Imagine by John Lennon for Solo Piano (Tutorial)

Imagine - A message for Donald Trump - created by Thomas Gunther

What you will learn

In this article I show you my analysis of my solo piano arrangement of Imagine by John Lennon, one of my favorite pop songs!

How I arranged the song Imagine for Solo Piano

I thought it might interest you how this arrangement came about. I actually performed the piece by memory (having played it a thousand times at gigs), and transcribed it after-the-fact to figure out what I played exactly. Still, the performance was mostly improvised.
To be totally honest though, I first played through it a couple of times to try out different things before I hit the record button. For example, the added changes towards the end of the piece I worked out before I recorded it. Everything else however came naturally.

Tip: I recommend you record and transcribe yourself as often as you can. It is the best way to find out about what you still have to work on. Imagine you are listening to someone else. How would you grade her/his playing? What do you like, what do you dislike about it.

What I changed and didn’t change

Tip: Before you read on I recommend you listen to the original recording!

As an arranger I always look for ways how I can change things without destroying the integrity of the song. This means I leave the melody mostly as is (with the exception of some rhythmic changes), while embellishing the chord changes. The feel of the arrangement may also differ somewhat from the original, without destroying the overall mood.

The accompaniment

The accompaniment John chose for Imagine is very simple yet very important. In fact, one recognizes the song after just hearing the piano intro for two seconds. An indication of John’s genius. You can see below what he played on the recording.

John’s original piano accompaniment during intro

Although I love his piano intro (which he keeps going throughout the song by only adjusting it to fit the chord changes) I like adding the major seventh to the C and F chord occasionally to give it a more jazzy sound.
I also added embellishments known from country music and other popular music styles. I also added syncopation to add a little more forward motion. I like to take these kind of liberties especially when I create a solo piano version of vocal driven songs.

My version of the intro

As you may have noticed, I also played it up an octave from the original. This actually happened more my accident. But I like it after all. It makes it a little brighter sounding.

In bar 3-4 you can clearly see the syncopated rhythm I have added to funk it up a little. By the way, why don’t you try sight-reading bar 3 and 4. If you hit it right the first time you are a sight-reading genius!

1. Verse

Please note: The red notes indicate fill-ins in the accompaniment. Those notes do not belong to the melody. Measure 10 shows the clever fill that John plays during the entire intro. This fill ends on the note D, which is the ninth of the C major chord. A very nice color tone that gives the accompaniment its special flavor.

A note on the Sustain Pedal use

When playing this arrangement it is imperative that we make good use of the sustain pedal, maybe even the sostenuto pedal. This is especially important to over scratching our fingers in the left hand. I created an entire tutorial on just the use of the piano pedals.

The left hand figure in Verse 1

The left hand uses two techniques. First, it is based on tenths. This is very common in jazz. It is a much nicer sound when we transpose the third of a C major triad in root position up a third.
Second, the rhythm is often a dotted 8th followed by a 16th note value, which adds drive to the accompaniment. This is often used in latin rhythms such as the bossa nova.

The right hand in Verse 1

Obviously the main job of the right hand is to perform the melody. I often harmonize the melody with at least 1 chordal tone to make it sound fuller. When the melody has a hold I play short fills (in red).

2. Verse

As an arranger I never repeat the same section the exact same way. For example, in Verse 2 of my Imagine arrangement I do an answer-response in the melody by transposing it up an octave. This ads a new element to the arrangement. In addition to transposing the responds (bar 11-12, 15-16), I also harmonize it in 6ths, and by adding 4 note close position chords at the end I increase the energy which makes the second verse stronger than the first one. A perfect way to lead up into the chorus.

Piano tutorial for Billy Joel’s JUST THE WAY YOU ARE

What You Will Learn

  • How to create/play a piano accompaniment behind a singer or instrumentalist of Just The Way You Are by Billy Joel
  • About the chord symbols and their function (music theory) used in the song
  • Piano technique related tips
  • How to apply techniques discussed here to other songs

Why this song?

Just The Way You Are is a famous pop ballad by Billy Joel that features a beautiful chord progression that is worth exploring. The quality and function of the chords are very jazzy and unusually sophisticated for a pop song.
Bottom line – there is a lot we can learn from, especially those keyboard players that like to play more colorful and harmonically sophisticated pop styles.

About the first video

I created the first video below a long time ago for my secondary piano students at Columbia College Chicago. It shows how to play a relatively simple accompaniment over those beautiful chord changes.
I only gave them the chord symbols, because I didn’t want them to just brainlessly memorize a written out transcribtion .
Although the quality of the video is laughable (as I said, it was one of my first attempts), I believe it is still worth your while watching it.
It is especially useful for singers who want to accompany themselves playing this kind of music, but are not “real” pianists, if you know what I mean.
By the way, you can use the same techniques to accompany other pop ballads too.

