Learn to Play Ragtime Piano in 7 Easy Steps

Instructor
Johnny Hodges
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
10:16

Learning Focus
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Riffs
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Ragtime

Get ready to learn to play ragtime piano with the former Disneyland Main Street Ragtime Pianist, Johnny Hodges!

In this lesson, Johnny Hodges shows you:

  • The Triplet Rag Roll
  • Forward Rag Rolls
  • Reverse Rag Roll
  • Combined Rag Roll
  • Ragtime Ornament
  • The Wolfe Whistle Effect
  • 6 Essential Ragtime Exercises

All of this will help you transform any song into ragtime.

There is no greater expert on ragtime than Johnny Hodges – he played ragtime piano at Disneyland for over 25 years as the Disneyland Main Street Ragtime Pianist, and he taught his methods to hundreds of students, including me.

Later, I landed the job as the Disneyland Ragtime Pianist, where I entertained guests for 9 years. I share this with you because Johnny Hodges method works – not only did I use it to land the Disneyland job, but I’ve also taught it to hundreds of students and seen them go on to play ragtime piano professionally.

Now, everything you will learn in this lesson is inside the lesson video on this page, and if you want to checkout the full 4-hour Johnny Hodges Interview and Lesson, you can right here.

The Secret to Playing Ragtime

You see, the secret to learn to play ragtime piano is to understand the tools that ragtime pianists use to play ragtime. Specifically, you need to know rag rolls.

What is a rag roll?

A rag roll is a repeated pattern in the right hand where the melody is played in octaves with the pinkie and thumb, and 2 chord tones are added in between.

So, now that you know what a rag roll is, it’s time to learn your first and most important rag roll, the Forward rag roll.

Step 1: Forward Rag Roll

The forward rag roll is arguably the most common rag roll in ragtime piano, and it was a favorite for Scott Joplin.  Here is how to play a forward rag roll on a C Major chord:

Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano on a C Major Chord
Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano on a C Major Chord

Notice that we are playing a big, 4-note C Major in our right hand, with the notes from the bottom C E G and C.  Now, in order to transform this chord into a rag roll, we break up, or arpeggiate the chord.

There are 3 important Rag Roll Rules that you should generally follow when using rag rolls:

  • First: the chord is generally arpeggiated from the bottom up
  • Second: the outer notes are almost always played in octaves
  • Third: the rag roll follows a very specific, rhythmic pattern using “syncopation”

What is syncopation? Syncopation is where you accent notes in between the beats.  Therefore, whenever we punch those octaves on the “ands” between our primary beats, we get a very cool syncopated sound that is highly characteristic of ragtime.

In the case of the forward rag roll rhythm, the octaves played as quarter notes on beat one, followed by a series of 8th notes from beats 2 through the measure.

Notice that the octaves punches are on beat 1, beat 2, and the “and of beat 3”.  This “and of beat 3” is a syncopated note, and this gives ragtime its highly characteristic sound.

Try Other Chords

Once you’ve practiced your rag roll on C, try playing your rag roll on other chords, like an F Major chord:

F Major Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano
F Major Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano

Now try a G Major chord:

G Major Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano
G Major Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano

Try Inversions

You can play a rag roll in different inversions, like a first inversion C Major Chord:

C Major First Inversion Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano
C Major First Inversion Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano

Just make sure you are applying the same pattern, regardless of the chord or the melody note.

The super important thing to realize about ragtime and rag rolls is that the octave notes on the outside are your melody, and the internal notes of the rag roll are your chord.

With this principle, you can then take any melody note and any chord and apply the rag roll to it, instantly creating ragtime!

Exercise 1: Forward Rag Roll Exercise

So, how do you practice your forward rag roll?

Well, Johnny Hodges provided us with this wonderful forward rag roll exercise where you practice harmonizing every note of the C Major scale with the forward rag roll while using your primary chords in the key of C.

Here are the first 4 measures of the exercise:

Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano Scale Exercise by Johnny Hodges
Forward Rag Roll Ragtime Piano Scale Exercise by Johnny Hodges

If you are a member here at Piano With Jonny, you can download the full lesson sheet music with this exercise on this page, plus practice this in all 12 keys with one click with our smart sheet music.

Congratulations! You can now play ragtime over any note from the key of C Major, which means you can play 99% of popular songs (because most songs use notes from the major scale and only 3 chords.

