Most viewers of Super Bowl XLIX heard John Legend sing a rousing, heartfelt version of “America The Beautiful” right before the big game. But for piano players, he was really giving a lesson on how to personalize a song by altering certain chords and subtly highlighting various rhythmic styles. It’s true that Legend is a master of this, but the basics are pretty simple and with a little practice, easily attainable by everyone.
To learn how to do this, pick a ballad. Any slow song will do. Let’s say the first chord is a C major triad (C-E-G):
If you want to play it in the original style, just play the C chord as written.
If you want to put in a contemporary pop sound, add the 2nd (C-D-E-G). In fact, this is what Legend did with “America The Beautiful,” although it was in the key of Db. He played a Db(add2) chord. It sounded refreshing.
If you want to sound jazzy, make it a major 7th chord (C-E-G-B).
If you want to add a bluesy touch, play the C triad, but let your finger slide from Eb-E as you articulate the notes.
As always, your ear will tell you what is appropriate for any given song. As much as I love jazz, for example, I wouldn’t necessarily play “Freebird” with jazzy voicings. Try lots of possibilities, and let your heart be your guide. And most of all, have fun!
If you want to learn how to play John Legend’s piano arrangement of “America The Beautiful,” click here.
Get my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You'll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration