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2 minutes reading time (495 words)

The art of the vamp

A vamp is an improvised piano accompaniment, sometimes containing melodic figures (licks or riffs), other times simply consisting of block chords played in rhythms. Or it can have both! You usually vamp when you are accompanying a soloist. A basic chord progression is provided and it's your job to "fill in."

Here's a fun chord progression to play: 

Musical examples reprinted by permission of Novus Via Music Group, Stratford, Ontario, Canada. All rights reserved.

This is the chord progression of Happy Times from American Popular Piano Level 6 Etudes (Novus Via Music Group). It's a variation on the blues. 

To create an authentic-sounding vamp on this chord progression, there are various things you can try straightaway. Here's a simple rhythmic variation, which kicks things along nicely: 

Notice how movement in one hand often means less movement in the other hand.

Also, notice how rhythmic figures often fol- Iowa specific element in the melodic line (see m. 10).

The style of this tune is influenced by calypso. If you listen to Happy Times by going to the home page of www.americanpopular piano.com and clicking on the play button, you can hear a bass figure that is characteristically calypso in style:

With this left hand pattern creating even more energy, you can now vary the right hand chords in various ways. Notice how these right hand rhythmic variations change the feel.

Block chords playing a strong syncopated rhythmic figure: 

less busy syncopated rhythmic figure: 

A right hand rhythm reinforcing the underlying calypso feel: 

Now arpeggiate the right hand chords, starting on the lowest note: 

Here's a more rhythmic figure, starting on the top note of the right hand chord: 

Start the arpeggiated figure on the middle note (and go in either direction!): 

Finally, vamps can use a mixture of arpeggios and solid chords. An arpeggio followed by chords: 

 Chords followed by an arpeggio:

Another variation (chords followed by an arpeggio): 

Try lots of your own varIatIons using these vamp devices through the chord progression (mm. 1-8 of the first example on page 28) Then play mm. 9-12 as written. Don't forget to use the backing track from the website (www.americanpopularpiano.com).

All of these possible combinations can make vamping seem daunting. Like all aspects of piano learning, however, by isolating various aspects of vamping in smaller, manageable "bites," students can learn some interesting generalizations about keyboard harmony and composition, all while having a blast! 

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