For a deep dive of how to apply the rag roll to a song, checkout the Ragtime Piano Crash Course for Beginner/Intermediate Players or the Ragtime Piano Crash Course for Intermediate/Advanced Players.

Now that you have the forward rag roll, it’s time to learn the second most common rag roll in ragtime, the Reverse Rag Roll.

Step 2: Reverse Rag Roll

The Reverse Rag Roll is very similar to the Forward Rag Roll, except it is flipped.  Check it out!

Reverse Rag Roll Ragtime Piano on a C Major Chord
Reverse Rag Roll Ragtime Piano on a C Major Chord

Notice that we are still arpeggiating a big C Major chord, but now we are playing the 8th notes at the beginning of the measure and the quarter notes at the end of the measure (remember that with the Forward Rag Roll the quarter notes were at the beginning and the 8th notes were at the end.)

However, notice that the same “rag roll rules” still apply. The only thing that is different this time is that we have shifted the rhythm to start at a different point in the measure.

I encourage you to practice the reverse rag roll on different chords, like an F Major chord, G Major chord, and D Major chord.  Also, try playing inversions of each of these chords.

Exercise 2: Reverse Rag Roll Exercise

Once you have this down, go ahead and play the Reverse Rag Roll Exercise. Here are the first 4 measures of an excellent ragtime piano exercise where you practice every note of the major scale:

Reverse Rag Roll Ragtime Piano Scale Exercise by Johnny Hodges
Reverse Rag Roll Ragtime Piano Scale Exercise by Johnny Hodges

If you are logged in as a PWJ member, you can download and print the exercise and change the sheet music to any key with one click.

You are well on your way to learn to play ragtime piano! You’ve learned the 2 most important ragtime rolls – these are the 60% of ragtime piano playing – but before I teach you the Triplet Roll, you need to know how to combine the forward and reverse rolls in the Combined Roll.

Step 3: Combined Roll

Now, now the combined roll is a very spicy roll! And I’m not talking about sushi 😉

If you want to learn to play ragtime piano, you need to know the combined roll because it is a more fancy rag roll.  Essentially with with the combined roll, you will be combining the forward roll and the reverse roll.  Check it out:

Combined Forward and Reverse Rag Roll Ragtime Piano
Combined Forward and Reverse Rag Roll Ragtime Piano

Notice that on measure 1 we have the forward roll, and measure 2 we have the reverse roll.  This creates a very cool pattern, where each measure the melody get’s slightly displaced.

Not sure what I mean? Let me explain differently.

Remember I said that the outer notes of the rag roll are your melody?  Well, look at where the melody notes are on measure 1. They are on beat 1, beat 2, and the “and of beat 3”.

On measure 2, the melody notes are on beat 1, the “and of beat 2”, and  beat 4.

Isn’t that awesome?!? So with this technique, the melody will sound more interesting because it punches in at different points throughout the measure.

Now that you learned your combined roll, practice it on other chords like F Major and G Major, and also try inversions of these chords.

Exercise 3: Combined Rag Roll Exercise

Now, it’s time to practice this exercise up the C Major Scale.  Here are the first 4 measures to get you started:

Combined Rag Roll Ragtime Piano Scale Exercise by Johnny Hodges
Combined Rag Roll Ragtime Piano Scale Exercise by Johnny Hodges

By the way, another excellent course for  applying rag rolls to a song is the America the Beautiful Ragtime Challenge.

Next, you are going to learn your final rag roll, most exciting roll of them all, the Triplet Roll.

Step 4: Triplet Roll

The Triplet Rag Roll is one of my favorite ragtime piano rolls, and it really sparkles when you play it. Here is how the triplet roll works:

Triplet Roll Ragtime Piano on C Major Chord
Triplet Roll Ragtime Piano on C Major Chord

Notice that now we are taking the chord and arpeggiating it in triplets.  In other words, each beat gets divided into 3.

This ragtime rag roll is a very short roll – it only lasts 2 beats before you repeat it again.  It’s important to contrast this to the forward and reverse rolls, which each take up one measure.  And the combined roll is a 2-measure roll.

Once more, each rag roll has these durations:

  • Triplet Roll: 1 beat
  • Forward Roll: 1 measure
  • Reverse Roll: 1 measure
  • Combined Roll: 2 measures

So when you learn to play ragtime piano, you have lot’s of options. That’s the beauty of piano improv.

