Playing the piano like a guitarist 1.


In this post I’ll talk a little about the role and the musical approach of guitar players in pop-music and how we can ‘borrow’ certain techniques from these pop-guitarists and use them to our advantage in tackling pop-music on the piano.

Campfires, guitars and a contradiction.

All of you have probably witnessed one or more times in your life what I like to call the ‘campfire phenomenon’.
This ‘phenomenon’ is commonly known in beginner-intermediate guitar players, that just started learning to play pop-music on their guitar and basically refers to the situation in which somebody that ‘plays the guitar’ (for not too long or sometimes even pretty damn short) is automatically expected to ‘know’ (in other words: be able to play) some famous pop songs.
The phenomenon can occur in various different social situations, but has to thank it’s specific name to the situation when camping, when the evening has fallen and it’s dark. Somebody had something to drink, a campfire was made for a little old-school camping-coziness and everybody is having a good time.
All of a sudden somebody pulls out his guitar and starts to add some flavor to the atmosphere by playing ‘She Loves You’. Somebody recognizes the tune and starts to sing along, then another one joins in, and another. Soon, everybody is singing.
Let’s say this guitarists name is Michael and let’s say Michael plays the guitar for about… 5 weeks. 5 WEEKS!? Quite good he is! Too good, for just a mere five weeks of playing…? How can he know at least a dozen songs? In five weeks?! That’s not possible.

In fact it IS possible, and it’s not uncommon too.

Now imagine John.
John is at a party of his nephew Rick, who just turned 8 and recently took his first piano lesson (birthday gift). John himself is taking piano lessons for about two months now, which gives Rick’s mother (Johns sister) Marie the idea to ask John to demonstrate little Ricky (and at the same time the rest of the curious family) how nice playing the piano can be and what he can expect to be playing in seven weeks from now.
John hesitates, but decides to give it a shot anyway and takes the seat behind the Yamaha piano (nice).
The attention of little Ricky lasts for about the first 2 minutes of John’s struggle through the first page of ‘Für Elise’ (good thing they had the sheet music at Marie’s) and the rest of the family joins in Ricky’s disinterest in about a minute afterwards. John stops. Everybody applauds as convincingly as they can and the party continues with Lionell Richie singing from the Stereo.

Now I’m not saying every starting pianist is like John. Many of you DO play what you want to play and what ‘everybody’ enjoys listening to. Unfortunately, many more also ARE like John.
Some choose to be like this on purpose and are happy that way, but many regret the fact they cannot play like Michael.
But Michael was a guitar player! Totally different thing, right?
Nope. Not so different actually.


Harmony vs. Melody. Comparing a different approach.

A ‘song’ consists of a ‘melody’, supported by a ‘harmony’, a ‘rhythm’ and -optionally- a ‘lyric’. Not more to it actually.

Guitar and piano, are both ‘harmony’- or ‘polyphonic’-instruments, meaning they can play more than one note at a time, contrary to say, a saxophone, that can only play one note at a time, or a … voice!
These are examples of ‘melodic’ or ‘monophonic’ instruments, and often used for playing, indeed: melodies.

In pop-music, most of the songs are ‘vocal’, meaning they revolve around a melody that is sung, and thus (most of the time) in pop-music the voice (i.e. the singer) has the ‘melodic’ function. This often leaves both the guitar and the piano with the ‘function’ of playing the harmony. Here’s where it get’s both interesting and important.

When more than one instrument ‘accompanies’ (for instance two guitars, synthesizers, bass-guitar and an organ) the singer, they sometimes provide the harmony ‘together’, for example by each playing (a) different note(s) that together form a complete ‘chord’, or, better said: the harmony.
But a ‘basic’ (even the most basic) or ‘stripped down’ form of pop-music, is when all the blablah, the extra electric guitars, the synthesizers, hectic beats, bleeps, drums, production-gimmicks, sound-effects, etc. (all ‘production tools’ used to ‘dress up’ the song) are removed and only the basic harmony and the melody are played.

This can be (and often is) done by playing the harmony-part (the ‘carpet’ or ‘wall’ that provides a nice atmosphere to support the melody) on just the piano or the guitar, while singing the melody.
To get an idea of how this sounds, think of ‘acoustic’-versions of songs, with just the singer and a piano/guitar, where this is exactly what is done: only the most basic form of the harmony with a certain rhythm (the ‘groove’ or ‘pattern’ that is being played by the instrument) + the melody is being played.

