Rocket Man
Honky Château
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954 KB
2.3 MB
Live Solo Piano Version
Key: Bb Structure: A-B-B-A-B-B-improv

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 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 5.

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.

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 notes
  • 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.