Block Chord Piano Riff for Intros and Outros
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Have you been looking for a way to create easy intros and outros using that classic jazz piano sound? In this Quick Tip we will explore a great block chord piano riff that will elevate your intros and outros! Invented by the great George Shearing, harmonizing melodic ideas with block chords was utilized by jazz greats such as Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. This is a sound you will fall in love with, and so will your audience! Let’s dig in.
Block Chord Piano Riff
Before we learn the riff, let’s talk a little bit about what block chords are. A block chord is a chord consisting of five notes, the lowest note doubling the highest note. This serves to emphasize the melodic quality of the chord while the other three notes fill out the harmony in a very rich and colorful way. A great example of block chord playing is this recording of Robin’s Nest by Oscar Peterson. There are so many ways to utilize block chords, including harmonic substitutions and mimicking big band style sax solis, but we will just focus on this fantastic riff for intros and outros:
Feel free to follow along with our Smartsheet to get the feel for this riff as we work through it!
Pay attention to how the top note moves in this riff: this is key to utilizing block chords in a way that sounds clear and avoids conflicts between notes. The first chord’s highest note is D, the 9 of C. We harmonize this block chord by adding the 3rd, 5th, and 7th between the two D’s. This spells a beautiful CMaj9 chord, but check out the interval between the two highest notes. It’s a third! This is key because the most important thing to remember while playing block chords is clarity. Avoid seconds at the top of the chord to bring out the melody and stay away from intervalic conflicts!
The next chord’s top note is C. Since the chord has not changed, it makes sense to harmonize it the same way as the previous chord right? Why not use the 3rd, 5th, and 7th to fill out the block chord? The answer is because if we harmonized this chord that way, there would be a half step (or minor second) at the very top. This obscures the top note, and takes away from the clarity of the chord. It’s better in this situation to use the 6th (A) instead of the 7th so the interval between the two highest notes is a third. You’ll notice as we move through this entire riff that there is never a second between the two highest notes.
The next chord is Ebdim7, and this one is a little easier to harmonize than the first chord. The melody goes between B and A, but the harmony notes stay the same for both melody notes! The reason for this is that the top two notes form intervals of a 4th and a 3rd, making the melody clearly heard. Harmonize this chord using C, Eb, and F# to fill out the rest of the diminished chord.
After Ebdim7 comes Dm7. As before, we can use the same notes to harmonize this chord because we can structure the block chords with a third on top of each. The melody is C, A, and F: we can use the rest of the notes that form Dm7 to harmonize (D, F, A, and C).
Finally, G7 follows Dm7. In this example we are going to make this a G7(b9) chord for some added color. Just like the last two chords, we can use the same harmony notes to fill out each block chord because we can avoid seconds at the top. The melody notes here are E and D, harmonize with the remaining notes of G7(b9): F, Ab, and B. Next, let’s look at the rhythm of this riff.
One of the unique things about swing is the emphasis on weak beats and weak parts of beats. This is called syncopation! Place an accent on all the upbeats of this riff: this will help you achieve a more swinging, driving rhythm while still laying back.
Always remember to swing this rhythm! Playing this figure with a straight 8th note feel doesn’t sound quite right with this texture. Next, let’s learn a cool trick to elevate your block chord playing!
Block Chord Piano Riff Trick: Roll Left Hand
There’s nothing wrong with playing the riff exactly as written; it will sound awesome just the way it is! But if you want to sound even better, add a chromatic roll in your left hand to sound smooth and fluid as you play this riff. To achieve this, start your left hand three half steps below the note you’ll play with the chord. For example, the first chord’s note is D. Start on B and roll up through C and C# before you play the full block chord on D. Oscar Peterson utilizes this technique often when he uses block chords, and it adds a level of smoothness and polish that you’ll love!
Feel free to adjust the roll as you see fit. Sometimes it’s best to use one, two, or even four note rolls to go with your block chord riffs. It all depends on the musical situation! Generally, the faster the tempo, the fewer notes you should use. A well timed grace note is sometimes all you need to create this wonderful block chord effect.
If you want to dig in to more detail on block chords check out our Block Chords lesson. Here, you’ll learn about how to play block cords for Major 7, minor 7, and dominant 7 chords.
Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip!
Blog written by Austin Byrd / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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