One of Elton's greatest and most enduring
songwriting achievements, Rocket Man is one of a handful
of signature songs beloved by all. Bernie's evocative imagery
and Elton's soaring melody combined to create a powerful
ode to the conflicts felt by a man whose job takes him away
from his wife. For years Elton has played an extended version
of the song, using the piano and his voice to create a dreamy
feeling of drifting through space. Originally released on
the Honky Château album, this particular version was performed
October 15th/16th, 1999 in a solo piano show at Madison Square
Gardens, New York. The album is only available to members
of the EltonJohn.com fan club.
This particular version of the song is well over nine minutes
in length and captures all the power and beauty of the performance.
Elton noodles over two of his favorite chords, Bb and Eb,
for over five minutes, showing off a seemingly infinite variety
of riffs, licks, and runs throughout. In the process he takes
us through several dynamic sections, each one building up
to a thundering climax and then bringing us back down.
At its core, Rocket Man has a fairly simple chord structure, but Elton uses
cluster chords, added 9ths, suspensions and slash
chords to add lots of harmonic
interest to the sound. The following figure shows the basic chord structure.
Many of you may notice that Elton handles the C-chord differently in this
version than the original studio recording. In the original, the C in bars
2 and 4 of the verse was played as a C9. Throughout this version, Elton uses
variations of the slash chord Gm7/C, which emphasizes the F (the 11th in
C) and eliminates the E found in the C9-chord. The lack of an E is why I
chose not to label this a C11-chord.
Rocket Man is in the key of Bb - 2 flats. But the C-major
chord does not occur naturally in the key of Bb. That chord
and the | Gm | C | pattern really suggest that we're in the
key of F, the dominant of Bb. It's only when we get to bar
5 where the Eb is introduced that we shift to the home key
of Bb. While not a dramatic key change, it enhances the harmonic
palette in a manner that should sound very familiar. Elton's
not inventing anything new here. This particular device has
been prevalent in rock and blues since the beginning. It's
just worth pointing out. If you close your eyes and listen,
you'll hear the harmonic center of gravity shifting in bar
A SIGNATURE RIFF
Starting with the 5th bar of each 8-bar verse, the song descends diatonically,
ending with an F/A chord. The A bass establishes a tension which gives the
harmony the option of either flowing back to the Gm in the next verse or
the Bb in the chorus. Elton punctuates this F with a riff which he repeats
mostly unchanged throughout the song. The following figure shows this riff
- perhaps the most defining riff in Rocket Man. It's a strong, full-handed,
solid riff that will take a little practice to perfect. In particular, the
phrasing of this riff should achieve some snap or rhythmic propulsion.
THAT ELTON SOUND
The chorus and the extended solo section employ Elton's familiar arpeggiating
style of accompaniment. The beauty of this is that it provides a soft rippling
cushion of harmonic innerplay and rhythmic energy, played to an absolutely
brilliant melody. While Elton uses this same approach in a lot of his playing,
I am fascinated by the infinite variety of patterns he's able to inject into
it. He transforms the arpeggio, generally thought of as a repetitive pattern
of notes from a chord, into a palette of colors and shades that are uniquely
suited for each individual song. The following figure is just one small example
of this ability.
Elton uses several devices to keep things interesting in
this style of playing:
- Varying the arpeggio pattern
- Incorporating passing
tones and added 9ths
- Accenting notes on off beats, frequently with thumb
- Hitting a chord on the upbeat (e.g. 4th bar above)
One of the most crucial aspects of that Elton sound, namely
his phrasing, is achieved through the use of anchors. Anchors
are notes that he holds while playing others. In the left
hand, he typically uses his little finger as an anchor while
playing the 5th or the octave with his thumb. In the right
hand, he shifts the anchor between his thumb and his little
finger - a bottom anchor or a top anchor. The anchor keeps
his playing legato without overusing the pedal. OVERUSE OF
THE PEDAL is a crucial problem for beginning pianists. USE
THE ANCHORS to achieve a legato sound.
The use of anchors is reflected in the voicing. The following
figure shows how Elton's right hand anchors are always shifting.
In the first 3 beats, he anchors his thumb on the 2nd 16th
note of each beat, i.e. the G below middle C. Using this
anchor, he is able to phrase and accent the following notes
anyway he chooses. For instance, he can easily accent the
Eb that occurs prior to the 2nd beat. BUT THE POINT HERE
IS is that he shifts his anchor in the 4th beat and into
the 2nd bar. The Eb before the 4th beat becomes the anchor
(most likely played with the 4th finger). In the 2nd bar,
the Bb, played with the little finger, becomes the anchor.
Then in the 3rd beat, the thumb becomes the anchor. This
shifting of anchors is what opens up all of the richness
in Elton's playing.
I am thrilled to present this song to fans of my website. As with all my transcriptions,
the intent is to document one of the greatest songwriters ever, and one of
the greatest pianist / performers of all time. In the process I hope to provide
a little bit of insight into his genius.