Play Gospel Piano–The 6-Step Beginner Guide
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Many students who want to learn to play gospel piano may struggle to find a point of entry. In fact, compared to other genres, there are relatively few print resources available on the topic. As a result, aspiring gospel pianists sometimes begin studying traditional piano methods with the hope that someday the skills will just sort of “transfer over.” Well, in today’s Quick Tip, Play Gospel Piano—The 6-Step Beginner Guide, Jonny May helps you connect the dots between basic piano chords and that authentic gospel sound. These 6 steps will work on songs by contemporary gospel artists including Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond, Yolanda Adams, CeCe Winans, Israel Houghton, Smokie Norful and others. In addition, these methods will also enable you to play traditional hymns with a modern gospel sound. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Gospel Piano for Beginners
- Tips for Learning Gospel Piano
- 6 Steps to Play Gospel Piano
- Bonus Section: Gospel Piano Improv
If you have been waiting for a sign to get started playing gospel piano, this just may be your answer!
What makes gospel piano different from other styles? Well, that depends on your perspective. For example, traditional gospel piano has a lot in common with blues piano while contemporary gospel piano shares similar vocabulary with jazz piano. However, if your background is classical piano or pop piano, then you may initially find the learning curve more difficult. However, today’s lesson will help you understand how to approach playing gospel piano as a beginner.
Today’s beginner gospel piano lesson is in the key of C major. In fact, you can download the complete lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose these gospel chords to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Before we dive into the 6 steps on today’s lesson sheet, let’s briefly explore an important paradigm shift that many students need to make in order to learn gospel piano.
The following tips will help you learn to approach gospel piano like a professional church musician or gospel recording artist.
1. Use Your Ears
For many students, the biggest challenge in learning to play gospel piano is getting used to using their ears in the process of learning new songs. For example, in most performance settings, gospel piano is played without sheet music. Instead, gopsel pianists think in terms of chord progressions and patterns, just like jazz pianists.
Gospel music also tends to be groove-oriented. In fact, some gospel grooves look pretty intimidating in sheet music notation. And while it is certainly important to learn to read and count notated rhythms, the same can be said for learning to simply “feel” a gospel groove. In some cases, students may have a tendency to give more attention to how a rhythms looks than how it sounds. However, if you continue listening repeatedly to a particular gospel groove, you’ll find it more and more natural to faithfully imitate its sound.
Listen to following popular gospel hits. Each example features a different gospel piano groove. Listen for both macro rhythms and micro rhythms. Macro rhythms are often played by the kick drum and bass player. On the other hand, micro rhythms refer to the subdivisions played by high-frequency percussion instruments like a hi hat, shaker or tambourine. Can you identify if the micro groove features 8th note, triplet or 16th note subdivisions? For example, the track “10,000 Reasons” by Joe Pace, H.B. Charles Jr. and the Shiloh Church Choir features a 16-note subdivision. However, the 16-notes are swung, not straight! This is an important aspect of this song which cannot be expressed with music notation.
Kirk Franklin & the Family
“Silver and Gold”
Bishop Paul S. Morton
“Your Best Days Yet”
Joe Pace ∙ H.B. Charles Jr.
Keep in mind, some professional gospel pianists don’t read sheet music at all. The point is, when studying gospel piano, be sure you don’t give undue attention to music notation. The more you use your ears, the more effective they will become.
2. Think of Chords as Numbers
A second important tip for learning to play gospel piano is to think of chords as numbers. Generally speaking, we use Roman numerals in indicate chords within a particular key. For example, the figures below illustrate all of the diatonic triads and diatonic 7th chords in C major with their assigned Roman numerals in The Number System. (Note: chord demonstrations are performed an octave lower than notated.)
C Major–Diatonic Triads
C Major–Diatonic 7th Chords
The Number System is important because it represents the sound relationship of each chord within the key center. Once you begin to mentally categorize chords this way, you will learn to recognize chord movements that occur frequently. For example, the following arrangement of “Bless the Lord O My Soul” opens with movement from the I chord to the iii chord. This I→iii movement has a unique sound. By categorizing this sound with Roman numerals, you develop the means to identify the same I→iii movement in “We Exalt Thee.”
“Bless the Lord”
“We Exalt Thee”
3. Recognize Passing Chords
A third tip for learning to play gospel piano is to recognize the sound of passing chords. Passing chords involve accidentals that are not found in the primary key signature. If you are learning a gospel song by ear, you may find it quite difficult to figure out some chords. Usually, the hardest chords to identify are the passing chords. It’s okay to skip these chords initially when figuring out a song. If you suspect that a certain chord contain accidentals, try to identify the chord that comes next. Often times, the preceding chord is a passing chord that has been imported from the key of the resolution chord.
