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I'm wanting to start playing along with popular songs and the easiest way to find lyrics and music only has guitar chords. I can play those chords on the piano but it just sounds boring. How should I be filling the space between chords to make it sound more interesting and more full?

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8 Answers 8

up vote 28 down vote accepted

A guitarist has exactly the same problem as you do. If you just strum the chord on the downbeat, or on every beat, it sounds boring. You have to play more interesting patterns.

The guitarist does have a couple of advantages over a pianist in this respect. Early on, a guitarist learns to get more rhythmic interest out of a basic chord, by varying the rhythm of strokes, and by muting. Some of these effects are more difficult on a piano, and some are impossible.

The simple guitar chords a beginner learns are in a variety of inversions, so that level of interest is added "automatically" to a beginner's guitar playing.

At the very basic end of what a guitarist might also do:

  • Inversions - play the chord at a different position on the fretboard; or simply begin the strum on a different string.
  • Arpeggiation - very common for guitarists; break the chord into a sequence of single notes. Typically you'd go up for 3 or four notes (depending on time signature), then back down to the root.
  • Rolls - right-hand patterns that are more complex than an arpeggio. A common one is the classic blues/folk pattern where the bass strings go from the root to the fifth on the 1st and 3rd beat, while the remaining strings are played as a chord on the 2nd and 4th.
  • Connecting notes - you're going from a G to an F? Play an F# on the way down.

Of course, from there, there are plenty of variations. Learn by copying.

But you're on a piano. Fortunately, all of the above have direct equivalents on a piano keyboard:

  • Inversions - instead of putting your thumb on the root note and playing the 3rd and 5th, put your thumb on the 5th below the root you're playing, then the root and 3rd above that. You have several octaves' worth of notes to pick from.
  • Arpeggiation - I don't really have to explain, do I?
  • Rolls - the closest analogy to the guitar roll I described is a classic boogie-woogie piano part, where the left hand does the root-to-fifth-below bass part, and the right hand plays choppy chords in various inversions on the off-beats. There are lots of "learn to play boogie-woogie piano" books on the market.
  • Connecting notes - as easy (or easier) on a keyboard as on a guitar.

In addition, some songs are driven by their chord progression, so you can get away with block chords without it sounding boring.

Some songs have few, or no, chord changes, and interest is provided by the riff. In cases like these, you're going to need to create an approximation of the riff (or develop your own riff that fits).

As with all music, listen to the sort of stuff you'd like to sound like, and copy what they do.

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+1 great answer! very nice to hear someone thinking clearly about something that I've also been struggling with. –  elias Jul 19 '12 at 15:57

Re: original question:

There's three starter ways to do this:

  1. using tones from the "key of the moment" as stepwise passing tones
  2. reharmonizing the chord progression, using passing chords and the like
  3. harmonizing the melody using standard two-handed piano voicings (I won't get into details, you can see my book or other books, but at its basic level is a five-tone voicing that includes the root, 3rd, fifth, 7th and melody tone on top)
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I'm a pianist for a contemporary church, and 90% of the time, I only have chords to work off. The main elements are broken chords and rhythm. I will seem a bit dictative here but I don't want to talk too much and feel free to experiment around. (Will use C Major as an example, / = rest)

When you play a song with just the piano, you have to fill out every register, so with two hands I try to spread out as much as possible. Left hand will always play bass and right will go from G upwards.

  • I'll start with rhythm because it's easier. Play just the root of the chord with your left hand in the bass (octave if you're feeling fancy) and with the right hand play C and G. Play the bass note on every crotchet beat and with the right, try different patterns, quavers, semi quavers, ties, syncopation etc.

It will sound blockly but this is what I normally do for fast songs... with some mixing.....

  • Broken chords are the main thing, because by breaking it down, you are spreading it out over the duration that it is played, elongating the harmony. Try playing the block chord on the right hand and with the left hand, play C G C1 E1 G1 / /). Do this slowly for every bar, then do the same for a different chord.

This is pretty much my base for songs and what I work off. The left hand will retain the beat with broken chords and the right will be more flexible with rhythm.

It is really hard to explain without showing you, there's a lot more to explain, ideas for improvisation, adding dissonance, building a song, rhythm with both hands etc. if you're interested, just ask and I shall blabber on because improvisation on chords is a joy to play.

