The 50’s was a big decade for music. Rock and Roll became the main genre in popular conciousness, and a whole new culture of music fans sprang up. The piano really took on a new life as well, with players like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis bringing an explosive, percussive personality to the music.
The Chord Progression
The chord progression for the riff is built around the 12-bar blues, a classic progression in 50s rock and roll. In the key of C, that means you’re going to play the C7, F7, and G7 chords. To make these chords, form your major triads and add a flat-7th note on top.
The Left Hand Rhythm
The left hand rhythm is an important part of 50s rock piano. It’s what gives the sound its driving feel. The pattern is pretty simple, simply base each chord movement off of an open 5th interval on each triad and pop back and forth on the 5th and 6th intervals, finishing off the phrase by moving up to the flat-7th. One of the key distinguishing elements for rock piano is actually in how the 8th notes are played.
If you’ve played any blues piano, you might be tempted to play your 8th notes as swung rhythms. Resist this urge when you’re playing this rock rhythm if you want to feel like the left hand is really driving. Instead, keep your left hand locked right onto the beat, and you’ll be on your way to developing a left hand as powerful as Jerry Lee!
Pianist Jerry Lee Lewis. One of the founding figures of rock'n roll.
The Right Hand Riff
The right hand riff for this little exercise is super fun to play, and easy to learn. It’s based off of the major pentatonic scale, which only consists of five notes, so it’s easy to develop and extrapolate on if you want to use it as a launching point for your own explorations!
If you play this riff in C, the notes are going to be an ascending pattern of Eb, E, G, A, and C. If you break this pattern down as intervals, you’re playing a minor 3rd, major 3rd, fifth, sixth, and octave. It’s often easier to break a riff like this down into interval jumps rather than note names, as it allows you to easily transpose any given riff regardless of the key.
With that in mind, you can take this same pattern and apply it to the IV chord (F7) and the V chord (G7).
The Mentality Of Rock Piano
Although it my surprise some, the piano is a percussive instrument first and foremost. It’s important to keep that in mind when playing rock piano. Listen to some of the greats in the genre and the power that they bring to their playing.
If your experience with the piano up to this point has been primarily classical based, I encourage yo to channel your own internal Little Richard and dig into those rock instincts that you know you have! So get your bum to the piano and don't be afraid to just hammer away on the keys, I promise you the piano can handle it!
Little Richard. Another Of The Original Greats