Play Contemporary Gospel and R&B Piano in 3 Steps

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
10:06

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
  • Reharmonization
Music Style
  • Gospel
  • R&B

Do you want to learn how to play Contemporary Gospel and R&B Piano? In today’s piano lesson, you are going to learn how to play the Contemporary Gospel and R&B piano styles in 3 easy steps.  Starting with a very basic chord progression, we’ll walk through the process of making these chords more interesting with chord colors, how to add additional chords, and common Contemporary Gospel and R&B rhythms and voicings. Specifically, you’ll learn:

  • The 1-6-4-5 Chord Progression
  • How to transform your chords into 7ths
  • How to add passing chords with the 2-5 Trick
  • How to use Extensions & Alterations to color your chords
  • 2 Common Chord Voicing Approaches

Whether you have just a little experience playing the piano or you’ve been playing piano for some time, you’ll learn essential tools for playing Contemporary Gospel and R&B piano. Let’s dive in.

Step 1: The Most Common Contemporary Gospel and R&B Chord Progression, the 1-6-4-5 Progression

The first step in playing Contemporary Gospel and R&B on the piano is to pick a simple chord progression. One of students’ biggest misconceptions about the Contemporary Gospel & R&B genre is that it has a lot of big, sophisticated chords. But if you boil Contemporary Gospel and R&B piano down to its basic elements, most of these progressions have only 4 chords. The big, crunchy chords that you’re hearing are actually just the icing on the cake, and we’ll discuss this later in this piano lesson. But for starters, let’s make sure we have a solid foundation to start from before we start adding the fancy stuff.

What progression should you start off with if you want to play Contemporary Gospel and R&B piano?

I recommend the 1-6-4-5 chord progression.

What is the 1-6-4-5 chord progression?

The 1-6-4-5 chord progression is a chord progression that uses the chords F, D minor, B flat major, and C major if you are playing in the key of F. Here is what the chord progression looks like in sheet music form:

1-6-4-5 chord progression in the key of F on piano with root position chords
1-6-4-5 chord progression in the key of F on piano with root position chords

Now, if you don’t know your major and minor chords in the key of F, I highly recommend that you checkout the Key of F Major course, where you learn all of your diatonic chords in the key of F.

Before moving on, you can try other chord progressions in the key of F as well. Here are 2 common Gospel and R&B piano chord sheets on the piano:

2 common contemporary gospel and r&b chord progression on piano
2 common contemporary gospel and r&b chord progression on piano

You can learn 8 essential gospel progressions in our Gospel Groove Series here.

The next step is to make your chords more interesting by making them 7th chords.

Transform Your Chords Into 7th Chords

The next step to playing Gospel and R&B piano is to make your chords 7th chords. By adding a 7th to each of the 4 chords you already learned, you will instantly make the chord progression sound more jazzy, or in this case, “gospilly”.

How do you add 7ths to your chords?

The easiest way to find the 7th of each chord is to skip one note above the top note each chord and play the next note using the notes of the F Major Scale. So on the F Major chord, if you start on the top note C and skip the D, you have E (which is the 7th). On the C chord, if you skip the next note up from the top note G, then you will end up on a Bb chord. The trick with this method is to always use the F major scale to move up as you find your notes. Now, if you apply this system to the 4 chords you already learned, you end up with these four 7th chords:

1-6-4-5 chord progression in the key of F on piano using 7th chords
1-6-4-5 chord progression in the key of F on piano using 7th chords

By the way, we call these chords diatonic 7th chords, and if you want to play Contemporary Gospel & R&B, then it is essential that you learn them in all 12 keys (you can learn them in our Diatonic 7th Exercises Chords course here). (20 minutes).

Now, before moving on, I recommend that you practice the above chord progression with the included backing track, which can be downloaded at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership. You can also practice this in any of the 12 keys with the click of one button of our Smart Lesson Sheet music.

Now that you can play these 7th chords, let’s add some more chords to the progression.

Step 2: Contemporary Gospel and R&B Passing Chords

The next step to play Contemporary Gospel and R&B piano is to add passing chords. Passing chords are a defining characteristic of Contemporary Gospel and R&B piano. Now, when you first hear pianists adding these chords, it can seem very mysterious. How do they know which chords to add and which ones sound good?! Today, I’m going to show you one of the most commonly used passing chord techniques called the 2-5 Trick.

What is the 2-5 trick?

The 2-5 trick is a technique where you add chords to a chord progression by using the 2 chord and the 5 chord of your target chord. So if we look at our chord progression from above, you’ll notice that we start on an F Major 7 chord and then the next chord is D minor 7. Because D minor 7 is our target chord, we can add the 2 and the 5 of the D minor 7 chord just before that chord. What is the 2 and 5 chords in the key of D minor? They are E minor 7 flat 5 and A7 respectively:

2-5-1 chord progression in the key of d minor on piano in the contemporary gospel ad r&b style
2-5-1 chord progression in the key of d minor on piano in the contemporary gospel ad r&b style

(If you don’t know your 2 and 5 chords for each key, you can learn in our 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises and Minor 2-5-1 Exercises courses).

Now, if we continue using this logic, we can add the 2-5- trick before every chord. Using this system, we end up with the following chord progression:

2-5 Trick to add passing chords for contemporary gospel and R&B chord progression
2-5 Trick to add passing chords for contemporary gospel and R&B chord progression

Now it’s really starting to sound good! We have lot’s of exciting passing chords. Remember that we started with 4 chords? Now we have 12 chords! And we did that using 1 single passing chord technique. You can learn many more passing chord techniques in our Passing Chord & Reharmonization courses (Level 2, Level 3).

