After 30 years of playing piano professionally in jazz clubs, Broadway orchestra pits and even Carnegie Hall, I'll admit that I never thought of this question before. But the other day I was listening to the Nicki Minaj song "Grand Piano" and the thought hit me. BAM! The simple quarter-note chord pop piano style, heard on this song and countless others, goes directly back to Paul McCartney's piano playing in the 1960's.
To hear this in action, listen to the beginning of Nicki Minaj's "Grand Piano" (2015)
Now hear the similarity to the beginning of "Hey Jude" (1968)
Simple, steady quarter notes. There's something about emphasizing the quarter-note pulse that resonates with the musical public. Mozart knew this, and so did the creators of disco. The Beatles started highlighting the quarter-note pulse on the Sgt. Pepper album; Paul's keyboard part on "Fixing A Hole" is a good example of this. So perhaps it was natural for McCartney to use this style on some of his piano ballads. In retrospect it seems so obvious, but as far as I can tell he's the only one to use it so prominently at the time. Elton John didn't, and neither did other piano-playing singer/songwriters like Carole King or Billy Joel. They quickly moved into a more complex, pianistic style that was more orchestral in scope.
I'm not claiming that McCartney is a virtuoso pianist (and he doesn't claim it either). What I am suggesting is that he used his basic piano skills in a way that worked perfectly for pop and rock ballads at a time, the late 1960's, when music was moving in new direction. And that there is something so simple, logical, and compelling about this sound that it's still popular now, almost 50 years later. More popular, in fact! Paul also could play more complex piano parts, as he did in "Lady Madonna" and later, "Live and Let Die," but it's the simple, basic quarter-note style that has endured, forming the basis of the modern pop piano style.
Even an accomplished pianist like John Legend has adapted this approach for his wonderful song "All of Me." He plays the part with a slight syncopation, but essentially it goes all the way back to "Hey Jude."
Did Paul McCartney "invent" this style? Probably not. It's easy to play and like many "innovations," I'll bet that many people were beginning to play like this during the 1960's. But "Hey Jude" is the earliest recorded example of this I can find, and along with "Let It Be." Whether he invented it or not, McCartney sure did a lot to popularize this ballad style!.
If you're just beginning to learn how to play pop and rock piano, the quarter-note ballad style is an especially good technique to start with. Just earn the basic major and minor chords and you can pretty much play any ballad you like. It's even effective on many songs that originally had a more complex piano part, such as Elton John's "Your Song."
To get started learning how to play like this, and more, you can get a free copy of my ebook: Pop Ballad Accompaniment for Piano and Keyboard below. You'll learn how to play piano while you sing your favorite pop songs and also become very popular with vocalists who need someone to play piano for them. Good luck and have fun!
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