For an example of of passing chords, listen again to to the excerpts above of “Bless the Lord O My Soul” and “We Exalt Thee.” The primary chord movement is C△7→Em7 (pronounced “C major 7 to E minor 7”), However, something happens in between these chords. This is the sound of passing chords! You can often save time in learning new songs by recognizing when passing chords are present. Often times, it is easiest to identify a passing chord by working backward from its resolution chord. In fact, latter in this lesson you’ll learn more about how to play and analyze gospel piano passing chords.
Now, let’s explore our 6-step beginner guide to play gospel piano.
Students with minimal prior knowledge of gospel piano techniques can use the following 6 steps to play gospel piano. This lesson is designed for students who already know how to play major and minor triads. In addition, familiarity with major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th chords will be helpful, although we’ll briefly introduced and define these concepts as well.
The first step to playing gospel piano is start with a basic chord progression. Today’s lesson uses the progression C→Am→F→G. These letters are chord symbols that represent the following triads: C major (C-E-G), A minor (A-C-E), F major (F-A-C) and G major (G-B-D). The diagram below shows each triad in root position.
In The Number System, this chord progression is described as I→vi→IV→V in the key of C major. You can hear the sound of this progression in the following example from today’s lesson sheet.
You may be thinking, “that doesn’t sound like gospel,” and you’re right! However, all advanced music styles have an underlying foundation. In the following steps, we will expand on this foundation. You’ll notice that each step introduces just one principe and in each case, this progression will begin to sound more and more like contemporary gospel piano music.
Are you ready for the next step? Let’s check it out!
Once you have a basic chord progression, the next step to play gospel piano is to add passing chords. As we mentioned earlier, most passing chords are imported from outside of the primary key! This can be confusing at first, but it is very much worth the investment of mental energy that it requires.
The most common type of passing chords are secondary dominants. In music theory, the word dominant refers to “five” in the same way that tonic refers to “one.” For example, the term “dominant” can describe the 5th tone of a particular scale or the 5-chord in a given key. In the key of C major, the primary dominant chord is G major. In other words, G major is the native 5-chord in C major. However, the other chords in our I→vi→IV→V progression also have a dominant chord in their own respective keys. We can treat each non-tonic chord as a target for a secondary dominant passing chord. In essence, we can “borrow” the dominant chord from the key of the target chord.
In our I→vi→IV→V progression, the non-tonic chords are the vi (Am), the IV (F) and the V (G). Therefore, we must be able to play a V→I chord progression in A minor, F major and G major. For a moment, let’s mentally put ourself in each key and play a I→V→I progression. Many examples of secondary dominants use dominant 7th chords. Therefore, the second example in each key adds the 7th to the V chord in the left hand to make a I→V7→I progression.
Key of A Minor
Key of F Major
Key of G Major
Now that we have identified the primary dominant chords in A minor, F major and G major, we can bring those dominant chords into C major as secondary dominants passing chords. The example below uses E major as a secondary dominant to target Am. In this case, E major is analyzed as V/vi (pronounced “five of six”). Next, measure 2 uses C major as a secondary dominant to target F major. In this case, C major is the V/IV (“five of four”). However, since C major is also the tonic triad, the V/IV almost always appears as V7/IV (we’ll cover that more in the next step). The particular example below does not use a secondary dominant passing chord to target G major. However, if we were to precede G major with a D major triad or D7, we would analyze it as V/V (“five of five”).
C Major Progression with Secondary Dominants
This progression is starting to sound more interesting, but it isn’t gopsel piano…yet.
The next step to play gospel piano is to add the 7th to each chord. This turns each triad into a 7th chord with 4 notes. You’ll notice that the sound of 7th chords is richer and fuller when compared to triads.
You may be wondering, “Why are they called ‘7th chords’ if they only have four notes?” That’s a great question! The term “7th chord” refers to the distance from the root of the chord to its highest note. For example, the four notes of C△7 (“C major 7”) are C-E-G-B. In the C major scale, B is the 7th scale tone. The following diagram illustrates this principle.
C Major Scale
Adding 7ths to a Basic Chord Progression
Next, we’ll play our chord progression from Step 2 in the previous section with the 7th added to each chord. However, not all 7ths are the same distance from the root. For example, major 7th chords feature a major 7th interval, while dominant 7th chords and minor 7th chords feature a minor 7th interval.
Beginner Gospel Piano Chord Types
The easiest way to construct a major 7th interval is to go down a ½ step from the root, and then take that note up an octave. However, to construct a minor 7th interval, go down a whole step from the root and take that note up an octave.
If you have correctly followed the process for adding 7ths, you will end up with the chord progression shown below.
Chord Progression with Added 7ths
Next, let’s spread out the notes of these chords for two hands.
