Cocktail piano tutorial - the basics

by Bill on January 13, 2011

If you ever hang around on the Piano World forums you may have noticed a couple of fairly long threads on the subject of cocktail piano, also sometimes known as lounge piano.

I can see why so many people are interested in cocktail piano. Although some might dismiss it as background music - or even muzak - it can be very enjoyable and relaxing to play. In addition, if you ever become a half decent cocktail pianist you can earn pretty good money playing at venues and events.

Like I say in the video, one of the good things about cocktail piano is that it really isn’t that difficult if you know your piano chords fairly well. One of the great things about it is that it is generally taken at a fairly easy tempo, and often even played very rubato – so it’s a style that’s very forgiving of small mistakes. If you ever get stuck, find you’ve forgetten the next chord in the progression or end up at the top of a run that seems to go nowhere, you can just put in a very long pause while you gather your thoughts and get going again!

On the other hand, it does help if you know your chords very well indeed. Ideally, to play cocktail piano with confidence, the chords of the songs you’re playing should fall under your hands very naturally in all their inversions. Unlike in jazz playing, the developments and extensions of the chords you use for cocktail are quite simple, and usually focus on major sevenths and ninths, along with the odd minor seventh and minor ninth. You don’t have to worry about altered chords too much, although you can work in jazz techniques to your liking – for example, tritone substitutions are very popular with cocktail pianists.

If you have any questions, either stick them in the comment thread or on the original YouTube video page. As I said, I think cocktail piano is something a lot of people are very interested in, so I’m going to be posting more videos on the subject soon.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

joe robinson March 15, 2011 at 10:39 am

liked your demo very much, I am a complete novice so I found this video very usefull,
I am interested in any similar material you may have.
many thanks, Joe

Bill March 15, 2011 at 10:48 am

Hi Joe: glad you found it useful! There are various bits and pieces on this site, but for the full listing of my vids you’re best off looking at my YouTube channel:

If you think of anything specific you want to know, just give me a shout :)

Robert Bardwell April 1, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Thanks - here are my takeaways from your video:
Know your chords
Know your scales
Play with Major 7ths, 9ths, dominant 7ths with a sixth
Split chords between hands
Practice over a Boddington’s
Get your moneys worth out of arpeggios

Bill April 1, 2011 at 10:11 pm

You have it in a nutshell, sir. In particularly difficult keys you might substitute the Boddies for a Bateman’s XXXB, for extra fortitude.

derek May 14, 2011 at 1:03 pm

hi bill just got your book great , like watching your videos , split chords do you mean break chord up between the 2 hands ? trying to play blue moon thanks derek

Bill May 16, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Hi Derek: glad you like the vids! Usually when I talk about splitting a chord I mean in one hand - so maybe hitting the root with your thumb and alternating (”splitting”) with your third and fifth fingers playing the other two notes. Think of what John Lennon does at the start of “Imagine” - are you with me?

derek May 17, 2011 at 6:37 pm

thanks for that bill, I have been playing chords in right hand behind melody , never occurred to me to ’split’ chord , I have been trylng to get arppeggio effect with left hand only , great, on voicing , I have a problem deciding how spread the chord between the hands how would you recommend I practice ? I know its left up to me ‘ what sounds good etc,’ I have been trying to play like this for years but keep getting stuck with this and I have gave up many times , but now after seeing your videos I have regained my enthusiasum and interest back again . thanks again derek.

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