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Let’s Play #10 – Using Both Hands to Play Runs and Riffs

Many players new to synths (or any keyboard) have a hard time performing smooth lines that move up and down the keyboard, because they haven’t mastered the ability to cross over or under the thumb, as is usually done when playing scales and other passages.
by Jerry Kovarsky


While there’s no excuse for not learning the fundamentals of piano/keyboard technique, there’s no harm in learning other approaches for these situations. The concept we’ll discuss today is to break up the line between your two hands, and I (and many others) first learned of this technique from jazz master Chick Corea, although he was not the inventor of this technique per se. Watch videos of his playing and you will frequently see him playing riffs, scales and figures using both hands.

The Concept

In traditional piano technique, the C Major scale would be fingered like this:

As you can see from the notation, after playing the E with your 3rd finger you would cross your thumb under the hand/shift your hand so you could use your thumb on the F that follows. The same thing happens after playing the B with your 4th finger. This is a difficult technique to get smooth. On the way back down you need to bring your 3rd finger over the thumb, and later the 4th over the thumb. Now try this approach instead:

The notes with the down stems are played with your left hand, the up stems with your right. So you play three notes with the left, followed by four with the right, then again in the second octave, plus the addition of the highest C with your right pinky. Then you play it descending using the same 4 and 3 groupings. Notice how much easier this is to play smoothly, and to get up to a faster tempo.

You can choose any fingering choice that feels comfortable for you. Here’s another common approach, this time it’s four notes with the left hand followed by three notes with the right.

Learning to do this for all the major and minor scales is how I would suggest you first practice it. Start slowly, listening for how evenly you can play the scales, with no abrupt spaces between any of the notes.

Expanding to Other Scales

Any scale type can be executed with this approach, let’s look at the C Dorian mode, which works well for a C minor seventh chord:

Notice that for the first left hand group I didn’t start on the 3rd finger: that’s because I don’t want to end up using my thumb on the E-flat black key, which is not very comfortable. This example used a group of three notes for the left hand followed by a group of four for the right. Let’s switch that up:

Here’s another fingering choice for the right hand groups, using 2, 3, 4 rather than 1, 2, 3, just to show you that there are different possibilities:

There are a number of scales that have skips between some of the notes. This next example uses a scale that is commonly referred to as the “Jan Hammer scale” or the “Jeff Beck scale”, since both of those artists used it extensively. It consists of the root, the third, the fourth, the fifth and the flat-seventh notes of the major scale, and works well on Dominant seventh chords:

Because of the skips between notes you will not always use adjacent fingers, that’s why I chose this example.

Let’s try the well-known Blues scale using this two-handed approach:

This fingering involves a different approach — notice how I have you using your 2nd finger for the first note in the right hand grouping (G-flat), followed by the thumb for the following G natural. So you have to keep your thumb just slightly tucked under the 2nd finger.

Creating Your Own Riffs and Note Groupings

This technique is not only good for scales, it can be used to create all sorts of riffs and figures. Chick Corea called this idea Ten Little Drummers, meaning that he thought of each of his fingers like a drummer’s drumstick, and would create patterns that felt good, like doing drum rudiments. Here’s an approach where I am just thinking of 2-note grouping in each hand. Most, but not all of my notes here are intervals of a fourth, and these note choices again came from the C Dorian mode. But the note choices could be anything: you’re just “drumming” on the keys of the keyboard:

Here is a similar pattern, but I’m picking notes from the Jan Hammer scale we discussed before:

This last example is a riff that I’ve heard Chick Corea used on countless recordings and live performances. It’s another 2-note grouping, but notice how the left hand repeats the notes that the right hand just played.

This example sounds really cool when you can get it up to very fast speeds: it’s a great way to show off a little during a solo.

Wrap Up

This is just an introduction to the concept of breaking up lines between both hands, and ways of creating riffs using this technique. Experiment on your own with different scales and keys, and creating your own “drumming” patterns on the keyboard. I hope this brings you new inspiration.

Jerry Kovarsky

Jerry Kovarsky is highly respected  in the music industry. For more than 30 years, he worked as brand manager, product manager, marketing director, product developer, and product demonstrator for Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboardist, synthesist, and author of Keyboard for Dummies, Jerry passionately advocates for making music with keyboards. After studying at the University of Miami and graduating from William Peterson College with a BA in Jazz Studies, an opportunity to demonstrate early portable keyboards sidetracked his professional aspirations. More recently, Jerry writes about technology and keyboard musicianship for numerous outlets. He likes living at the intersection of technology and art and has returned to his musical roots, performing, recording, and teaching on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

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