When you want to learn how to play pop-music on either the guitar or the piano, this ‘basic’ or ‘stripped down’ form, (contrary to what John thinks at this moment) might just be (IS!) your best place to start.
It is exactly where Michael started.

So where in pop-music the ‘basic’ form of playing both guitar and piano, is ‘harmony’ (and thus also rhythm)-oriented, the clincher is in the fact that John, like many (many, many) other beginner-pianists, unfortunately started learning the instrument ‘melody’-oriented.
Where Michael (and his audience) was having a good time by easily strumming away the harmonies on his guitar, John unfortunately could produce nothing more than a bit of classic ‘finger-wrestling’; fidgeting with the way more difficult melodic approach of his classical piece.

For people wanting to learn how to play pop-music on the piano, the sad fact is that many teachers, still see the piano as a ‘classical’ instrument. In classical music (that often has no singing, especially the classical music that is to be played on the piano and that is -mind this- especially written, or re-arranged for piano), the piano, because of the ability to play so many notes at the same time, is often used for playing the melody, as well as spread-out, difficult approaches of the harmony, played at the same time. (a more in-depth explanation of the difference and similarities in (harmonic) approach between classical- and pop-piano is coming up in a couple of weeks folks! that one will get a bit more technical).

This way of playing is way more difficult for a beginner-intermediate player, and on top of that, not a very good starting point, when actually you want to be playing POP-music, where melodies are sung.
This also brings us to the fact that classical melodies are often very nice when played on a piano, because they were written to be played on the piano.
Pop-melodies on the other hand, are -again- written to be SUNG and can therefore easily sound terribly dull when played (duplicated) on the piano. Harmonies played on either the guitar or the piano, on the other hand, sound rich and interesting from the very start.

When wanting to play pop-music on the piano, like with every new skill, it is wise to start with the end goal in mind and to start at the most basic form of that skill, while trying to keep irrelevancies aside. To start learning pop-piano, your best bet is to start with the basics of how the piano is used in pop-music: getting to know and learning to play the harmonies.
From thereon you can get to patterns, licks, riffs, beautiful piano-parts and even… melodies, that as you will see, will all make perfect sense later on, because they are all derived from the harmony.

Just the same way that Michael chose not to follow classical guitar lessons that would be focusing on single notes and melodies, but started by learning how to strum chords in certain patterns and rhythms: the basic form of pop-guitar, you too, as a pianist, can (and should) start at the relevant beginning for learning your style of choice: Pop-music.

By learning how to play the chords and the patterns and rhythms in which they can be played, you start learning the way guitarists learn too. And trust me: this way -just like Michael and all those other first-time guitarist at campfires- you will be able to play your favorite songs, on the piano, in no-time too.


Lesson, exercises and tutorial.


So, let’s get a bit more technical, and extricate a useful lesson from this story. In this lesson we’ll be looking at a few technical examples that many starting guitarists use too.

To have something to clearly exemplify today’s lesson, we’ll be using the fairly simple song ‘I’m yours’ by Jason Mraz.

Key = B.

First exercise is (as it should always be) is getting familiar with the key the song is in, which is the key of B.

Key = B

  • First take a good look at which black notes are in this key (all of them) and which white notes. (‘b’ and ‘e’).
  • Then slowly play the scale with your right hand. One octave up, then the same octave down again. Fingering is: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Down vice versa: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1.
  • Then try to play two octaves, crossing your thumb (1) underneath when reaching the octave ‘b’ to continue with the same fingering as the first octave. Use your pinky (5) only for the very last note (‘b’) you play on top. Fingering: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Down vice versa.
  • Optionally do the same with your left hand. Notice the fingering for your left hand! Fingering: 4, 3, 2, 1, 4, 3, 2, 1.
  • Now, since the chord progression of the song we’ll be playing is B, F#, G#m, E do the exercise of playing the root notes (‘b’, ‘f#’, ‘g#’, ‘e’) in the bass (every note lasting 1 quarter-note, so changing the note on every beat) with your left hand, while playing the scale with your right hand in eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes.


– Then practice all three inversions of the B chord. (ONE MINUTE FOLKS, practice it, don’t stretch it. Remember our ‘Effective Dose’).

– Optional: For the more advanced players, practice four note voicing in all inversions too.

Rhythms and patterns.

Now the thing with how the same chords can sound completely different, is because of differences in rhythm, timing, tempo, feel and thus by adding our beloved patterns. Guitarists get this like no other.
So let’s start with our first ‘copying’ from the guitarist cookbook and look at how they would learn and play this song.