Once you get the C Major triplet roll in your fingers, try it on other chords like Bb Major and Eb Major, and try it in different inversions.

Exercise 4: Triplet Roll Exercise

Now, it’s time to practice this over the C Major Scale.  Here are the first 4 measures of Johnny Hodge’s exercise:

Triplet Roll Ragtime Piano Scale Exercise by Johnny Hodges
Triplet Roll Ragtime Piano Scale Exercise by Johnny Hodges

Exercise 5: Triplet Roll Octave Exercise

Another fantastic way to practice the Triplet Roll is to play it in multiple octaves.  Here is an exercise where you practice Triplet Rolls in octaves up the C Major Scale:

Triplet Roll Octave Scale Ragtime Piano Exercise by Johnny Hodges
Triplet Roll Octave Scale Ragtime Piano Exercise by Johnny Hodges

If you’re a member here at PWJ, I highly encourage you to practice these rag roll exercises in other common ragtime keys like G Major and F Major with our smart lesson sheet, which allows you to change the key, slow down, and print the sheet. 

Now that you’ve learned your 4 rag rolls, you have the 95% of ragtime playing!  What’s the last 5 percent?!? It’s the fills and the ornamentation!

Step 5: Ornaments

When you learn to play ragtime piano, it is important to fill in between your rag rolls.  How do you do this?

Well, one of the sweetest fills you can use in Ragtime are Zez Confrey “ornaments”. These come from his famous tune, Kitten on the Keys.

How to do you play an ornament?

Well, let’s say you are on a C Major chord in your song, and you have a gap in your melody.  Here’s how you would use an ornament on a C Major Chord:

Zez Confrey Ragtime Piano Ornament Fill on C Major

Notice that we create some tension by using the b3 (Eb) and 6 (A) of the C major scale, and then resolve those notes to the E and G from the chord.  This is the basic ornament technique, and you can do this on other chords.

For example, if you applied an ornament to an F major chord, you would slide from Ab and D to A and C.  Pretty cool, huh?

Exercise 6: Ornament Exercise

Johnny Hodges put together an excellent exercise for us to practice ornaments on every note of the C Major Scale.  Here are the first 4 measures:

Zez Confrey Ornament Ragtime Piano Fill Exercise by Johnny Hodges
Zez Confrey Ornament Ragtime Piano Fill Exercise by Johnny Hodges

Now that you can play ragtime ornaments, it’s time for the final filler technique, the Wolf Whistle.

Step 6: The Wolf Whistle

The Wolf Whistle is a fun piano effect that sounds like someone whistling to get the attention of someone they find attractive. Here is how to play a Wolf Whistle:

Wolf Whistle Ragtime Piano Effect
Wolf Whistle Ragtime Piano Effect

That squiggly line you see is called a glissando, and this is basically where you brush the keys either up or down the keyboard.

An important note! When you play a glissando, use your finger nails, NOT the palm of your hand.  Use your middle finger for an up-gliss, and your thumb for a down-gliss.

Step 7: Putting it All Together

Now that you have all of your rag roll techniques, it’s time to put them together.

Ultimately, a great ragtime arrangement is someone that uses all of the rag rolls and fills in an arrangement.  I encourage you to take a simple melody link Mary Had a Little Lamb or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and try applying rag rolls to them.

In fact, we’ve put together a ragtime & stride piano learning track for you to master these styles using various tunes and exercises.  If you are more of a beginner at ragtime, checkout the Beginner/Intermediate Ragtime & Stride Learning Track, and if you have some experience playing these genres, checkout the Intermediate/Advanced Ragtime & Stride Learning Track.

I also highly encourage you to listen to ragtime arrangements to really get the sound of ragtime in your ear.  I’ve put together a few of my favorite ragtime arrangement to show you how far you can go to arrange any song in ragtime!

3 Classical Themes in Ragtime
3 Movie Themes in Ragtime
3 Scary Movie Themes in Ragtime

Finally, if you enjoyed this lesson with Johnny Hodges, I highly encourage you to check out the full 4-hour interview and lesson with Johnny Hodges, where Johnny shares stories, insights, and lessons from his over 50-year career as a professional pianist countless plus tips, tricks, and tools to take your playing to the next level.

Well, that’s all for now.  Thanks for learning to play ragtime piano with us!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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