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The easiest thing to do is to add full sound. Figure out which key the song you are playing is in. Let's say it's the key of C. Since there are no accidentals in that key, it's easiest.

Read the top staff. If the note is C, play C E G C, a C major chord plus the the root note octaved.

  • D- D G D, the note plus the fifth of the C major chord, plus the octave.

  • E- E G C E, the minor chord plus the root note octaved.

  • F- F C F, the note plus the root of the C major chord, plus the octave.

  • G- G C E G, the note as the bass of a C major chord.

  • A- A C E A, the minor chord plus the root note octaved.

  • B- B E A B, B sus4 chord with augmented fifth plus root note octaved

  • C- C E A G, CM6 with fifth octaved

This pattern continues for every key there is. It's kind of tricky at first, but with practice it becomes second nature.

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Grace, for B, if it's B sus4 with augmented fifth, shouldn't that be a G instead of an A? –  user5700 Feb 6 '13 at 19:33

I usually improvise to include something like the melody, parts of the melody, harmony or an accompaniment. Sometimes I mix and mash with these things, or play a counter melody. Practice is key, eventually you can just sit at a piano and play most songs in an interesting way regardless of looking up chords (it is so much faster looking up chords though).

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Everything above is reasonable advice, but I think an additional consideration is just learning lots and lots of songs, because the more you have under your hands, the more you will naturally draw on this expanding musical vocabulary. When you think it sounds boring, you can draw on the entirety of your resources to add interest, whether that is adding melodic interest with a counterline, harmonic interest by increasing the density of the sound (adding to or changing the basic chord structures), or rhythmic interest (don't forget that the piano is ultimately a percussion instrument).

Also don't forget that one way to add interest is to consider, when it is appropriate in the entire context, not playing at all. In a group context, this is something that is not considered frequently enough. When you lay out and then introduce the new element later, what seemed boring now may sound entirely new and interesting. Of course, this doesn't work for a solo piano setting, but in virtually every other context it is worthy of consideration.

One frustration for chordal instruments in play-along settings is that the background is usually pretty full, and there is just no space for an additional chordal instrument. Not much to do about this when playing along with an actual commercial recording of a song, but on properly done play-along materials, you should be able to dump the channel or track that contains the instrument you play, which will open up the sonic space.

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I agree. But it's important to really analyze the chord progressions in each song you learn. I do that NOW, but there were SO many songs I learned before I started into this so now I'm going back over them. –  Stephen Hazel Jul 19 '12 at 15:35

Make Chords more Interesting

You can try different inversions of the chords. For example, you might use chord Ic (second inversion) when approaching a cadence. E.g. in the key of C, instead of playing C E G, you would play G C E. I find on the piano that if you play chords in such inversions that you don't end up moving your hand as much, it can sound nicer, as subtle movements which create a larger harmonic change are often more interesting to the ear.

Fill out the chords

Try experimenting with adding notes in, for example, in a perfect cadence, you might you V⁷ (dominant seventh) instead of just chord V. In the key of C, that would be G B D F. There are many other notes you can add into chords to vary/thicken the sound - for example if you add the 6th into a chord it can often make it sound more jazzy. The best way is to experiment and find ways that you like of varying the chords.

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Throwing in extra notes is often effective. A good lyric-and-chords transcription will include sevenths etc. though. I must admit to throwing extras in on a whim. –  slim Dec 14 '11 at 17:22
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A lot of this stuff becomes easier with a little experience. Don't be afraid to search for piano/voice arrangements of songs to get ideas for various chord voicings and rhythms. –  Babu Dec 14 '11 at 19:50

Start by playing inversions and partial chords/bass notes with the rhythm of the song. It's hard to explain, but don't just play block chords in both hands, mix it up a little.

You don't have to go crazy, but even just playing some inversions mixed in with partial chords to fill in spaces… you'd be surprised at the change it can make. Also, don't always expect the guitar chords sites to always have the correct chords, so if something sounds wrong… it probably is.

Once you learn a pattern that works well, remember it, because as you've probably realized… a lot of popular music is based on the same patterns, rhythms and harmonic structure.

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