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5 ways to play like Elton John

(Image credit: Getty/Dave Simpson )

Elton John is a musical marvel. He is simultaneously the ultimate singer/songwriter and the ultimate accompanist for the singer/songwriter. 

In a career spanning nearly 50 years, he has produced hit after hit of piano-driven, high-intensity pop and rock music. His dynamic, soulful piano playing is the perfect match for his singularly expressive voice. 

Let’s take a look at some of Sir Elton’s iconic piano styles.

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1. Intros

Ex. 1

Ex. 1 (Image credit: Future)

Ex. 1 illustrates Elton’s gift for crafting mesmerizing introductions. Some of his classic intros sound almost understated (like “Your Song” and “Levon”), others are edgy and push forward into the first verse (like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”). This example has sustained roots and fifths in the left hand with melodic broken chords above. Pedalling in this style is very subjective, so let your ear guide you. (Change the pedal with the changing chords, but don’t overdo it). These intros are definitely “in time” and some are even a bit “on top” and bold. Sometimes Elton will even imply the major add 2 chord with a rootsy “slip” note, like here on the Bb/F chord.

2. Rolling accompaniment

Ex. 2

Ex. 2 (Image credit: Future)

For the first verse of a song, Elton might play a rolling, chordal accompaniment pattern like the one in Ex. 2. Play this broken chord style with a heavier hand than you might be accustomed to, but don’t bang the keys. Hold down the notes longer so the chords they form ring out. Again, pedalling is very subjective here. The left-hand pattern rocks back and forth between the fifth finger bass note and the thumb above, and these notes augment the repeated notes and figures in the right hand. In this example, the high left-hand middle C rings out and blends in with the repeated E in the thumb of the right hand. The accented syncopations on top drive the music forward and support the vocal without overpowering it.

3. Rocking right

Ex. 3

Ex. 3 (Image credit: Future)

When a song starts to rock, so does Elton’s right hand. In Ex. 3, rock your wrist and give a big accent on the strong beats and syncopations. Right-hand wrist rocking is key. Really nail that fifth finger on the top of the chord. There are a few ways to play chords in this style: Bars 1-2 illustrate clean, broken chords. Bars 3-4 ask you to hold the top two voices while you play the lower G in the thumb, then hold that and play the upper two again. The whole chord rings together, even without the pedal.

4. Funky/roots playing

Some of Elton’s tunes get quite funky, like “Honky Cat.” Ex. 4 illustrates a musical move he likes to make: He repeats a punchy left-hand bass note and funks it up with his right, using gospel-tinged 3-and 4-note syncopations and fills. He’ll even get bluesy with New Orleans slides, slip notes, and grace notes.

Ex. 4

Ex. 4 (Image credit: Future)

5. Gospel grace

Ex. 5

Ex. 5 (Image credit: Future)

Soulful gospel grooves and fills are embedded in Elton’s style and can pop out any time, especially on a slow, soulful ballad like “Levon” or “Border Song.” In Ex. 5, chords in the right hand are framed by an outer octave, which strengthens the melodic line. The left takes a strong and supportive role with steady octaves while the dotted rhythms and syncopations drive the rhythm forward. A hallmark of Elton’s sound is the short, hard-edged left hand octave figure. This usually consists of a few sixteenth notes moving between chords that pop out and make the piano roar.