Rock Organ Soloing


Rock organ soloing requires a different approach than jazz soloing. In the jazz context, keyboard solos are usually played at the piano and built around advanced harmonies and chord substitutions, various chord scales, quirky-syncopated rhythms, and left-handed comping. By contrast, rock keyboard solos are frequently played on a number of various keyboard instruments, including the organ. Also in contrast to jazz, rock solos are often built around simpler harmonies, one or two chord scales, and basic left hand structures. In this article we’ll take a look at some tips for developing your rock organ soloing skills.

Rock Organ Soloing: Eric Clapton’s “Layla”

We’ll begin with a classic rock song – Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” The intro and chorus of this song are built around only 3 chords: D minor, Bb major, and C major. Here’s the opening riff. It’s usually played on guitar (in the original) but sounds awesome when played or doubled on rock organ.

rock organ soloing 2

These are also the same chords used for the chorus, including the gritty rock-heavy guitar solos (the chords for the verse are different). Since soloing over this tune usually happens on the chorus, we’ll focus on these chord changes.

Rock Organ Soloing: What Does the Left Hand Do?

Ok, this is a pretty important tip. Real rock organs usually have two manuals, which means an upper and lower keyboard. Usually the organist will have one sound preset for one manual (perhaps a loud gritty sound for soloing) and another sound for the other manual (for comping – i.e., playing chords). However, most of us don’t gig with real Hammond B3s, so we mere mortals end up using synthesizers with organ sounds. If this applies to you, here are some “do’s” and don’ts”:

  1. Don’t comp with your left hand in the same way you would in a jazz piano context. The organ has a completely different sound than the piano. Chords need to be voiced for the organ’s particular sound and range.
  2. Don’t play bass lines with your left hand if you have a bass player in the band. Playing bass lines is his/her job. If there is no bass player then playing bass lines is fair game;
  3. Do play chords and comp with your left hand. But consider simple structures (like triads), register (too low or too high can sound bad), and sound/timbre (perhaps if you’re playing a synth, this might mean splitting your keyboard to have a comping sound in the left hand and a lead/solo sound in the right).

Rock Organ Soloing: Less is More

Are there many scales you could use for soloing over these simple three chords? Yes. But does that means that some exotic scales are going to sound better or more advanced? No.

Allow me to introduce the minor pentatonic scale – 5 simple little notes. You can (and should) play this scale over all three chords in the chorus when practicing and soloing. After all, Eric Clapton does. (And if you want to use the blues scale, that will work and sound great, too). Below shows the D minor pentatonic scale and how it relates to each of the 3 chords.

rock organ soloing 3

More to explore...


“Ain’t No Sunshine” and Drop-2 Voicings

The Bill Withers classic song “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a funky R&B standard that has also found a home in jazz circles. This is probably because the song has many traditional elements of jazz present in the song. For example, the song is based on an 8-bar modal cycle that features a minor blues-type of

Read More »

Willie’s Grand Piano And Studio Upgrade

I’ve been lucky enough to have some nice pianos in my life. My old studio piano was a 1925 Kanabe 6′ grand piano. My Kanabe and I have had some great memories together. In fact I wrote and rehearsed the songs for both of my albums on that piano. Now my Kanabe lives in my

Read More »
Jazzedge Teachers

Welcome Paul Buono

Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor.  His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit musician, sideman, composer/arranger, middle school teacher, and even a brief stint as a… lawyer(?)!   Willie:  What got you started on the piano? Paul:  My grandfather was a very good

Read More »

Organize Your Piano Practice

The hardest part of practicing the piano is finding the time.  In our busy world, it is not always easy to set aside 30 minutes a day to practice the piano. In addition, the fact that the piano is often practiced solo (not in a group setting) only exacerbates the situation. I’ve learned over the

Read More »
Piano Tips

Chord Progressions You Must Know

One of the first overwhelming concepts you encounter when you begin studying jazz piano is the number of chords and chord progressions. There are a lot. A real lot. But when you really break it down there are actually a finite number of chords. And to be perfectly honest with you, the VAST majority of

Read More »

Rhythm Exercises – Part 3 (Advanced)

In this article, our third in the “Rhythm Exercises” series, we’ll be looking at some advanced and challenging rhythmic exercises. These are really meant to test your rhythmic understanding and execution, so if they’re too difficult, don’t worry. Start off with our Part 1 and Part 2 rhythmic exercises, master those, and then build up

Read More »


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

JPC glossary / key

  • RH – right hand
  • LH – left hand
  • HT – hands together
  • CM – contrary motion (to move in opposite directions)
  • Harmonically – to play as chords (all notes together at once)
  • Melodically – to play as a melody (single note) – arpeggiate
  • R7, R3, R37 – chord shells (Root-7th, Root-3rd, Root-3rd-7th respectively)
  • bpm – beats per minute. Refers to the metronome setting