Locked Hands – The Piano Guide
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One of the basic paradigms of mature musicianship is that the melody is paramount. This means that once a melody enters, all other musical elements should support it, rather than compete with it or detract from it. In the context of a jazz ensemble, this is accomplished both reactively and proactively. Of course, rhythm section instrumentalists must be careful not to overplay while accompanying. Beyond this, however, jazz pianists often think like composers, intentionally orchestrating the melody to produce a pleasing melodic texture. One such technique is the locked hands method of playing, popularized by pianist George Shearing in the 1940s and 50s. In today’s Quick Tip, Locked Hands—The Piano Guide, Jonny May shares how to present a jazz melody with the exquisite locked hands sound. You’ll learn:
- Introduction to the Locked Hands Piano Style
- Examples of Locked Hands Piano Style
- How to Play Locked Hands Piano Style in 4 Steps
In playing through the examples in today’s lesson, you’ll find that this beautiful jazz piano technique contains its own satisfying reward.
Let’s begin by examining a melodic except arranged for locked hands, which is also often called block chords.
As you can hear from this brief example, the locked hands playing style has an elegant sound that allows jazz pianists to imitate the sound of a larger ensemble. This thick melodic texture is accomplished by a specific 5-note voicing system.
The locked hands jazz piano technique is a voicing approach that uses both hands to accomplish a unique 5-note harmonization of the melody. Specifically, this technique arranges the melody in octaves with 3 notes in between. Usually, the right hand plays the top 4 notes while the left hand plays the bottom note. In addition, jazz pianists use their left hand to ornament the melody with scoops, slides, turns and ghost notes. Other common names for the locked hands style include block chords, four-way close double melody, or Shearing style—named after jazz pianist George Shearing who popularized the locked hands sound in the 1940s and 50s. The locked hands piano technique is commonly used for melodies that predominantly feature stepwise movement.
“This style of block chording was called the locked-hands style because in order to play it properly the hands had to move across the keyboard as though they were locked together at the wrist.”
—Billy Taylor, American jazz pianist
Robbin’s Nest (1966)
American jazz pianist and organist Milt Buckner (1915–1977) was the first to develop the locked hands style of playing, although he is not always credited for this contribution.¹ Buckner was the pianist and arranger for the Lionel Hampton Orchestra from 1941 to 1948. After a brief career as a band leader, Buckner returned to Hampton’s band from 1950 to 1952.² Buckner also pioneered the use of the Hammond organ in jazz during the 1950s and spent the latter part of his career performing in Europe.³ Buckner’s 1966 recording of “Robbin’s Nest” demonstrates tasteful use of his locked hands approach.
British jazz pianist George Shearing (1919–2011) is the performer most associated with the locked hands piano technique. In fact, the terms “Shearing style” or “Shearing voicings” are virtually synonymous with locked hands playing. Shearing, who was blind from birth, began playing the piano at age 5. After immigrating to the US in 1947, he formed the George Shearing Quintet in 1949 which included piano, vibraphone, guitar, bass and drums. The Shearing signature sound featured traditional locked hands piano voicings with the upper melody note doubled on vibraphone and the lower octave melody note doubled on guitar.⁴
I’ll Remember April (1949)
On Green Dolphin Street (1958)
American jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans (1929–1980) is perhaps best known for his use of introspective harmonic colors in his playing. Evans began classical piano training at age 6 and was influenced French impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. After playing in the Army Band from 1951-1954, Evans relocated to New York City. He recorded his first trio album in 1956 and was invited to join Miles Davis’ Quintet in 1958.⁵ Evans’ piano solo on the Davis’ 1958 recording of “On Green Dolphin Street” demonstrates his fluent proficiency with the locked hands style.
Now that you’ve heard the sound of this exquisite melodic treatment, it’s time for you to learn how to play these beautiful chordal melodies yourself! In this section, you’ll follow Jonny’s 4 step process for playing beautiful locked hands melodies. All of the examples below are in C major and come from today’s lesson sheet PDF. In fact, you can download the complete lesson sheet and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. In addition, you can easily transpose these examples to any key using our Smart Sheet Music. Let’s start by examining Step 1.
All of the block chord melodies in today’s lesson are played over an elegant variation of the turnaround progression. Instead of the typical I→vi→ii→V turnaround, we’ll use ii→iiº7→I▵7→iº7. The use of fully diminished 7th chords in this turnaround progression give it a classic early jazz sound.
