Choosing how you want to play piano

I once read an interview with a guitarist who came into Ozzy Osborne’s band. (I can’t remember who it was, and aside from Randy Rhoads and Don Airey I don’t know much about Ozzy’s musicians).

What struck me most was the guy’s logic on how to carve out a unique place in Ozzy’s legacy for himself. He knew that he couldn’t compete with Randy Rhoads’s classical influence on heavy metal. He also said that the guitarist who replaced Rhoads had used the blues scale a lot on Ozzy’s songs.

The challenge for this new guitarist is that these two approaches, classically influenced and bluesy, define the majority of heavy metal guitar solos. So what, he wondered, could he play that would prevent him from being a mere imitator in this high-profile band? If he played classical licks, he’d sound like Rhoads. If he used a lot of blues scales, he’s sound like the other guitarist.

Then the answer came to him: Pentatonic scales.

Pentatonic scales contain the same notes as the blues scale except for the bluesy half-step. What’s more, they’re more flexible than blues scales since they can be used in a jazzy manner to slip in and out of key, to create tension before resolving it.

Choosing to base his new style around Pentatonic scales was an ingenious way to remain creative and keep developing as a musician while staying firmly apart from the playing style of his predecessors in Ozzy’s band.

Reading that interview a few years ago, I found this whole thought process to be fascinating. This is how musicians think. Charlie Parker decided to improvise using the upper extensions of jazz chords. Elton John intentionally incorporated gospel piano riffs into his pop ballads. And Jamie Cullum fuses elements of rock, pop, musical theater and jazz to create an eclectic style all his own.

To get to this point, we can enjoy learning all we can about chords, scales, and the various musical styles. We don’t have to learn everything, but it helps to learn enough to give us the ability to pick and choose how we want to play in any given musical situation.

Above all, enjoy the journey and “Let the music flow!”

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