Amazing Grace Gospel Style
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What tune has been featured on over 1,100 albums, is performed over 10 million times each year and is considered a standard in gospel, folk and pop genres? That’s right, “Amazing Grace” is said to be the most recognizable tune of the English language. Therefore, as pianists, “Amazing Grace” is right up there with “Happy Birthday” in terms of must-know tunes. In today’s Quick Tip, PWJ instructor John Proulx will show you 3 simple piano techniques for adapting “Amazing Grace” from hymnal style into a soulful gospel arrangement. You’ll learn:
- Walk-Ups and Walk-Downs
- Adding a Swing Feel
- Reharmonization Techniques
You’ll love the way these gospel piano techniques sound on “Amazing Grace.” You’ll also be able to adapt other tunes into a gospel style as well using these transferable techniques.
Hymnal Style vs Gospel Style Harmonization
A very common question students ask is, “How do I play hymns in a gospel style?” The chart below demonstrates general differences in harmonic language between the two styles.
Transforming a tune from traditional hymn harmonization to gospel harmonization requires that we discover appropriate opportunities for the following:
- Add 7ths and chord extensions to primary chords (I, IV, V)
- Substitute primary chords (I, IV, V) with secondary chords (especially ii, iii, vi)
- Add passings chord movement (ie: V7 of vi, V7 of ii)
In order to apply these principles, you first must grasp the basic harmonic structure of the tune. When performing harmonic analysis, your objective is to assign the appropriate Roman numeral for each chord with reference to the primary key. This is also called functional analysis. Therefore, we’ll begin by assigning a Roman numeral to each diatonic chord in F major. For example, F Major is the 1-chord, G minor is the 2-chord, and so on. For now, we’ll just use triads.
Next, we’ll identify each occurrence of the chords above as they appear in the sheet music. Then, be sure to write the corresponding Roman numeral. Incidentally, you can download and print the sheet music for today’s lesson. The lesson sheet PDF appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Now, here is an example of a harmonic analysis for the first two lines of “Amazing Grace.”
Now that you have a grasp of the harmony for “Amazing Grace” in its most basic form, you’re ready to apply the gospel piano techniques identified above.
Amazing Grace Gospel Piano Techniques
The first example of harmonic embellishment we’ll discuss is the walk-up technique. The name”walk-up” refers to stepwise motion in the bass line. Walk-ups create interest and momentum in a tune when there is prolonged harmonic stagnation. This technique can be applied anytime a chord progression has root movement that moves up by a perfect 4th. For example, the opening phrase moves from a 1-chord (F) to a 4-chord (B♭). Since B♭ is a perfect 4th above F, this is the perfect opportunity to add a walk-up. The example below adds stepwise bass motion from F to B♭ demonstrating the essence of the walk-up technique.
Once you’ve identified an opportunity to apply a walk-up in the bass line, the next step is to harmonize each bass note. For example, we can harmonize the 2nd scale tone (G) in the bass line with the 2-chord (Gm7). Similarly, we can harmonize the 3rd scale tone (A) in the bass with the 1-chord in first inversion (F/A). The example below specifically uses an F9/A to harmonize the 3rd scale tone in the bass line with a dominant sound creating additional momentum toward the 4-chord.
The walk-down technique is similar to the walk-up technique. Walk-downs create harmonic movement when a chord progression contains root movement that descends by a perfect 4th. Applying walk-down techniques to “Amazing Grace” will give it more of a gospel piano sound. Let’s listen to the last phrase of the tune both with and without this technique. The first example below represents the straight hymnal style without a walk-down. The second example features a harmonized walk-down from the 4-chord (B♭) to the 1-chord (F).
As you can hear, the walk down technique gives the final cadence a recognizable gospel flavor. Interestingly, did you notice that the 4-chord (B♭ major) was not even used on the last phrase in the original example? In other words, this example does not merely connect a 4-chord to a 1-chord with a walk-down. Rather, it takes a prolonged 1-chord and adds a 4-chord! Then, the walk-down can be easily applied. We’ll discuss chord additions and substitutions in the next section.