Here now the video.  I suggest you watch it first before you read on.

Easy Piano Accompaniment for Just The Way You Are (A section Only) by Billy Joel

Let’s start with discussing some guidelines that will help you create a smooth and professionally sounding accompaniment

Accompaniment Guidelines

  • Make sure your chord voicings and note choices don’t clash with the melody
  • Follow the rule of minimal motion, which means that we want to connect the chords smoothly
  • Resolve dissonances stepwise into the next chord
  • Place the chords in the middle register most of the time
  • Always be respectful to the vocalist/instrumentalist by not overpowering them

Coming soon

I am in the process of creating the second video to explain in detail how you can learn to play this kind of piano accompaniment. So please check back soon.

How to use sus4 chords as upper structure chords

What you can learn from this post

  • How to use sus4 chords in pop and jazz
  • Improvising using sus4 chords
  • How to build interesting harmony using sus4 chords as the upper structure over different bass note
  • How to create rhythmic pattern thinking like a drummer (works with any chord)

To get you turned on to sus4 chords watch the video!

Video tutorial about how to groove and improvise over sus4 chords on the keyboard

Below is the transcription of what I improvised in the video

There are 3 things you may focus in on:

  1. The two-handed rhythmic pattern (thinking like a drummer):
    a) Watch the video above starting at 1 min 15 sec.
    b) Check out bar 1-4 of the transcription below. The second version exposes the “thinking like a drummer” approach best, because the two hands are combined in one system.
  2. The harmonic changes I created by used different bass notes (chordal and non-chordal) for underneath the Csus4 chord:
    a) Watch the video above starting at 2 min 40 sec
    b) Check out the transcription below where you find me playing almost every bass note
    there is below the same Csus4 chord.
  3. The right hand improvisation based on sus4 root, 1, inversion (=sus2), and 2. inversion (=double 4):
    a) Watch the video above starting at 3 min 36 sec
  4. b) Check out the transcription below where you find me playing almost every bass note
Csus4-Jam-transcribtion-Grand-Staff-1

Thinking Like A Drummer” version with both staves combined into one:

Csus4-Jam-transcribtion-Combined

Sus4 chords are fantastic upper structure chords

Sus4 chords are simply amazing!
As I already demonstrated in my video you can use the same sus4 chord as an upper structure chord above any bass note, each of them creating very interesting harmony.

Before I continue building on this idea, for those of you that wonder about the terminology of “Slash Chords” and Upper Structure Chords”, here is a quick explanation for you:

Slash Chords
Slash Chords

In jazz and pop music, a slash (slashed) chord is a special chord symbol used for chords where the bass note is a different note than the root note. This is also the only way how we can indicate an inversion of a chord. For example, C/E means that the bass note is E, which makes it the first inversion of a C major triad (as shown above).

Upper Structure <br>Slash Chords
Upper Structure
Slash Chords

“Upper Structure”chords are a special kind of slash chord. In upper structure slash chords, the bass note (written after the slash) is not included in the upper structure chord. That’s why it can also never be an inversion of a chord. For example, Bb/C means that we play a Bb major triad above C in the bass. C is not part of the Bb major triad, thus it is not an inversion. Instead we call it an Upper Structure slash chord (as shown above).

Chords-created-with-Csus4-Over-Every-Bass-Note-With-Inversions-Score

By the way, there are 3 chords that are rarely used in pop music. Those are measures [5], [7], and [12]. You will almost never find them in mainstream pop music. However, [5] and [12] are used as upper structure chords over altered dominant seventh chord in jazz frequently. [7] however is very, very, very rare.

So what does this table show us?

It shows us that by simply changing the bass note below a sus4 upper structure chord, we can create great sounding chords, harmony, and voicings.

How can we use this?

Like with any upper structure chord, we can quickly realize complex chords with a very simple structure. For example, lets take the second chord in our sus4 upper structure table from above. It is a Dbma7(#11) chord. The table shows us how we can quickly play this chord type by simply putting a sus4 chord whose root is a minor second below the root note of the chord symbol. In our example this means we put a Csus4 chord above the bass note Db. We right this as Csus4/Db
Look at it this way: The Csus4 chord is made of 3 pitches: C, F, G. Put above Db those notes give us the following chord notes: C=major 7th, F=major 3rd, G=sharp 11th.

Take the quiz

“Take the quiz?!? ARE YOU CRAZY” you are probably thinking right now.
Sorry! I just want to make sure you followed me this far before we get into the thick of it. So can you tell me the name of the root note of the slash chord below?

Did you answer it correctly? Great. Let’s move on then.