While I'm still working hard on my solo piano skills (never stop learning!), I've discovered a few techniques along the way that I've found helpful. The one revelation I'm going to share with you all today is...drum roll...HALF NOTES in the left hand!
Half notes?!? you might ask? That's right. Plain old half notes in your left hand can do a lot more than you think. Half notes in the left hand are imitating what a bass player does. If you want your solo piano playing to sound more like a band, you have to stop thinking like a piano player and think like an arranger instead. Each hand (or better yet each FINGER) is its own instrument. In this example, your left hand is the bass player. And the bass is where the groove comes from.
So the left hand (bass player) is going to start by playing half notes. The reason we start with half notes comes from what actual bass players play. In a medium swing tune, before a bass player starts walking on all four beats (i.e. quarter notes), he/she plays what's called a two-feel, aka two notes per measure, aka half notes. A traditional bossa nova player plays plain old half notes to lay the foundation of the groove. So that's where we will start with our left hand!
Try it over a few different tunes -- some with a swing feel and others with a straight 1/8th feel (i.e. a bossa). Play just the melody on top of it. You'll be suprised at how much the half notes in the left hand add groove!
Here are a few rhythmic embellishments to try after you've mastered the plain half notes.
1. Add 1/8 note pickups to each half note.
2. Add a quarter note on beat 4 so each measure is half, quarter, quarter (or do this every other measure).
3. At the beginning of a four measure phrase, anticipate the first note on beat 4 of the previous measure.
4. Write out a bass line that uses all three of the above techniques.
If you practice this a lot, soon enough you'll be creating your own rhythmic embellishments, all with an underlying half note groove.
In the following two-part video tutorial, I teach you an arrangement of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" that uses this technique. I hope you enjoy the videos, I've been working hard in the lab on upping the ante with the audio and video and quality. Please tell me what you think, I'm always looking for ideas on how to get better. While you are at it, let me know if you have any song requests for future videos!