If you have learned to play the piano the traditional way i.e. music schools, learning the keys, scales etc. You may find improvising quite a struggle. There are normally two types of pianist or keyboard player.
- The student type, who has studied to learn to read music and is able to efficiently play standard pieces.
- The self taught type, who has limited knowledge of theory but is able to compose their own pieces and play by ear.
The advantage of the student type is that they may normally be able to play any given piece in a standard musical format, e.g. score sheet with notes and / or chords. They will also be able to play in a band if a score is provided. However the disadvantages are that they may find it a challenge to perform improvised solos other than what is provided in musical notation.
The advantage of the self taught type is that once learned, they will be able to add their own twist to a piece, add their own altered chords e.g. add dissonance and feel. And they will also be able to improvise nice solos from the top of their head. The disadvantage is that they will need to take time to learn and practice by ear any given piece by a band. Before band practice they would normally need to practice at home in order to get a head start. Can be difficult if you are suddenly called out for a studio session.
Many student type keyboardists tend to envy the improvisers, but at the same time, the improvisers wish they had more music theory behind them.
They way to improvise is to mainly get use to taking chances and being adventurous. Nice original chord progressions will not normally come from theory, and many will come from accidentally playing an incorrect chord from a different key. Sometimes it works and sometimes it won’t.
Here is a good example, I intended play Gmin7th then Dmaj7th but played D7 by mistake, but hey that sounded really soulful so I played Gmin7th and then D7 again. I had no idea what chord would come next so what I tend to do is play a base note to see what is sounds like.
Gmin7th, D7, C sounded ok, I tried to play Gmin7th, D7, Cmaj ……. hmm didn’t sound right
Gmin7th, D7, Cmin …. sounded better, but not too deep.
Let’s trying something else
Gmin7th, D7, Eb, sounds a little better
So let’s go with Gmin7th, D7, Ebmaj7th……wow this sounds a lot more like Neo Soul.
I played around with various chords for around 3-5 mins until I found Dbmaj7th as the final chord and was happy with that.
If I stuck to theory I could have found the first three chords in a second using the 2-5-1 theory. E,g, Gmin7th, C7, Fmaj but that doesn’t sound very interesting and doesn’t have the tension we need for this genre.
What also works well if you don’t want to go into any theory if playing random chords half a step away e.g. A white bass note to a black note. Try playing Dmin7th then shifting across to Ebmaj7th and hear the sound.
A good rule which works well for the R&B Neo Soul genre is Major -> 1/2 step -> Minor or vice versa.
Ebmin9th -> Bmaj9th
Amin7th -> Bbmaj7th
Abmaj7th -> Gmin7th
Cmin7th -> Dbmaj7th