The Classy Jazz Progression Analysis
Some readers may be wondering how these fully diminished chords work in this context. Ironically, each of the diminished chords substitutions work differently. For example, the Dº7 (D–F–A♭–C♭) functions like a V7(♭9) without the root. In other words, the notes of G7(♭9) are G–B–D–F–A♭. Can you see the Dº7 in this chord? (Remember, C♭ and B♮ are the same pitch.) Therefore, pretty much anytime you have a V7(♭9) chord, you can substitute a fully diminished 7th chord built on the 5th.
Next, let’s consider the Cº7 (C–E♭–G♭–A). This diminished 7th substitution works differently. Normally, we would anticipate an A7(♭9) here, or perhaps and A7(♭9♭13), either of which function as the V7 of ii. However, unlike the previous example, this is not simply a rootless A7(♭9)…A–C♯–E–G–B♭. If you compare the notes, they don’t match. Instead, the Cº7 is actually an inversion of E♭º7 (E♭–G♭–A–C). In the key of C major, E♭º7 is the ♭iiiº7. Here, the E♭º7 resolves down by ½ step to Dm7, a common way to chromatically approach the ii chord from above. This works because E♭º7 shares two common tones with Dm7—the notes A and C. The other two notes of E♭º7 , E♭ and G♭, both resolve down by ½ step creating smooth voice leading. Therefore, the ♭iiiº7 is not so much a substitution for the V7 of ii as it is another way to approach the ii.
If you are intrigued by how these diminished chords work and want to learn more, be sure to check out our Quick Tip on Diminished Chords—5 Essential Piano Techniques or our full length course on Diminished & Half Dim 7th Chord Exercises—Lesson 1.
After you have played through The Classy Jazz Progression, you are ready to proceed to Step 2.
The second step to playing in the lock hands piano style is to learn the locked hands scales for each chord in your progression. Locked hand scales contain specific 5-note voicings for each scale tone, all the while implying a single harmonic sound. For instance, the following D minor locked hand scale features an ascending D Dorian scale harmonized in the traditional manner for block chords (5-notes with doubled melody). In this scale, each voicing either directly implies Dm7 or is compatible with Dm7 by way of chord extensions.
D Minor Locked Hands Scale
What a lovely sound! Now, we need to learn the locked hand scales for the remaining chords in The Classy Jazz Progression.
Next, we have the chord Dº7. The parent scale we use for the diminished sound in this context is the whole-half diminished scale. This is an 8-note scale constructed of alternating whole steps and half steps, beginning with a whole step. Therefore, the notes of the D whole-half diminished are D–E–F–G–A♭–B♭–B♮–C♯. (However, throughout this lesson, Jonny spells the C♯ enharmonically as D♭). Here is the Dº7 sound voiced with ascending block chords.
D Diminished Locked Hands Scale
If you are new to diminished scales, be patient! They take a while to get used to. However, it helps to recognize that the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th tones outline the fully diminished 7th chord: D–F–A♭–B♮. Then, notice that the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th tones are each a whole step above the previous chord tone. Furthermore, in the D diminished locked hands scale, the inner voices are identical for scale degrees 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8. In each pair, the melody simply moves up a whole step. In fact, in the video above, notice that the fingering for the melody in the right hand alternates between the 4th and 5th fingers while the inner voices are played with fingers 1, 2 and 3. This not the only way to finger the scale, but it certainly helps from a cognitive perspective.
Next, we have the C major locked hands scale. In this 7-note scale, each voicing implies a C major sound, such as C6, C▵7 or C▵9. However, because the 4th tone (the note F) is a weak tone or avoid note, it must be treated differently. Therefore, the melody note F is harmonized as a Dm7. For this voicing, the inner voices are consonant with an overall C▵ sound while also supporting the avoid note in the melody. Keep in mind, the 4th scale tone over a major chord usually occurs briefly in passing.
C Major Locked Hands Scale
Our last scale is the C diminished locked hands scale for Cº7. Here, we’ll use the whole-half diminished scale construction described earlier, which gives us the notes C–D–E♭–F–G♭–A♭–A–B.
C Diminished Locked Hands Scale
Before moving on to next step, it’s important to stress how important it is to take your time with these locked hands scales and really get comfortable with them. Once you can play them ascending, try them descending. Then, try playing scale patterns like up a 3rd, down a step, up a 3rd, down a step, etc.
