There are certain musical elements that are so versatile and useful that basically every real life pianist needs to know them. I say “real life pianists” because I am referring to those of us who don’t sit in ivory (pun intended) towers playing Bach all day but rather play in the every day situations of the world around us: birthday parties, church, family gatherings, etc.
If you are that kind of pianist (and I hope you are), you don’t need a huge toolkit but you need some ideas that you really master. They become part of your sound and style. For me, one of those things is the very simple 2-5 note left hand arpeggio. I use it constantly.
Here is what I am referring to:
If you play this line, you will see that it sounds pretty good. It is not fancy but it is beautiful. It is a great sweet spot for pianists to be in where they are getting a very nice sound without a lot of effort. With time, you can do this kind of music unconsciously.
Left hand arpeggios have to be played well to sound good of course so I want to give you four suggestions that are all demonstrated in this short 4 bar phrase.
1) Play open.
Get big gaps between the notes. Note in example 1 that the chord is Amin but I am not playing A – C – E in thirds. I am rearranging the notes so they are spread out wide; usually there are fifths and sixths between the notes especially down lower on the keyboard.
2) Add color notes such as the 7th and 9th.
The chords in example 2 are FMaj and Gmin but in both cases, you will see that I am playing notes in the left hand that are not part of those triads. In the FMaj chord, G is the 9th. In the Gmin chord, A is the 9th. Using those extra notes adds sophistication. Note that I don’t play the third at all in those two arpeggios. That is not necessary because the third for both chords is covered by the right hand.
3) Play arpeggio inversions for variety.
In example 3, I am playing a C7 chord but the bottom note of the arpeggio is E. Because the other two notes are C and G, you can think of this as an inversion of an arpeggio.
When should you use inversions? Probably the most common use would be if you have the same chord arpeggio twice in a row. Invert one of them (most typically the second one). Or use inversions any other time they sound good to you. In this example, I use an inversion because it continues the walk down that was started in the bar before it (note the bass note walking down from Bb to F in that bar).
4) Don’t make them all look alike.
Many arrangers fall into the trap of trying to force a pattern to work for longer than it actually does. You don’t have to use the same arpeggio pattern for a whole phrase or verse. Use variety and you will get a better sound. In example 4, note how I change the arpeggio pattern from 3 notes to 2 notes to get some variety.
That is about all there is to it. Happy Friday and happy practicing.