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5 Ways to Play Like Horace Silver

(Image credit: Getty/David Redfern )

The great jazz pianist Horace Silver was in many ways, one of themost “un-pianistic” players ever to have touched the keys. However, he might also be the pianist who most encapsulates the spirit of jazz. When Silver plays, he pounds the piano’s low end like it’s a bass drum. His right hand makes the piano scream like it’s a blues singer. He plays chords behind a soloist as if joining a big band shout chorus, and he plays bebop lines like a trumpet player.

Together with the seminal drummer Art Blakey, Silver created the famed group the Jazz Messengers, ushering in the energetic “hard bop” sound. Silver’s piano style is a great place for budding jazz pianists to begin their studies, because many of the salient characteristics of his playing are simple, yet effective. If you want to get to the heart of jazz, check out Horace Silver. Here are five ways to become immersed in his style.

Editor's note: On June 18, 2014, we were saddened to learn that Horace Silver passed away. We've reposted this lesson in his honor and memory, and you can read our collection of remembrances by the jazz scene's best and brightest musicians here.

1. Left Hand Voicings

Silver often does something I call “dropping bombs,” where he plays the root in octaves in the left hand as in Ex. 1a, or the fifth in octaves with the root in the middle,

like in Ex. 1b. Often times, he combines his “dropping bombs” with more Bud Powell-type bebop shell voicings,

(Image credit: Future)

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constructed using roots and fifths in the left hand, as in Ex. 1c.

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2. Hand-to-Hand Conversation

When Silver plays solos, he creates a raucous dialogue between his left and right hands. Ex. 2

demonstrates this conversational “call and response” style, which can be traced all the way back to early blues music. Unlike other esteemed jazz pianists such as Wynton Kelly, who at times soften their left hand to let the right hand ring out, Silver gives both hands an equal voice.

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3. Right Hand Ideas

Bebop piano giant Bud Powell was one of Silver’s many influences. Silver often employed bebop ideas in his right hand lines, as in Ex. 3a,

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but he also injected intervallic concepts like the use of Eastern-tinged fourths (see Ex. 3b) into his playing for added effect.

(Image credit: Future)

4. Blues, Repetition, and Development

Much of Silver’s soloing falls into the “riff” category. Note how in Ex. 4a

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and Ex. 4b

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he uses the language of the blues, along with repetition and motivic development to imbue his music with a sense of structure and momentum.

5. Comping Concepts

Many of the great pianists in jazz—including Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock—are revered for their subtle use of space in their accompaniment work. Silver often sits on the other end of the sonic spectrum as an accompanist, comping in a full, insistent way, pushing and prodding soloists while keeping the ensemble energy high.

Ex. 5 demonstrates this conversational approach to comping.

(Image credit: Future)

Pianist and composer George Colligan has worked with Cassandra Wilson, Buster Williams, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane, and many other acclaimed artists. Most recently, he joined drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new quintet, and released Pride and Joy on the Piloo label. Colligan is Assistant Professor of Jazz Piano at the University of Manitoba. Find out more at