How to Play Piano Like Bruce Hornsby
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Would you like to play piano with the distinctive sound of Bruce Hornsby? While his piano style is difficult to classify, it’s impossible to mistake. Hornsby’s “jazz-tinged folk-rock”¹ piano grooves are the driving force behind mega-hits like “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain” and “The Valley Road.” In today’s Quick Tip, How to Play Piano Like Bruce Hornsby, Jonny May shares 10 techniques that Hornsby uses to achieve his signature piano sound. You’ll learn:
- Bruce Hornsby’s Signature Piano Sound
- How to Emulate Bruce Hornsby’s Piano Style
With the tips and tricks in today’s lesson, you’ll be able to channel that classic Hornsby piano sound in your own arrangements.
Today’s lesson is in the key of G major and covers 10 piano techniques found in Bruce Hornsby’s signature tune, “The Way It Is.” Afterward, we’ll explore how you can apply these techniques to emulate Bruce Hornsby’s sound in your own playing. In fact, we’ll apply nearly all of these techniques to the folk tune “Simple Gifts” to create a Hornby-like contemporary piano arrangement. Due to publisher’s restrictions, the complete lesson sheet for this lesson is available through our partners at MusicNotes.com. However, be sure to use the PWJ exclusive MusicNotes coupon code when checking out.
About the Artist
Bruce Hornsby (b. 1954) is an American singer, songwriter and pianist whose musical style combines elements of pop, rock, folk, jazz, blues, country and bluegrass. His breakout single, “The Way It Is,” with Bruce Hornsby & the Range reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1986. Their freshman album also contained hit songs “Mandolin Rain” and “Every Little Kiss.” The album’s success catapulted the group to win the 1987 Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Hornsby’s expressive piano hooks from “The Way It Is” were later sampled and introduced to younger audiences in 1998 with 2Pac’s posthumous hit “Changes.”
Bruce Hornsby & the Range
“The Way It Is” (1986)
In 1988, the lead single “The Valley Road,” from Bruce Hornsby & the Range’s second album, Scenes from the Southside, peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The following year, Hornsby went back into the studio to re-record a bluegrass version of “The Valley Road” with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. This recording earned Hornsby his second Grammy Award, this time in the category of Best Bluegrass Recording.
From 1990 to 1992, Hornsby toured with the Grateful Dead following the tragic death of their keyboardist Brent Mydland. Afterward, Hornsby teamed up with jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis in 1992 to record “Barcelona Mona” for the Barcelona Olympics games. This tune earned Hornsby his third Grammy Award in 1993 for the category of Best Pop Instrumental.
In 1993, Hornsby released his first solo album, Harbor Lights, which featured Branford Marsalis and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia as well as contributions by other artists including Pat Metheny, Phil Collins and Bonnie Raitt.
At present, Hornsby has recorded 19 albums in all while also accumulating extensive credits as a producer, session musician and film score composer. While this work spans multiple genres, it is united by the common thread of an unmistakable piano sound.
If you struggle to find language that adequately describes Bruce Hornsby’s playing style, then you’re not alone. His influences are so varied that he is best represented in a category all by himself. However, his style is often labeled as “the Virginia sound,” which is described as “a mixture of rock, jazz, and bluegrass with an observational Southern feel.”² Hornsby himself affirms that his style is “the combination of influences thrown into a pot.”³
“My facile description of my style that I use when people ask is ‘Bill Evans meets the Hymn book’. It doesn’t say it all, but it’s close enough.”
The following recordings feature Hornsby’s piano playing as a sideman with three very different artists. However, in each case, the piano sound is quintessential Bruce Hornsby.
“The End of the Innocence” (1989)
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” (1991)
“Love Me Still” (1995)
In the next section, you’ll discover the specific techniques that contribute to this one-of-a-kind piano sound.
In today’s featured Quick Tip video, Jonny presents 10 piano techniques that contribute to Bruce Hornsby’s iconic piano sound. This section will zoom in on these techniques one at a time. In fact, you can use the following hyperlinks to navigate directly to a particular technique.
The first Bruce Hornsby piano technique that Jonny covers in today’s lesson is what he calls “pop 7ths.” This simply means that when Bruce Hornsby plays minor chords, he is adding the 7th above the root. This is exemplified in the opening chords from “The Way It Is.” The chord progression here is Am→Em. However, Hornsby plays these chords as minor 7th chords. Therefore, the progression is Am7→Em7. The examples below allow you to compare how this progression sounds with minor triads versus minor 7th chords.