Playing Chords with Two Hands
When we rearrange the notes of a chord to achieve a more desirable sound, we call it “voicing” the chord. In the following example, we have voiced our chord progression for two hands. Notice how spreading out the chord tones so that the notes span over an octave apart creates a more desirable piano sound. Also, when a chord is in root position, the root is often omitted from the right hand. However, occasionally a root will appear as the top note of a chord when it is part of a melody or countermelody.
Chord Progression with Added 7ths (Spread Out)
As you can hear, we are getting close to that authentic gospel sound. However, we still have a few steps to go.
The fourth step for playing gospel piano is to apply the slip 2 technique. This technique is an essential characteristic of the modern gospel piano sound. As with many modern piano techniques, terminology varies from player to player. For example, you may also hear the terms “slip note,” “flip,” “flicker,” “grace note” or “West Coast sound” all used in to describe this contemporary gospel piano technique.
The slip 2 technique is not easy to express with music notation. While it usually appears as a grace note, it is not played exactly like it looks in written form. Click play ▶️ on the adjacent video to watch a demonstration of the the slip 2 gospel piano technique. Notice that the grace note is not sounded by itself. Rather, the grace note is played on the beat and then immediately moves up to the next adjacent note. This technique sounds especially tasteful when played on a Fender Rhodes.
Even though the slip 2 technique creates a professional gospel piano sound, it is not particularly difficult to play. In fact, you can apply this technique to any major7th or minor 7th chord. All you need to do is play the 2nd above the root and then quickly resolve it to the 3rd of the chord. Hence the name “slip 2.”
These chords are starting to sound pretty good…let’s check out the next step!
The fifth step to play gospel piano is to add some additional color to your chords. We call these “money notes.” We’ve already sweetened up our major and minor triads by adding the 7th and the slip 2 technique. However, now we want to turn our attention to the dominant chords in our gospel chord progression.
Regular dominant 7th chords have a bluesy sound. This is sound is common in traditional gospel music. However, contemporary gospel music generally uses more jazzy dominant chord colors. For example, when resolving to a minor chord, many players like to play a dominant 13(♭9) or dominant 13(♯9) sound.
How to Play Gospel Piano Chords with Alterations
When you have chord symbols with ♭5, ♯5,♭9, ♯9, ♯11 or ♭13, these are chords alterations. To play a chords with alterations, first find the interval above the root based on the given number. Then, lower or raise that note by a ½ step depending on whether the alteration indicates ♭ or ♯.
Since E7 in our chord progression resolves to a minor chord, we can play E13(♭9) instead. If you count up eight note from the root, you get the next E an octave higher. Therefore, the 9th note above the root would be F♯ (based on the major key signature of the root). Since the chord symbol calls for a ♭9, we lower F♯ to F♮. However, we also need to add the 13th. If you keep counting 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 from E you would say “E, F♯, G♯ A, B, C♯.” Therefore, the 13th is the note C♯. Therefore, the notes for E13(♭9) are E-G♯-B-D-F♮-C♯. The following example demonstrates the original E7 chord followed by our version with the money notes—E13(♭9).
Altered Dominant Chord Example
An easy way to remember this chord is to recognize that your right hand is playing a D♭ major triad in 2nd inversion over an E7 chord shell containing the root and 7th —the notes E and D. Jazz musicians call this an upper structure triad or a polychord. Recognizing the upper structure makes this chord easier to remember and play. You can form a dominant 13(♭9) for any dominant chord by playing the root and 7th in your left hand and a major triad in your right hand built on the major 6th above the root.
How to Play Gospel Piano Chords with Extensions
Let’s look at the next dominant chord in our gospel chord progression. That chord is a C7 which resolves to Fmaj7. Since the resolution chord is major, we’ll use a different dominant coloration. A great choice here is to substitute C9 instead. When we play chords with notes above the 7th, such as the 9th, 11th or 13th, we call these added notes chord extensions. Remember, the eighth chord tone above the root is equivalent to an octave. Therefore, the 9th note is the same as the 2nd. In this case, our money note is the note D. The complete chord for C9 is C-E-G-B♭-D.
Extended Dominant Chord Example
How to Use Dominant “Sus” Chords for Gospel Piano
We have one dominant 7th chord remaining in our chord progression—the G7. Remember, this is the primary dominant in our key of C major. One of the most common ways to voice the primary dominant chord in contemporary gospel music is with a dominant sus chord. The word “sus” is short for “suspended.” To create a sus chord, we replace the 3rd of the chord with the 4th instead. Therefore, instead of G–B–D–F, we have G–C–D–F. The name for G–C–D–F is G7(sus4). If you compare the sound of G7 to G7(sus4), you’ll probably notice that G7(sus4) sounds more modern and less dissonant. Many players prefer to play dominant sus chords with an added 9th. Therefore, our G9(sus4) chord includes the notes G–C–D–F–A.
