Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Groove
  • Rhythm
Music Style
  • Gospel
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Have you ever wondered how to play the distinctive piano techniques found in neo soul and contemporary gospel music? Well, in today’s Quick Tip we’re going to explore the playing and compositional style of grammy award-winning producer, songwriter and pianist, Shaun Martin. Shaun Martin plays with the acclaimed jazz-fusion collective Snarky Puppy. He has also recorded with top contemporary gospel artists including Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Fred Hammond, just to name a few. After learning the 4 steps in today’s Quick Tip, you too will be able to play piano like Shaun Martin. This lesson covers…

    • Melody Techniques
    • Passing Chords
    • Inversions
    • Slip Notes
    • Chord Extensions

Many students often ask, “how do I replicate that contemporary urban piano sound?” As a result, today’s lesson will examine “The Yellow Jacket” from Shaun’s 2015 solo album, 7Summers, to isolate some of the most common ingredients.

Let’s take a closer look…

Step 1—Melody

Let’s begin by looking at some of the unique features Shaun Martin has written into the the piano melody itself. The song is in the key of D Major. Its melody draws heavily from the D Major Pentatonic Scale. Major pentatonic scales use the tones 1-2-3-5-6 from a major scale. The diagram below illustrates how to construct a D Major Pentatonic Scale from the D Major parent scale.

D Major Pentatonic Scale Construction Piano
Constructing D Major Pentatonic Scale using scale tones 1-2-3-5-6.
Shaun Martin Pentatonic Piano Melody

Interestingly, a close analysis of this melody shows that nearly 90% of the melody comes directly from the D Major Pentatonic Scale. Look at the opening phrase to see his use of the Pentatonic scale:

Shaun Martin Melody
Shaun Martin Melody
Shaun Martin Piano Syncopation

Another significant aspect of this melody is its strong syncopation. Syncopation is a compositional device that places accents on weak beats in a manner that contrasts with the established meter. In other words, you can think of syncopation as “rhythmic dissonance.” Like harmonic dissonance, this rhythmic dissonance draws the listener in by creating a tension which is resolved when the anticipated metrical pulse is restored.

Although “The Yellow Jacket” is in 3/4 time, note how often the melody moves against beats 2 and 3 in particular. Syncopation is a prominent characteristic of Shaun Martin’s piano style.

Shaun Martin Syncopation
Shaun Martin Syncopation

You may have noticed that the example above lacks some of the harmonic characteristics of the original recording. This example represents the basic harmonic structure that supports this melody. To learn more about melodic writing, check out our course on Jazz Ballad Composition. Also, don’t forget you can download the lesson sheet for this Quick Tip from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. And you can also easily transpose this lesson into any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

In the next section, we’ll explore how to add passing chords to stylize your piano playing like Shaun Martin.

Step 2—Passing Chords

A defining characteristic of the contemporary gospel piano style is the use of passing chords. Passing chords added between basic chords help to embellish the sound. In the second full measure below, the A♭7 is an added passing chord. Sometimes, one or more passing chords may replace a more basic chord. Take another look at the second measure in this example and in the previous example. Notice that the A major chord has been replaced with the passing chords C♯m7(♭5) and F♯7. In fact, these passing chords are actually borrowed chords from the key of B minor. Moreover, these chords form a minor ii∅7–V7–i7 progression in B minor (C♯∅7–F♯7–Bm7). This harmonic vocabulary is a staple chord progression of contemporary gospel music. Fortunately, you can learn this progression in all 12 keys in our Minor 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises course!

Shaun Martin Passing Chords
Shaun Martin Passing Chords

A few other chord modifications in this step are worth noting. Did you notice several basic triads have been converted to seventh chords? Firstly, it is common to add the 7th to minor triads (Bm ⇒ Bm7). Secondly, it is also common to use a Dominant 7sus4 voicing on the 5 chord (A ⇒ A7sus4). Thirdly, you will commonly see a major 2 chord converted to a dominant 7th chord (E ⇒E7) when used to approach the 5 chord as in measure 4.

If you like the chord enhancements in this section, then you will love our full-length courses on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3).

Next, we’ll explore Shaun’s use of chord inversions in this composition.

Step 3—Inversions

A third piano technique you can use to play like Shaun Martin is to apply chord inversions. For example, in contemporary gospel piano music the 1 chord often appears in first inversion (D/F♯). This chord appears in measures 1, 3, 5 and 7, for instance. The 1 chord in first inversion most often serves to approach or depart from the 4 chord (G) as it does in each of these measures. This forms a more melodic bass line in the left hand because it creates more stepwise motion. In addition, this inversion creates a lot of parallel 10ths between the bass line and melody which is another common arranging technique of contemporary gospel piano.

Shaun Martin Inversions
Shaun Martin Inversions

Doesn’t that sound great? In the next section, you’ll learn two additional ways to stylize your playing!

Step 4—Slip Notes & Extensions

There are two more important contemporary gospel piano techniques that Shaun Marin uses on this tune. First, we’ll examine his use of slip notes. Afterward, we’ll discuss his use of chord extensions.

What are Slip Notes?

Slip notes are ornaments that brighten the melody, giving it an effect often described as a “sparkle” or “twang.” The majority of slip note applications approach a melody note from a whole step below. For example, a common way to add a slip note is by converting a major chord to an “add2” chord. In the first measure for instance, the D major chord has been converted to a D(add2) with the addition of the note E. The 2nd of the chord (E) is played like a grace note that ornaments the 3rd of the chord (F♯). Another example of this technique occurs just moments later on the G major chord also in measure 1. The G major chord has been converted to a G(add2) and the 2nd of the chord (A) is  a slip note to the 3rd of the chord (B).

Shaun Martin Slip Notes & Extensions
Shaun Martin Slip Notes & Extensions

What about adding slip notes to minor chords? Did you notice the slip note in measure 2? You can convert a minor 7th chord to a minor 11th chord to add a slip note. For example, the slip note in this instance is the 11h of the chord (E) and resolves up to the 5th of the chord (F♯). While the E in this chord is a slip note, it is also a chord extension, which brings us to our next contemporary gospel technique.

What are Chord Extensions?

Chord extensions are any of the three additional chord tones above the 7th that pianists can add to enhance the harmonic color which include the 9th, 11th or 13th. However, if you are new to chord extensions, don’t let those double-digit numbers intimidate you! Many players prefer to think of these compound intervals (intervals larger than one octave) by their simple interval equivalents—the 2nd, 4th, or 6th of the chord. To convert a compound interval to a simple interval, simply subtract 7 from the compound interval (11-7=4).

In our example above, measure 2 features two chords with extensions. Firstly, the Bm11 has the 11th added as a slip note which we have already examined. Secondly, the passing chord that was previously an  A♭7 in step 2 is now an A♭9(♯11). That’s because the 9th of the chord (B♭) is now added in an inner voice for additional color. But what about that ♯11 in the chord symbol? This is actually the melody note D. In fact, this note was present all along, but we have now adjusted the chord symbol in step 4 to reflect the specific chord alteration. You can explore Piano Chord Extensions and Piano Chord Alterations in much more detail in our full-length courses on these topics for our members.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out our Gospel Piano Intermediate Learning Track or step up to our Gospel Piano Advanced Learning Track.

Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

This copyrighted lesson sheet is not available due to publisher restrictions.

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