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The best keyboard licks from the past 40 years, and how to play them

(Image credit: Getty/Andy Catlin/EyeEm)

We asked some of today’s most accomplished professional keyboard players to show us their favourite and most memorable keyboard licks. Read on through this special supersized lesson to add these potent parts to your own musical vocabulary.

1. CJ Vanston

“The most indelible keyboard lick for me is the opening staccato notes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Tarkus.” (Ex. 1). Those notes changed my life. I knew right then and there, at that very moment, what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Now, 40 years later, I’ve become friends with Keith Emerson and have gotten my chance to thank him for changing my life.”

(Image credit: Future)

2. David Garfield

“This lick shows where I was coming from when I started out and played my first gigs in in Saint Louis back in 1974 (Ex. 2). It’s a combination of bebop and funk. At that time, I was influenced by pianists such as Cedar Walton and Horace Silver. I also listened to great horn players like Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, and John Coltrane for melodic ideas and improvisation techniques. Later, I started trying to emulate the sounds I was hearing from Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner.”

3. Jon Cleary

“My favorite lick is this piano riff (Ex. 3). It’s the basic DNA of New Orleans R&B piano.”

(Image credit: Future)

4. Andy LaVerne

“One of my favorite licks is Bill Evans’ signature ‘sign-off,’ derived from his tune ‘Five,’ which is a contrafact of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Ex. 4). As a private student of Bill’s, I got to see and hear him close-up, but he never showed me this sign-off. Rather, I learned it by ear from all the times I heard him play it on gigs, and from his recordings. The last measure is my personal addition. It’s a great way to end a tune, a set, or an evening.”

5. Dan Goldman (a.k.a. JD73)

“One of my all-time favorite keyboard licks is this one from Herbie Hancock’s incredible ‘Chameleon’ Rhodes solo (Ex. 5). Herbie blows my mind with this lick. It’s got suspense, surprise, tension-and-release, it’s beautifully structured, and it also demonstrates how to play ‘outside’ without sounding contrived. Genius!”

(Image credit: Future)

6. Tony Monaco

“This lick works on the turnaround coming in from a ii-V progression back to the iii-Vi7 (Ex. 6). It’s a cool turnaround into a turnaround!”

(Image credit: Future)

7. Brad Gordon

“Growing up in New Orleans, my favorite keyboard lick was always that Huey ‘Piano’ Smith turnaround lick that goes back to the one chord of a blues progression (Ex. 7). So many great people do their own versions of it: Doctor John, Ray Charles, Floyd Cramer, and others. I learned it by ear as best I could, but being a classically-trained kid, I really got them down when I found them in Jeffrey Gutcheon’s book Improvising Rock Piano.”

(Image credit: Future)

8. Ricky Peterson

“One of my favorites is a slick minor blues lick (Ex. 8). I like to use this on modern blues tunes like those by Robben Ford.”

9. Scott Healy

“My favorite keyboard lick was and still is anything with a pentatonic scale (Ex. 9). Someone once said to me, ‘Hey man, do you know that when you solo, all you do is run scales up and down the keyboard? You have chops but you gotta play something besides pentatonic scales!’ I probably replied, ‘Why?’ Eventually, though, I got the memo!”

10. Billy Jay Stein

“My favorite piano lick is from Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor. The double-handed descending run in measures 36 through 43 (Ex. 10) is amazing on many levels. I practice this lick every day, in different keys and varying tempos, as part of my warm-up regimen. I’ve incorporated this pattern into all different styles of music while performing. Rach rocks!”

(Image credit: Future)

11. David Baron

“The eighth-note rhythmic piano part is one of the most successful devices in pop music (Ex. 11). I used it on Meghan Trainor’s song ‘All About That Bass’ and it felt like it turned the song into a party when I originally played it. It comes from 1950s rock ’n’ roll piano players like the great Fats Domino. I doubt any one person invented it. It probably came out of a drummer not showing up to a gig. Someone must have said, ‘Play the right hand like it’s a hi-hat,’ and the rest is history!”

(Image credit: Future)

12. Peter Dyer

“This looping lick was the guitar, bass, and synth unison riff at the end of a live outro I made for an artist (Ex. 12). With horn hits on top, it helped turn a meandering song into a coordinated set highlight, complete with audience dance participation. Big octave-stacked Moog sawtooth waves with glide played loud and sloppy!”

13. Brian Charette

“One of my favorite licks is a symmetrical diminished lick shown to me by a great saxophonist named Jay Collins who now plays in Gregg Allman’s band (Ex. 13). There are a lot of cool things about this lick. It’s a raised ninth ‘shell voicing’ that moves down in minor thirds with the hands in octaves. It also has the eighth notes in groups of five, so an interesting, over-the-bar pattern is the result. Try this lick the next time you’re playing over a C7#9 chord. The notes in the voicings also come from a half-step/whole-step diminished scale (CDbEbEF#GABb).”

14. Judith Owen

“One of my favorite licks is the piano part in my song ‘Sweet Feet’ from my album Ebb and Flow (Ex. 14).”

(Image credit: Future)

15. George Whitty

“The saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi showed me this way of using stacked, inverted fourth intervals transposed by major thirds to create great angular shapes (Ex. 15). When it’s done right, it’s easy to improvise 12-tone rows in the middle of a solo and produces a very intense, ‘walking the limit’ kind of sound.”

16. Chip Crawford (Gregory Porter Band)

“One of my favorite licks is one that the trumpeter Donald Byrd often played (Ex. 16). I used it on the latest album by bassist Chip Shearin, but in tenths!”

(Image credit: Future)

17. Rachel Eckroth

“This lick is the result of messing around with superimposing triads over the predominant key center, in this case F Mixolydian (Ex. 17). A version of this lick eventually became a horn line in a song of mine called ‘Future.’”

18. Bill King

“One of my favorite licks is from vocalist Lorraine Feather’s Such Sweet Thunder recording, where she recasts Duke Ellington’s ‘Suburbanite’ with lyrics, called ‘The 101’ (Ex. 18). I loved the up-tempo and the effect these notes have when traced by the vocal.”

19. Rachael Sage

“One of my favorite licks is from my song ‘Lonely Streets’ from my album The Blistering Sun (Ex. 19). I still play it virtually every show. I guess my favorite thing about this lick is that the feel and tempo are very playful, but the melody is a bit more ‘out there’ and unexpected for a song that could otherwise be deemed pop.”

20. Stephen Fortner

“It’s a shame we don’t have room to transcribe it here, but Gregg Rolie’s Hammond organ solo on ‘All the Love of the Universe’ from the Santana Album Caravanserai was one of the first things I heard that made me realize keyboards could be every bit as heavy as guitars. This was reinforced when I got Abraxas and heard his growling intro to ‘Hope You’re Feeling Better.’ Shortly thereafter I learned about this magazine that could teach you to play like him and Booker T. and Keith Emerson. Some years later I started hanging around the place and just kind of stayed.”