To learn more about how to construct 7th chords, check out our Level 4 Early Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track.
The second Bruce Hornsby signature piano technique in today’s lesson is “inner 3rds.” This describes inner voice movement with parallel 3rd intervals. The first example below presents a simple 5-note melody over the chord progression D→C. The second example shows the same melody with the application of the “inner 3rds” technique.
As you can hear, the example that includes the inner 3rds sounds richer and fuller. Next, we’ll apply another technique to this same musical phrase to stylize it even more.
Bruce Hornsby frequently uses a technique called slip notes to give his playing a fancy flare. Slip notes are similar to slides in blues music or grace notes in classical music. For example, in music notation, a slip note appears as a small ornament that decorates a primary melody tone, just like a grace note. However, slip notes are played “on the beat” rather than “before the beat.” This following videos demonstrate how this technique should be applied.
For additional examples on how to apply slip notes on piano, check out our Quick Tip on How to Play Piano Like Norah Jones (Int).
A fourth piano technique that contributes to the signature Bruce Hornsby sound is cluster pairs. This voicing technique deliberately arranges the notes of a piano chord to include two pairs of tone clusters. Bruce creates these clusters by including chord extensions in his chord voicings. Chord extensions are additional color notes beyond the 7th, such as the 9th, 11th or 13th.
The examples below illustrate how Bruce Hornsby-style “piano stabs” are much more effective when they include cluster pairs, as in “The Way It Is.”
Next, let’s talk about “add 2” chords and “sus 2” chords. These chords are similar to the cluster pairs described above, except that they only have one cluster rather than two. To covert a major triad into an add2 chord, simply add the note that is a 2nd interval above the root. For example, C(add2) is a 4-note chord that contains the notes C–D–E–G. Similarly, sus2 chords also contain the 2nd above the root. However, the difference is that in a sus2 chord, the 2nd replaces the 3rd. Therefore a sus2 chord only contains the root, 2nd and 5th. For example, the notes of C(sus2) are C–D–G.
The examples below demonstrate a Hornsby-style piano accompaniment rhythm. The difference is that the first example uses only major triads while the second example uses C(add2). Your ear will tell you right way that the latter example is more representative of Bruce Hornsby’s sound.
Another favorite Bruce Hornsby piano technique is the use of gospel chords. This technique, borrowed from traditional gospel music, uses passing chords or neighboring chords to ornament a primary chord. Typically, gospel chords are a Ⅱm chord or a Ⅳ chord in 2nd inversion that leads to or from a tonic triad.
The examples below demonstrate how Bruce Hornsby ornaments a basic chord progression with gospel chords.
Next, we have what Jonny describes as the “7/9 combo.” This technique dresses up a major triad with its 7th and 9th to make it a major 9th chord instead.
The following examples feature the chord progression Ⅰ→♭Ⅶ→Ⅳ. In G major, that’s G→F→C. Notice how different these examples sound. The first example uses only major triads. By contrast, the second example uses add2 and the “7/9 combo.”
If you like this sound, then you’ll love Jonny’s Gospel Soul (Adv) piano course.
So far, we’ve primarily discussed how Bruce Hornsby voices his chords. However, another essential consideration is Hornsby’s use of rhythm, which often employs extensive syncopation.
The first example below, entitled “odd accent pattern,” isn’t a Hornsby lick per se. However, it is included to illustrate how Hornsby often approaches rhythm when constructing his signature piano parts. The word “odd” isn’t intended to imply “peculiar” or “strange.” Instead, it means that the 16th-note subdivisions feature an accent pattern that is grouped in 3’s—an odd number. This rubs against the primary meter to create a highly syncopated effect. Then, the second example plays chords while retaining the same accent pattern. Once again, your ears will tell you, “that’s Bruce Hornsby!”
Another foundational Bruce Hornsby piano technique is the use of pentatonic shapes. These are shapes found within the major pentatonic scale, a 5-note scale that uses the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th tones of a major scale. For example, the G major pentatonic scale contains the notes G–A–B–D–E. While this scale contains two triads (G major and E minor), it also gives us three other shapes: sus4, sus2 and quartal. A “quartal” shape is simply a stack of two perfect 4th intervals, such as B–E–A. These notes can also be rearranged to form a sus4 shape (E–A–B) and a sus2 shape (A–B–E). Bruce frequently uses these pentatonic shapes both harmonically and melodically in his playing.