Adding patterns: a rhythmic exercise.

Now that we know the first chord, let’s use it to practice and add the thing that separates the men from the boys: Rhythm.

Play the following rhythm exercises patterns, using the B chord. (the precise notes you play don’t really matter at this point, the pattern is what you should be focussing on, but for those who want to know: Right hand plays four note root voicing B, left hand plays 1, 5.).





Now, the song ‘I’m yours’ that we’ll be covering, uses a ‘shuffle’ rhythm vs. this ‘straight’ rhythm that we just played. In stead of theoretically explaining you what this means, just listen to the difference in feel of the next patterns (compared to the patterns above) and practice them.




Note that although the above examples are used as exercises to improve your rhythmic feel, they can off course, just like all patterns, be added to your rhythmical ‘vocabulary’ and used whenever it suits and / or you feel like it.

Finally, the song.

First listen to a bit (the first minute or so) of the original of the song ‘I’m Yours’.


Now listen to this next version, where only the ‘rhythm guitar’ is played so we can first focus on that part. (in this version he transposed the song a whole step down, so the chords are different from the original. If you want to know more about transposing check out (part 2 of) the course!).



Do you hear the rhythm, the pattern he plays on his guitar? Only thing he does is play the four chords with his shuffle pattern. This is exactly the last pattern we just practiced and the part we’ll be covering first.

Used chords jason mraz

First the tune is being played, in it’s ‘final stage’, at 1:25, the ‘explaining-part’ starts.

As said, first we cover the ‘rhythm guitar’ part. Doing this means playing the last of pattern of the exercise video’s above, while after every every four beats (one measure) you move to the next chord, and play the same pattern on that chord.
As you see, extra notes or other inversions can be used at your own taste. Optional extra note that is played is the fifth or the octave in the left hand.
Now as we move along, you’ll notice how sometimes an accent is ‘missed’ or played so softly that it is hardly heard (or not heard at all). This implies playing ‘dynamically’ and with ‘feeling’ and is very, very important. The opposite would be a machine playing the tune. Every note right there and tight as hell.
Don’t get me wrong, in pop-music it’s very good (even important) to be ‘tight’ and play ‘in the groove’ (keep a steady pace), but you want to put your feeling in there and keep it human. Some notes or accents a little louder, others a bit softer.
In this song try emphasizing (playing a little louder) the 2 and 4th beat sometimes.

Intro I'm yours

Now at 3:00, we get a bit more advanced as you’re gonna play the ‘intro’ part. In this part there is no singing yet, so we’ll be playing the ‘lead guitar’-part with our right hand. This, while the left hand keeps providing us with the rhythm, by playing a pattern that is derived from the ‘low note -> third’ pattern.

Right hand is pretty clear from the vid (for extra clarification on the exact notes, check the pictures). Note that the technique used here (shifting intervals from fingers 1, 3 to 2, 4) is a very, very useful one to improve your playing and can be used in many more songs and with other intervals. Practice it!
Use fingers 1, 3 -> 2, 4 -> 1, 3 for the first two, then 1, 3 -> 2, 4 -> 1, 2 and 1, 3 -> 1, 4.

Left hand plays the root of the chord on the first beat, and the 5th and octave on the second 8th beat, repeat: the root on the second (4th) beat and the 1, 5 on the fourth 8th beat. If the text is to confusing, just watch the vid, which should clarify perfectly, and simulate.

Try practicing both hands separately first. Once this is easy, try putting them together, SLOWLY.
Again, keep in mind the ‘Effective Dose’ and play at a tempo that’s nearly, nearly, to hard for you, but that allows you to, with effort, play the thing correct. KEEP A STEADY TEMPO!

That’s it!

Happy playing and see you next week!



As I’m trying to become the best possible Pop-Piano teacher you could wish for, please let me know what you think of this post and if you have any more questions / requests or would like more clarification on anything, in the comments below!
How does this help you and what (song) are you going to use this information and techniques for? If you like, show me how you play it by typing (in the comment box) the url to a youtube/vimeo video of you playing! What song would you want to learn next? Leave a comment!
Do you know anyone that wants to learn-, is struggling with- or trying to learn piano? Please share this with them as it might be very helpful to both them and me!

Questions? Remarks? Show me how you play this song! Please leave a comment below!
I’m also very curious which tutorial you’d like to see next!

About Coen

Founder of Piano Couture and creator of the Hack the Piano method. Coen is a musician, reader, writer, web-designer, eater and traveler. Find him at

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