However, it still doesn’t quite have the right sound. In order to put the final polishing touches, we need to add a few more chord colors.

Step 3: Contemporary Gospel and R&B Extensions, Alterations, & Voicings

Arguably the most important step in learning to play R&B and Contemporary Gospel piano is to color your chords.  The way that we do this is with chord extensions and alterations.

What are chord extensions and alterations?

Chord extensions and alterations are notes that we can add to 7th chords. Chord extensions are the 9, 11, and 13, and chord alterations are the b9, #9, #11, and b13. By adding these notes to your chords, you’ll be able to achieve the rich, beautiful chords that the pros play.

Now, in this lesson, I’m not going to go into detail explaining what the chord extensions and alterations are (you can do a deep dive on them in our Chord Extensions course and our Chord Alterations course). However, if you already know your extensions and alterations, let’s talk about how to use them on your chords.

Major 7 Chords

The first and most common chord you’ll see in Contemporary Gospel and R&B music is your major 7 chord. How do you make it sound like Gospel and R&B? You add the 9th to the chord. So in the case of F Major 7, you add the G to the chord:

F major 9 chord in root position on piano
F major 9 chord in root position on piano

Minor 7 Chords

The second most common chord you’ll see in R&B and Contemporary Gospel is your minor 7 chord. The way to make this chord sound like Gospel chords is to also add the 9 to the chord. So in the case of Dm, you would add the E, or the 9:

D minor 9 chord in root position on piano
D minor 9 chord in root position on piano

Dominant 7 Chord

The third most common chord you’ll find in Contemporary Gospel and R&B genre is your Dominant 7 chord. For this chord, your best approach is to add any of these combinations:

  • The 9 and 13
  • The b9 and #11
  • The b13 and #9

Here they are in notation format:

Common extension and alteration combinations on a dominant 7 chord including C13, C7#11b9, and C7b13#9
Common extension and alteration combinations on a dominant 7 chord including C13, C7#11b9, and C7b13#9

While there are other combinations that work well, the above 3 combinations have the strongest punch.

What are the above extension/alteration combinations called? They are called Upper Structures, and you can do a deep dive on them in our Coloring Dominant Chords With Extensions and our Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures courses.

Now that you know what notes to add to your chords, it’s time to put the whole chord progression together.

2 Common Contemporary Gospel and R&B Chord Voicings

The final step in playing Contemporary Gospel and R&B piano is to add your above chord extensions and alterations to your progression in an interesting way. What do we mean by “interesting”? Well, we want to spread the notes of the chord out on the piano so that it really has punch. We call this technique “chord voicing”.

What is a chord voicing?

Chord voicing is how we spread the notes of the chord on the piano. Ideal chord voicings in the left hand usually contain the root and 7th, or the root and 3rd. In the right hand, ideal voicings use chord clusters or triads. With these guidelines, you should be able to play some pretty hip voicings on this chord progression.

So here we go. Let’s apply all we’ve learned to Voicing 1

Voicing 1

Voicing 1 contemporary gospel and R&B chord progression for piano
Voicing 1 contemporary gospel and R&B chord progression for piano

As you can see, now the chords are way more interesting! Notice in the right hand that we are playing a lot of inversions of chords and a lot of chord clusters. Let’s walk through a few examples.

Do you see the first chord on measure one, the F Major 9? This is called a Rootless Voicing and it’s a very hip way to play a Major 9 chord (you can learn more about rootless voicings here).

See left hand in measures 2 and 3, where you play the A and G on the A7(#9) and a D and F on the Dm9? These are called chord shells, and you can do a deep dive on Chord Shells here.

You’ll also notice some triads, like in the 4th measure, on the C13(b9) chord. In the right hand, this chord is actually just a simple A major.  Again, this is an upper structure, and you can do a deep dive on these chords here.

Now, before moving on, I recommend that you practice this chord progression with the included backing track, which can be downloaded at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership.

Let’s look at Voicing 2.

Voicing 2

Voicing 2 contemporary gospel and R&B chord progression for piano
Voicing 2 contemporary gospel and R&B chord progression for piano

Voicing 2 is very similar, except we play different inversions on some of chords and use more triads. Specifically, notice the Gb major triad on the A13(b9) in measure 1. And notice the D major triad on the F13(b9) in measure 2. Again, these are called Upper Structures and they are very important in Contemporary Gospel and R&B.

A great resource for this lesson is the downloadable lesson sheet music, which you can find at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership.

Putting It All Together

Now that you’ve learned how to transform a 1-6-4-5 chord progression in the Contemporary Gospel and R&B style, you might be thinking, hey I want to really understand this theory better so that I can do this for other chord progressions.

If this is you, then I highly recommend that you go through our Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 foundations learning tracks. In these learning tracks, you’ll master every essential building block of Contemporary Gospel and R&B piano harmony, including major chords, minor chords, 7th chords, chord extensions, alterations, and the most common voicing techniques like rootless voicings, block chords, Drop 3 voicings, and Quartal Voicings.

And if you’re looking for a little gospel inspiration, checkout my original funky gospel tune, Swag Time.

This concludes this week’s Quick Tip. Thanks for learning, and see you in the next piano lesson!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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