Do you need to change the key for “Amazing Grace?” No problem…our Smart Sheet Music enables you to easily change the lesson material to any key. Also, today’s lesson sheet features a bonus section with Walk-Up Exercises and Walk-Down Exercises in all 12 keys!
Gospel Reharmonization Techniques for Amazing Grace
The harmonic possibilities in gospel music are as diverse as the stories of those who embrace this music. However, the following general principles will guide you in making harmonic choices that sound more vibrant than what you typically find in a hymnal.
Primary Chords vs Secondary Chords
Did you notice that our first excerpt of “Amazing Grace” in today’s lesson only contained three chords? The chords were F major, B♭ major and C major. We identified these chords as the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord in F Major. These three specific chords represent an internal category of within the diatonic palette called primary chords.
The primary chords in any key are the tonic (I), sub-dominant (IV) and dominant (V) chords. Primary chords establish the tonal center most clearly and unambiguously. However, that should not imply that they are always the most effective or interesting choice. In fact, the exclusive use of primary chords will generally sound like children’s nursery rhymes. Therefore, many popular styles of music also use secondary chords, which are sometimes called auxiliary chords. This second category includes the remaining diatonic chords—ii, iii, vi and vii°. The diagram below shows the diatonic chords in F major in their primary and secondary functional categories.
You’ll notice that John Proulx’s gospel arrangement includes both primary and secondary chords in F major. The list below contains common chord substitutions with reference to their occurrence in John’s arrangement:
- vi often substitutes for I (mm 23)
- iii often substitutes for I (mm 30)
- IV can be added to delay resolution to I (mm 33)
- ii can be added preceding V (mm 31)
7th Chords & Chord Extensions
Another one of the gospel piano techniques found in John’s “Amazing Grace” arrangement is the use of 7th chords and chord extensions. We’ll include “sus chords” in this category (ie: C9sus4, C13sus4). In fact, dominant sus chords is a perfect place to start. The way you voice your dominant chords is perhaps the most significant harmonic transformation that must take place to play in a gospel style. Most hymnals will voice the dominant chord as a triad (see lesson sheet mm 8) or perhaps a V7. Gospel pianists favor the V9sus4 sound as in measure 25 (C9sus4).
The 1-chord and 4-chord also frequently contain the major 7th in contemporary gospel music. However, not every 1-chord or 4-chord will work with the major 7th sound. It depends on what note is in the melody. For example, the major 7th sound works great on the 1-chord when the melody note contains the 5th of the chord (see F major 7 in mm 27).
What about chord extensions such as the 9th, 11th and 13th? Extensions beyond the 9th are not characteristic of the traditional gospel piano sound. However, you will find 9th, 11th and 13th extensions in contemporary gospel music. In fact, our Gospel Soul course is packed with examples of contemporary gospel piano chords that use each of the available chord extensions.
Secondary dominants are a major aspect of the gospel piano sound. Consider that the primary dominant in any key is the 5-chord which has a strong magnetic pull toward the 1-chord. Secondary dominants, by contrast, are dominant chords from outside the key that resolve to a target chord within the key other than the 1-chord. For example, you can have a V of ii, V of iii, V of IV, V of V and a V of vi. Secondary dominants can be triads, dominant 7th quality or may even include upper extensions and chord alterations. The following example from John’s gospel-style arrangement of “Amazing Grace” contains three different secondary dominants all within an 8 measure excerpt.
Additional Gospel Piano Techniques for Amazing Grace
Do you want to learn even more gospel piano techniques to use on “Amazing Grace” and other hymns? Be sure to check out the following courses in our library:
- Gospel Soul (Level 3)
- Gospel Grace (Level 3)
- Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Minor 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today. See you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by John Proulx
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