The third step to playing in the locked hands piano style is to compose short melodic exercises and try to harmonize them. Initially, it’s best to use close melodic movement such as common tones and stepwise movement. In this section, we’ll examine three such sample melodies over The Classy Jazz Progression. Each melody will be presented in three phases:
- Single Note Melody
- Melody with Locked Hands Voicings
- Stylized Locked Hands Melody
In the last step, the stylized melody is presented in a professional manner with characteristic ornamentation of the locked hands style, rhythmic interpretation, or both.
Our first exercise begins on the 9th of Dm7, the note E, and slowly descends using repeated notes and stepwise motion.
Single Note Melody 1
Now, let’s listen to how this melody sounds with Shearing-style voicings.
Melody 1 with Locked Hands Voicings
Finally, check out how Jonny interprets this melody in the locked hands style by personalizing the rhythms and adding scoops in the left hand.
Stylized Locked Hands Melody 1
Wow, now that’s a classy piano sound! So, what’s the secret to those scoops? Actually, there are no hard and fast rules. The most common method is to chromatically approach the melody note from below, using 2 or more half steps. However, it’s more about the overall scooping effect than it is about any particular notes. Therefore, you don’t necessarily need to use half steps exclusively. As you can see from the example above, Jonny mixes wholes steps and half steps in his approach tones. In fact, another consideration is ergonomics. In other words, which combination of notes will roll off the fingers most naturally to approach a particular melody note?
Once you feel comfortable playing melody 1 with block chord voicings, try playing along with one of the backing tracks that are included with this lesson. The slower backing track is set to 85 BPM while the faster backing track moves along at 110 BPM. Remember, if you are a PWJ member, the lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks are included with your membership. These resources are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
Our second melodic exercise begins on the 5th of Dm7, the note A. This melody moves in a similar manner to exercise 1, drawing on stepwise motion and common tones.
Single Note Melody 2
Next, we want to interpret this melody with traditional block chords. If you have some prior experience playing block chords, you may want to see if you can figure out the voicings yourself before glancing at the notation below.
Melody 2 with Locked Hands Voicings
Lastly, let’s examine how Jonny stylizes this melody. Notice, this time he uses less ornamentation and more rhythmic interpretation. In particular, he shifts the downbeats of measures 2, 3 and 4 to the “and of 4” of the previous measure—an interpretive gesture known as anticipation.
Stylized Locked Hands Melody 2
Now, let’s look at one last practice melody. Here, we’ll begin on the 7th of Dm7, the note C.
Single Note Melody 3
Now, here is melody 3 with voiced with block chords.
Melody 3 with Locked Hands Voicings
And finally, in the example below Jonny demonstrates melody 3 with minimal rhythmic interpretation. Surprisingly, he doesn’t use any scoops at all in this example—a good reminder not to overdo it!
Stylized Locked Hands Melody 3
So far, so good. Now you’re ready for the final step!
The last step in today’s lesson on how to play locked hands piano style is to combine the exercises from the previous section into a longer melody. Here, Jonny combines the exercises in the order #1, #3, #2. The demonstration below features Jonny playing the combined exercises over the faster backing track at 110BPM.
Demonstration Connecting Locked Hands Exercises
If you made it this far and played through each example, give yourself a pat on the back! You’re on your way to developing the essential locked hands piano technique.
The following list of jazz standards make great practice studies for harmonizing a melody with block chords. Also, be sure to check out our Early Advanced Piano Foundations Learning Track—Level 7 to learn how to play block chord voicings for all chord types that you’ll encounter in these tunes.
- “Autumn Leaves”
- “Blue Bossa”
- “Fly Me to the Moon”
- “There Will Never Be Another You”
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Locked Hands—The Piano Guide. With the tips from today’s lesson, you’ve gained an important perspective on many of the considerations that professional jazz pianists make when presenting a melody.
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 Taylor Billy. Jazz Piano : A Jazz History. Trade ed. W.C. Brown Co 1983, p 104-107.
² “Milt Buckner.” AllAboutJazz.com.
³ Grenier, Theodore Arwulf. “Milt Buckner Biography.” AllMusic.com
⁴ Burlingame, Sandra. “George Shearing.” JazzStandards.com.
⁵ Tikkanen, Amy. “Bill Evans.” Britannica.com.
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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