That dang left hand

Welcome, fellow right-hand-dominant Jazz pianist!  May I begin by so boldy requesting that we introduce our left hand to each other?  Nice to meet you, lefty; for yes, I, too, am the lonely keyboard companion to my Master's right hand.  Let's talk!

You all know it's true.  What is that left hand for?  Even Chopin had trouble with it, especially the typically-weaker ring finger.  What chance do we mortals have?  Well, I'd like to take your left hand on a Jazzy journey of discovery.

A lot of Jazz/solo pianists don't know how to musically employ their left hand's services so tend to settle with plonking chords (known as 'comping') at regular intervals or getting into a stride feel of 'root note of chord > chord', repeat ad nauseum.  It's not so bad and does sound melodic and musical, but come on, we can do better than that.

The left hand is used, as Oscar Peterson once jokingly said, "to put the rhythm section out of work".  What he meant was that it must be used as a keeper of time; it must provide a replacement for guitar chords, bass line movements and even drum/percussive time stamps.  As well as these, the left hand can be used to 'accompany' the right hand on its dazzling improvisations and melody.  Let's take each one and expand upon it:

1.  The left hand is the guitarist

A guitarist, when not soloing of course, is rhythmically providing chord 'tones' at the right moment to help assist the pianist in working his way through the song.  A bass player, as we will look at next, is not providing for chords since the notes he plays could be compatible (are compatible) with any number of chords, so it really is the guitarist who guides the pianist and his listeners through the harmonic structure of the song.  When he is not available, the guitar must be replaced by the left hand.  This could involve doing one or all of the following when playing your Jazz number:
  • Unintrusively playing a chord voicing on beats 2 and 4 of the music (in 4/4 time of course)
  • Playing transition chords in addition to the written chords for fluidity and complexity
  • Embellishing chords by attaching them to the melody
A few ideas there.

2.  The left hand is the bassist

So, the bassist has gone home and you need a bassline occasionally.  Have your left hand perform walking basslines between chords.  In Fly Me To The Moon, you could play the Am7 / / / Dm7 then walk up to the G13, play the CM7 then walk up to the FM7.  It adds variety, which is what we need.

 Another time to use basslines is at the end of the verse when you very often here a silence for 1 or 2 bars where the drummer and bass stop and the lead instrument, if not silent too as part of a full-band return on bar one, will play a little ditty before the rest of the group comes in.  Use this time in your solo to be melodic with your bass:  Imagine Fly Me To The Moon has just finished and you just played a nice CM9 chord (C E G B D).  You could fill this 'dead time' with a nice 6 2 5 1 progression using the note one semitone above or below the target note (A D G C in the key of C, of course) and come back in when you want.  Also, there is always 'dead time' in songs where chords stay the same for a long time.  Try adding some arppegio bass in there!

3.  The left hand is the drummer

It's difficult to play drums on the piano, so what I mean here is to use syncopation, off-beats, etc., to recreate what the drummer sometimes does.  Playing one bass note quite hard can be used to set time, cover for a longer-than-desired similar chord or introduce/end a song.  The 'stride' style, whilst I don't like it being over-used because it becomes monotonous, is good sometimes and certainly represents the 'bass/snare' sound provided for by drums.

4.  The left hand accompanies the right hand

Good pianists don't only play with their right hand.  The left hand really can be used to accompany the right in such ways as:

  • Doubling-up the melody line
  • Introducing chords by running up to them either chromatically or as an arppegio
  • Sharing chords in block-chord melodies
If you practice a lot, you will eventually be able to play the same thing your right hand plays, with your left.  It's harder to play faster things of particular licks (such as for Blues), but it is possible.  This then becomes a beautiful enhancement to your playing.  It sounds wonderful in the middle and upper regions of the piano and makes listeners forget about chords completely!

Rather than having the left hand always play chords, try playing them with the right hand but in the same time as the melody, not necessarily using melody notes but if you can stick a melody note in their (on top usually), then fine, but before you do, chromatically run up to the first note using the left hand; it sounds very elegant.

You only have 5 fingers, so why not make the chord richer by adding 5 more fingers from the left hand?  A very George Shearing sound is to roll block chords.  It simply involves playing half and half a chord.  Listen to George play and you'll see absolutely what I mean.


Hopefully this post has given you something to think about.  It was nice meeting your left hand.

See you soon!