The first example below shows three different quartal stacks that come from the G major pentatonic scale. Each quartal stack is presented in all three inversions. Notice that these shapes do not have to be confined to a G major chord. In fact, when you take pentatonic shapes from the primary key and use them over other diatonic chords, you get beautiful chord colors. The second example uses these pentatonic shape in a linear fashion to create a solo piano line that is representative of Bruce Hornsby’s sound.
Our final Bruce Hornsby piano technique for today’s lesson involves rhythmic displacement. This occurs when a composer or improvisor takes a short musical motif and repeats it with each successive entrance occurring on a different part of the beat.
The two examples below illustrate how rhythmic displacement works. The first example presents “regular” or “ordinary” motivic repetition. In this example, the entrance of each successive motif predictably occurs on a strong beat—either beat 1 or beat 3. The second example features the exact same motif. However, because the length of the tied note has been shorted to the value of a dotted 8th note, each entrance has been displaced so that the motif enters on a different part of the beat with each reoccurrence.
If you been following along this far, then you’ve likely understood each of the techniques as presented in a decontextualize manner. In the next section, we’ll use these techniques in the context of a familiar tune to emulate a Bruce Hornsby sound.
For the final segment of today’s lesson, we’re going to demonstrate how you can use the techniques presented in today’s lesson to play an ordinary tune with the signature Bruce Hornsby sound. We’ll be using the folk song “Simple Gifts” to model this process in 3 steps.
The first step in any arranging endeavor is to start with a sketch of melody and its basic harmony. Therefore, the example below presents the melody and basic chords for the excerpt of “Simple Gifts” that we’ll be examining.
The next step in arranging is to look for opportunities to introduce harmonic colors that are characteristic of the targeted playing style. Since we are trying to emulate a Bruce Hornsby piano style in particular, we are looking to introduce minor 7th chords, add2 chords and the 7/9 combo. In addition, we’d like to see if we can include that movement from Ⅰ→♭Ⅶ→Ⅳ.
You’ll notice in the sketch below that we’ve replaced the initial G major chord in each phrase with Em7, a common chord substitution. We’ve also upgraded several of the major triads to add2 chords. In the second measure, the melody note D is the 9th of C major. Therefore, this is the perfect opportunity for a 7/9 combo.
Next, notice the chords in measure 4, which were previously Am→D, have now been changed to F→C. This introduces the movement of ♭Ⅶ→Ⅳ. To accommodate this harmonization, the melody had to be altered slightly. You’ll notice the F♯ in the original melody is now a G. However, the phrase still retains its essential shape and destination note, albeit with a more pentatonic flavor.
Another harmonic change occurs in measure 7, in which the original movement was D→Am. Now, the chords are Am7→Em7 to capture that icon movement from Ⅱm7→Ⅵm7 that is reminiscent of the opening chords on “The Way It Is.”
As you can hear, we’ve taken some significant steps in the right direction. Keep in mind, we’re still working with a harmonic sketch at this point, so the voicings are not yet emblematic of Bruce Hornsby’s style. In the next, section we’ll be more particular about our voicings as we also seek to apply characteristic Bruce Hornsby rhythms.
In step 3, we need to apply rhythm and groove characteristics of the targeted style. Since the melody already features quite a few 16th notes, we’ve sought opportunities to displace some of these rhythms (see measures 1 and 2). We’ve also syncopated the melody in measures 2 and 3 in a manner similar to the opening riff from “The Way It Is.” We’ve taken some additional liberty with the melody in measure 4 to introduce a Hornsby-style linear pentatonic phrase. Then, we’ve dropped in some gospel chords in measures 5 and 6 to channel that aspect of Bruce’s piano sound. Finally, we’ve interspersed some slip notes throughout the arrangement to give it that fancy flare.
Another final consideration is orchestration. Therefore, the arrangement has been recording with a characteristically bright Bruce Hornsby piano sound with plenty of chorus, reverb and the layering of a soft synth pad.
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on How to Play Piano Like Bruce Hornsby. Now that you’ve learned the 10 piano techniques that Bruce Hornsby uses to obtain his signature sound, you’re ready to incorporate these techniques into your own playing. In fact, these techniques are so representative of Hornsby’s piano playing that when you first implement them, your bandmates will likely do a “double take” glance in your direction—and that’s the ultimate compliment!
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Wiloch, Denise. “Bruce Hornsby: Singer, Songwriter, Pianist.” Encyclopedia.Com. 11 May 2018.
² “Bruce Hornsby & the Range.” Vogue, thevogue.com.
³ Balderston, Michael. “Bruce Hornsby Talks Early Influences and Finding His Virginia Sound.” Northern Virginia Magazine, 25 June 2018.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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