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5 Ways to Play Like Donald Fagen

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For over 40 years, Donald Fagen has had a monumental impact on modern music.His jazz-tinged songwriting and funky keyboard work helped define the sound of a generation. Largely self-taught, Fagen regularly went to see players like Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis perform during his formative musical years. Those experiences piqued an interest in jazz harmony that continues to this day. Here are five ways to play like this modern keyboard master.

1. Piano Chording

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One hallmark of Fagen’s musical persona is his deft command of keyboard harmony, demonstrated in Ex. 1. He often plays jazz-influenced chord voicings with an abundance of chord extensions in tightly spaced positions. This example is reminiscent of his piano work on his new song “Good Stuff,” with intriguing inner motion and chordal tension.

2. Wurlitzer and Rhodes Parts

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Fagen is a lifelong fan of vintage keyboards like the Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric piano. Ex. 2 is similar to his Wurly technique on tracks including the bluesy “Weather in My Head,” “Jack of Speed” from the Steely Dan album Two Against Nature, and more. Bar 1 begins with a modern harmonic approach that includes slash chords, which use a bass note other than the chord root and are a Fagen favorite. Bars 3 and 4 demonstrate the technique of alternating diatonic triads in the Dorian mode for comping over the minor chord.

3. Melodica Lines

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The reedy tone of the melodica, a breath-powered keyboard (Hammond-Suzuki calls their models melodions) appears often in Fagen’s work. Ex. 3 demonstrates his use of that instrument. In bar 1, we have a simple melodic motif that returns in bar 3. Then bar 2 begins with a Charlie Parker-esque bebop phrase that utilizes the notes of the Mixolydian mode as well as the chromatic embellishing tone of A#. Later, bar 4 communicates a pentatonic-flavored idea.

4. Complex Harmony

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Fagen will often move close-position jazz voicings in fourths and fifths to create interesting harmonic shifts, as seen in Ex. 4. Following the initial Eb suspendedchord, Fagen uses four different major seventhvoicings to take us towards our destination: a minor 11th chord. Try this technique yourself by harmonizing a melody with unusual chords that are not diatonically related.

5. Rhythmic Clav Riffs

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The venerable Hohner Clavinet is another sonic staple in Fagen’s music. Ex. 5 is inspired by new tracks like “Miss Marlene” and classics such as “Black Cow” and “Kid Charlemagne” and demonstrates his penchant for playing rhythmic riffs on the instrument. Notice how the left hand creates a strong counterpointto the right hand’s comping parts.

The Simple Behind the Complex

“The key to Donald Fagen’s sound is minimalism. Though his chord progressions can be complex, he never overplays and always makes his musical parts serve the song,” says organist and composer Brian Charette, who has performed and recorded with Joni Mitchell, Lou Donaldson, Bucky Pizzarelli, Michael Bublé and Rufus Wainwright, in addition to leading his own jazz groups. His latest album is Music For Organ Sextette, on SteepleChase Records. Find out more at