Dominant Sus Chord Example
Dominant 9(sus4) chords can be played with or without the 5th of the chord. With the 5th included, the right hand shape includes all the notes of Dm7. Therefore, we can express G9(sus4) in slash chord notation as Dm7/G. On the other hand, it is also common to omit the 5th from dominant 9(sus4) chords. If you remove the note D from G9(sus4), then your right hand only has the notes F–A–C. Therefore, the slash chord F/G is another way to play G9(sus4)…and it’s perfect for beginners!
Now, let’s check out the last step in which we put all these pieces together!
The final step to play gospel piano is to apply all of your fully-flavored gospel chord voicings into a chord progression with a groove-based feel. Consider the example below. It includes our basic progression (step 1) with secondary dominants passing chords (step 2), spread-out with added 7ths (step 3), flavored with slip notes (step 4), colored with money notes (step 5) and syncopated with a 16th-note groove (Step 6).
Contemporary Gospel Piano Groove
Wow, now that’s the gospel sound! In fact, if you’re accompanying a vocalist as a church musician or minstrel, that’s really all you need to play. In some cases, however, you may want to add a familiar gospel melody for an intro, outro, interlude, vamp or special music selection.
The following gospel piano instrumental demonstrates how to apply steps 1 through 6 to play a modern gospel piano cover version of “As the Deer.” As you watch the demo, see if you can spot the chords we’ve learned in this lesson.
Contemporary Gospel Instrumental for Piano
That’s the sound! If you’d like to play the melody for “As the Deer” along with today’s gospel piano chord progression, check out the adjacent recording (also in C major) as a reference for the melody. Even though some of the chords are different, the melody fits well over the chord progression from today’s lesson. Notice, however, in the demonstration above that the C9 chord must be preceded by C9(sus4) to prevent a clash with the melody when the words “water” and “desire” occur in the lyrics. If you want to learn how to ad lib on this melody or improvise over this chord progression, be sure to continue on to today’s bonus section!
“As the Deer”
If you enjoy listening to gospel music, then you know that it has an improvisatory nature, just like jazz. Therefore, today’s Quick Tip includes a bonus section on the most important scale for gospel piano fills, runs and improv licks.
Essential Gospel Piano Improv Scale
The most important scale for contemporary gospel piano improv is the Major Blues Scale. This scale draws on the following tones from the C major scale: 1–2–♭3–♮3–5–6. Therefore, the notes of the C Major Blues Scale are C–D–E♭–E♮–G–A. This scale also has a few other common names, including The Pentatonic ♭3 Scale and The Gospel Scale.
C Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale)
Be sure to check our our two full-length courses on The Major Blues Scale / Gospel Scale (Level 2, Level 3) for pro improv techniques including 8th notes, triplets, slides, turns, rolls, harmonized grips, gospel connectors and more!
Now, the only thing that’s better than one bonus is, well…more than one bonus! Let’s check out that bonus chord.
Extra Crunchy Dominant Chord
For an extra crunchy sound, you can lean into your dominant chords with a fully altered dominant sound. The chord symbol for this chord may appear as G7(♯9♭13), G7(♯5♯9) or G7(alt). Let’s take a listen:
This chord comes from a scale that jazz musicians call The Altered Scale. Other names for this scale include The Diminished Whole-Tone Scale,The Altered Dominant Scale and The Super Locrian Mode. Try playing improv lines with the G Altered Scale (G–A♭–B♭–B♮–C♯–E♭–F) over this chord.
For a deep dive on jazz improv scales, check out Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2 & 3)
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Play Gospel Piano—The 6-Step Beginner Guide! With the knowledge and skills that you’ve developed in today’s lesson, you are well on your way to getting that authentic, worshipful gospel piano sound.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following gospel piano resources:
Gospel Piano Learning Tracks
Gospel Piano Courses & Related Studies
- Amazing Grace Piano Hymn–Slow Gospel Blues (Level 2, Level 3)
- Gospel Groove Series (Levels 2 & 3)
- Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3)
- Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Major 7th Chord Theory & Application (Level 2)
- Minor 7th Chord Theory & Application (Level 2)
- Dominant 7th Chord Theory & Application (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Alterations (Level 2)
Related Quick Tips
- How to Play Piano Like Shaun Martin (Snarky Puppy) (Levels 2 & 3)
- 4 Steps to Play Neo Soul Chords on Piano (Level 2)
- Neo Soul Improv with the Pentatonic Scale (Level 2)
- Play Contemporary Gospel and R&B Piano in 3 Steps (Levels 2 & 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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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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