using the 5 most popular left-hand styles in jazz piano. Learn each one thoroughly and
analyze how the particular technique relates to the underlying chords.
Then choose the one or two techniques you like best and use them on your favorite jazz standards.
The first part shows a “stride piano” technique typical of early jazz and the swing era of the 1930s and early 40s. The right hand is reminiscent of Count Basie’s great 1936 recording of the tune.
Second Part: a walking bass line.
Now let’s learn a walking bass line. This technique can be used in many types of jazz, from swing to post-bop styles. You can walk bass lines when playing solo piano, or if
you’re accompanying a vocalist or instrumentalist, and no bass player is present. I’ve added a few chord substitutions that are commonly played during the middle section, or
Part 3: a melodic bass line
My piano teacher Billy Taylor told me that when he was playing in the early 1940s, bass players were developing a melodic way of playing walking bass lines (similar to the bass line I wrote in the Part 2.
Dr. Taylor vividly remembered bass players asking him to stop playing stride and to voice his LH chords higher up on the piano, to stay out of their way.
The “shell” voicings I show here were very common during the bebop era. By including the root and either 3rd or 7th of each chord, they give enough to indicate the basic tonality
while letting the bass player and soloist (or right hand) use any melodic notes they prefer.
Notice how I’ve added some bebop-style embellishments to the RH melody. I’ve also changed many of the 6th chords to Maj7, and added an ending that’s typical of the bebop
Part 4: “shell voicings.
LH “shell” voicings with the root, 3rd, and 7th of each chord can give a surprisingly full sound. Even Bill Evans, who popularized the rich A and B voicings found in our next
lesson, often used these more basic voicings when playing solo piano. Don’t worry if your hands aren’t large enough to stretch the 10th that some of these require. You can
simply re-arrange those voicings to be root, 3rd and 7th, as in the second measure here.
The RH part is exactly the same as in lesson 3, so you can compare the difference in the LH sound between the 2 and 3-note voicings.
Part 5: A and B rootless voicings.
Here are the famous left hand ‘A and B’ voicings, popularized by Bill Evans. Even though these voicings are the basis of much contemporary jazz playing, you’ll learn a lot more as
a player is you work through all 5 of these lessons in order, so you understand where how these rootless voicings developed historically.
(And as a bonus, you’ll know 5 great LH techniques, whereas a lot of jazz pianists nowadays only know one way to play!) Notice how I’ve moved the RH up an octave in spots to keep it out of the left hand’s way.
Have fun learning these LH techniques and applying them to your favorite jazz standards!
The Magician In You: Journey Through The Real Book #221 (Jazz Piano Lesson)
Understanding the context of jazz standards 0:00 Keith Jarrett’s early period 0:42 1970s jazz-rock 1:33 A similar groove from Elton John 2:19 The tune’s shifting harmonic centers 3:37 How to practice hearing your way melodically through the changes 5:14 Keith Jarrett’s famous one-chord vamps 5:58 Planning the performance 6:31 Beginning with the introductory vamp 6:56
Stating the melody 7:22 The short vamp between choruses 8:19 Improvising a melodic solo 8:24 Using faster rhythms in the improvised line 8:53 Varying a country-rock lick 8:58 A touch of the blues 9:05 A fast arpeggio 9:08 Simplifying the solo 9:16 Parallel 6ths 9:19 Extending the Bbm7/Eb vamp 9:22 Improvising over the chord changes 9:35 Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” 9:41 A more folksy sound 9:51 Developing a motif 9:56 More country-rock 10:07
Highlighting the gospel music influence 10:23 Keeping the vamp brief this time 10:30 Fast soloing over the changes 10:37 A little bebop 10:55 Improvising with trills 11:00 Playful rhythms and rhythmic variety 11:07 Parallel 3rds over the extended vamp 11:37 Using the Eb Mixolydian mode 11:43 Going outside the changes 12:27 “Call and response” 12:34 Middle Eastern-influenced modal playing 12:56 Going “outside” over the pedal point 13:14 Bringing in a little funk 13:25 Coming in for a landing 13:33
Using a calmer LH texture under the melody 13:42 Becoming rhythmic again, for contrast 13:55 The final vamp, and “fade” 14:39 Looking for hints of Jarrett’s later playing style 14:57 Enjoying our journey through The Real Book 15:27 Play piano with more joy and less stress 15:40
- Libertango (Piano Solo) – Astor Piazzola
- Milonga del Angel by Astor Piazzolla (arr. piano solo)
- Oblivion (A. Piazzolla) Two pianos – pianists Argerich and Hubert
- Out of Africa – music by John Barry (piano solo)
- Oblivion (Astor Piazzolla) by Nadja Kossinskaja,guitar (with sheet music)
- Erik Satie (composer and pianist) (1866-1925)