For me, Elton’s solo tours in 1999 and 2000 have become
major sources of inspiration. We all love the great songs
he’s written over the years, but the solo tour really
put the spotlight on his piano skills. Oh we knew he was
good. We knew he was really good. BUT THIS ONE IS SCARY GOOD!
Be forewarned. This one rocks and you need to be a pretty
good player to take it on.
It’s really a pleasure for me to sit down and work
out one of Elton’s greatest songs. Levon’s got
it all: classic Elton piano playing, a great melody, a fantastic
bluesy solo, and the greatest piano intro ever written.
Alright, I’ve said it before. Elton's intros come straight from the God
of Music. His piano intros are nearly unmatched in the annals of popular piano
playing. Anyone who has ever seriously thought about playing piano in the last
30 years, has played a few of his intros. Guitarists copy his intros. They
are iconic, readily identifiable and irresistible.
Although Elton always does little variations on it, the
Levon intro remains substantially the same as the original
recording. The key to the intro is the use of what some musicologists
call the 9-3 riff, or the 9-to-3 resolution. This refers
to a chord or a partial chord that utilizes the 9th tone
in the scale, most of the time in combination with the 1st
and/or the 5th, and then resolving it to the 3rd. See the
For those who are curious, country pianist Floyd
Cramer invented this riff in the 1950’s, and it forever changed
the way country, pop, and rock piano was played. Check out
his song “Last Date.” It’s an instrumental
based entirely on this riff.
THE PLAYING STYLE
Elton's approach to the piano should be very familiar. It uses what I've called
his default style, which features broken chord arpeggiating, over octave
patterns (or sometimes 5ths) in the bass. Rhythmic syncopations and riffs
are worked into the mix in almost every bar. These are the essential elements
that create that lush full sounding accompaniment that defines Elton's piano
Elton can play like this all day and night and still keep
it interesting. Rhythmically and dynamically, he has perfected
(and I say patented) this style of playing. He is able to
spin hundreds of little variations to this basic approach:
different chord inversions, different chord patterns, different
accents, different rhythmic variations, different riffs,
different left hand patterns.
Frankly this style is so identified with Elton, I believe
other pianists have to consciously avoid playing like this
because they would just sound like second rate Elton copy
THE SONG STRUCTURE
Levon follows a song
pattern that has proven to be very successful for Elton,
namely the A-A-B-C pattern. This pattern involves two verses followed by
a pre-chorus and then the chorus. It’s the same pattern he used in
Tiny Dancer (and also Razor Face for that matter). There are many others,
(e.g. Philadelphia Freedom, Crocodile Rock)
For contrast compare it to the very simple A-B pattern of
Candle in the Wind (verse-chorus) or the A-A-B pattern of
Your Song (verse-verse-chorus).
For reference, the pre-chorus in Levon begins with the line, He
was born a pauper to a pawn, and continues through
the line, Alvin Tostig has a son today.
The point I’m making here is that Elton’s pre-choruses
are simply brilliant. A pre-chorus acts as a transitional
element between the verse and the chorus. It’s usually
related harmonically to the verse, but it takes a different
path. Most pre-choruses are innocuous variants of the verse.
But Elton’s greatest pre-choruses, like the one in
Levon, serve to build up an incredible amount of dramatic
anticipation and tension. As the melody reaches to higher
notes, the tension builds up and in the process the song
moves you upwards to a whole new level. That intensity that
he builds and sustains over several lines is finally released
in the chorus. Part of what makes the chorus so wonderful
and enjoyable, is the quality of being released from the
anticipation that preceded it.
It’s a lot like being on a roller coaster ride, courtesy
of Elton John.
THE HARMONIC STRUCTURE
Harmonically, Levon stays strictly within the root key of F. Even the casual
listener can hear that much of the song consists of alternating between F
and Bb, the I and IV chords in F. For a song that stays strictly in one key,
I think it's fascinating how Levon rarely hits the C, the V of the key.
He also uses his diatonic minor chords extensively: Gm,
Am, and Dm, the ii, iii, and vi of the key respectively.
Let's take a closer look at the major sections of Levon.
|| F · Bb/F · | F · · · |
Bb · · · | F/A · · · |
| C/E · · · | Dm · · · |
Am7 · Bb · | Gm7 · · · ||
Elton uses a parallel bass pattern in bars 3-4 and 5-6.
First he descends from Bb to A, jumps a 4th, and then descends
from E to D. In both cases, he's using the 3rd of the chord
as the bass (also known as the 1st
inversion) to create a
much richer and smoother transition from chord to chord.
These 1st inversion chords use the slash
notation, as in
F-slash-A and C-slash-E. This approach to harmony illustrates
the principle of voice
By contrast, if you tried using these chords with just the
roots in the bass, you'd get Bb to F and then C to D. You'd
notice how different the chords would sound. The transition
from chord to chord would be more jarring and disconnected.
I also note how Elton holds out the Gm7 in the last bar.
Many of us would expect to see a C-chord of some type here.
After all, that's the way we usually transition back to the
beginning of a verse in the key of F. Maybe something like
| Gm7 · Gm7/C · ||
Try it out. I MEAN IT! TRY IT OUT! It works, only it's not
|| Am7 · Dm F/C | Bb · F/A · |
Gm7 · F · |
| Bb · F/A · | Gm7 · · · |
Gm7 · · F/A ||
While the pre-chorus stays in the key of F, there are several
really different ways in which Elton approaches this section:
- 2 chords per bar instead of the more leisurely 1 chord
per bar in the verse. This gives you more movement.
- No pauses between the melody phrases. The verse consists
of 1 bar of melody, 1 bar of pause. This gives the section
- 6 bars instead of 8. By eliminating any pauses between
the phrases, Elton contracts the section to 6 bars.
Harmonically, you can't get much simpler than the chorus
to Levon. The focus is on the Bb, the IV of the key, but
otherwise it just alternates between the F and Bb. The chorus
is the only place where the C appears in its traditional
dominant role, anticipating the return to F.
|| Bb · · · | F/A · · · |
Bb · · · | F/A · · · |
| Bb · · · | F/A · · · |
Bb+9 · · · | Csus · C · ||
In the original studio version, this section showed off
the revolutionary string arrangements of Paul
At the time Levon was released, Elton and Buckmaster were
at the very forefront of establishing how strings could be
incorporated into a rock and roll setting. The Madman album
was one of the greatest examples of this for its time, and
represented a model that many future orchestrators would
After the chorus, we have a short transition back to the
verse. Rather than repeating the opening riff , Elton goes
into a 4-bar section that consists of a droning F. Again,
in the original, we had Buckmaster's strings carrying the
musical burden. In the solo setting, the emphasis is placed
on Elton's arpeggiating piano work.
THE JAM SECTION
Elton closes the song out with a fabulous jam over the two chords F and Bb.
He uses his funky blues style and it's filled with riffs that should sound
familiar to Elton fans. It will take some serious chops to make this music
snap to the beat and play it at the breakneck tempo that Elton plays it at.
This is the stuff we go crazy for!
WARNING: THIS IS ADVANCED ROCK AND ROLL PIANO PLAYING OF
THE HIGHEST ORDER!
Here's some Elton funky style stuff. The grace notes
are crushed, not articulated.
Here's an Elton variation to a classic blues riff.
And it climaxes into some pure rock and roll pounding
at the top and bottom of the piano.
So there it is. I hope this analysis has helped give you
greater insight into Levon and the piano skills of Elton