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5 Ways to Play Like Dr. John

(Image credit: Getty/Michael Putland )

Whether Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John) is playing his trademark New Orleans-style piano, Hammond organ, quirky keyboard parts, or guitar, he always plays groovy lines dripping with funk and soul. This month we’ll examine his signature sound celebrated on the album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, which salutes pioneering jazz musician Louis Armstrong and includes guests such as Bonnie Raitt, Nicholas Payton, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Here are some exercises to get you playing like the Night Tripper.

1. Piano

The instrument most associated with Dr. John is unquestionably the piano. New Orleans piano playing is filled with smears and slides, as seen in Ex. 1. I’ve actually built in a modulation up a fourth in the last bar so you can seamlessly transpose the exercise. I’ve also added a boogie-woogie left-hand part for solo playing, but when you play with a group you may want to play more simply with the to leave space for the other musicians. Dr. John will often throw in a couple of chromatic left-hand riffs to give emphasis to those in the right hand. The motivic material in the first two bars of the right hand here comes from the major and minor C pentatonic scales. At the end of bar one we grab a few of the notes together to make some funky chords. (Try to harmonize your blues melodies with notes underneath them in this way to get closer to the “New Orleans” sound). Beat 2 of bar 3 has a very popular New Orleans “turn” that may be the most important lick in this style. Play with a lazy, rolling motion. Note that the last bar harmonizes a bass line that walks up to the IV chord.

(Image credit: Future)

2. Hammond Organ

Dr. John is also known to wail quite well on the Hammond. Ex. 2 illustrates a typical organ pad you might find on his recordings. Start with a drawbar setting of 88 8000 006 and experiment from there. Pull out a few black drawbars too for really cool reedy sounds. In Ex. 2, the voicings are simple and held for most of the bar, usually changing on the last 1/8 note of the bar. The chords are meant to be supportive but subtle. Notice in bar 4 how a triad that starts on the sixth scale degree of the root, A, yields a very interesting altered chord. The end of bar 4 also has a gentle riff taken from the major pentatonic scale; pepper these lightly between your chords. (I’ve put in a bass line so you can see the harmony in action).

(Image credit: Future)

3. Wurlitzer

The Good Doctor is no stranger to the electric piano. In Ex. 3, I’ve written a blues solo exercise that approximates his funky Wurly stylings. The notes here all come from the blues scale (G, Bb, C, C#, D, F, G) with a jagged, syncopated rhythm and a dissonant, smashed chord at the end of beat 2, bar 2. Try to have small phrases in your lines that repeat and develop. Remember, space is the place—don’t play too many notes!

(Image credit: Future)

4. New Orleans Riffs

Ex. 4 was inspired by the piano part on “Dippermouth Blues” from Dr. John’s latest album. Here, he plays some of his classic New Orleans style piano riffs. Try playing this exercise an octave or two higher on the piano to take things into tinkerville!In bar 2, beat 2, notice how the lick bounces between the sixth and flatted third before doing a big roll on beat 2. The bar ends with some tight blues chords. Bar 3 has a slow, wide “shake” that lasts for two beats and then resolves into a boogie-woogie lick.

(Image credit: Future)

5. Electronic Tones

Dr. John often coaxes killer electronic timbres out of a wide array of keyboards—who can forget the beguiling RMI Electra-Piano on “Right Place, Wrong Time”? Ex. 5 demonstrates a similar tone. With a boogaloo baseline, this quirky sound pops out blues licks with notes from the A blues scale (A, C, D, Eb, E, G, A). Notice the use of triplet rhythms and the “rub” of the fifth and flatted fifth in the exercise.

(Image credit: Future)

Practice Tip

“A lot of New Orleans keyboard ensemble playing stresses simplicity with the left hand. Use it to add little riffs and comps, but leave sonic space for the other members of the band,” says Brian Charette, who has performed and recorded with Joni Mitchell, Michael Bublé, and Rufus Wainwright in addition to leading his own jazz groups. Charette recently won Downbeat magazine’s “Rising Star, Organ” award and just released the album Good Tipper. Find out more at