Welcome to this free lesson on how to play Piano Man on the harmonica. Today, you’ll practice using my methodology along with the interactive video, on which you’ll see the song tabs in real time and play along with me. This is the method I adopted in all my online harmonica school courses. You’ll practice all the licks of this wonderful Billy Joel song, and after this, you will play the them on the provided backing track.
I suggest that you learn each lick separately with the metronome and put everything together when you can play all the licks consistently at a moderate tempo.
You can use a C harmonica to practice Piano man with my videos, or you can play any other harmonica key if you plan to play alone. For this lesson, you’ll find the play-along video, the backing track, and the slow version of both, as well as the tabs. As usual, the video tabs will show you both the note name and the harmonica hole to use.
If you don't have a C harmonica, here you can fid a good model:
Basically, Billy Joel’s Piano Man is a great way to start learning the blues harmonica, because it is a really well-known song with very simple but memorable melodies. However, as a teacher, I created this lesson with the intent of transferring knowledge that goes further than merely learning a couple of harmonica licks – or to be honest, just one melody and a slight variation of it. For this reason, I’m going to tell you something about how these licks are built and why they’re so effective and appealing for the listener.
The song time signature is three fourths and the backing is performed in triplets like a typical waltz.
Before analyzing the melodies, I want to introduce some general points to keep in mind about the harmonica parts of this song. The trademark licks recall the singer’s melody, which is a very simple but powerful way to use the instrument on sung pieces. The intro actually acts as an implication of what Billy is going to sing. Then there is a small three-note sequence that resolves on the new singing part, around the 1:23 mark. No other significant harmonica parts are part of the track. The song is very easy, as it doesn’t require bending skills and the licks are built on the central holes of the harmonica – in particular, only on holes 4, 5, and 6. How can a song be so great if we need just three hole notes to play it? The answer lies in the fact that with these three harmonica holes, you can play almost every note of the C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, and A. With these notes, you can make tons of beautiful licks, and in this group of notes, you have the three most important of the key: C, E, and G. The C note is the key root note, the E is very important because it’s the third interval that determines the major mode of the song, and the G note is the fifth degree that resolves on the C note. Can you see how much you can learn from a simple tune?
That’s the way to learn things: grab some concepts, digest them, and be able to reuse them. I’ll give you an example: learning these two simple licks is totally okay, but what if we want to expand our practice doing something interesting like transposing them to the harmonica higher octave? Actually, if you listen to Billy Joel singing, you’ll hear him jumping one octave up with the voice right after the first sentences. Try it! Playing the high harmonica holes is something that many players can’t do, so be brave and explore your instrument!
Let’s discuss more about the harmony now. This song is built around a few fundamental chords: C major, F major and G major. If you know a bit of musical theory, you’ll know that these are the most important chords when working on major tunes, in particular the C and G, because the fifth degree chord resolves on the first one. Another aspect to notice about the melodies is that they work almost every time as a pair, acting as a typical call and answer-type song; the second melody always ends with the key root note C, as if to underline a ‘sentence conclusion’.
In the following section you’ll find Piano man main chord progression:
C C/B Am C/G, F C/E D7 G
C C/B Am C/G, F G7 C
To wrap up these concepts, we are learning how to play harmonica in first position, using a well known chord harmonic progression, and we’re playing a couple of licks that always end on the most important key note. Now you know why Piano Man is one of the most desirable songs to learn for beginner harmonica players!
A last note about the melodies execution: in the original song double notes are played in place of the clean single notes. These double notes sound wonderful, due to the fact that when you play harmonica in first position, the note layout of the instrument is to your benefit. I suggest that you play the single notes first, trying to get them clean, then adding the second hole slightly enlarging your embouchure. You could also alternate single and double note licks to make the playing more interesting. In the original song, sometime the next hole is added to the main one, other times the one on the left is used, listen to the song and try to notice the differences!
To give you something more useful to practice with this lesson, I’ve created some alternative licks for you to play and learn how you can variate your playing with just a few shrewd elements. In addition to the lesson videos, I’ve played a small improvisation of this song for you, hoping that it might give you some inspiration to create new licks and really take advantage of this exercise.
Here are the tabs for Billy Joe’s Piano Man, you can also download them using the links:
The main licks:
6+, 6, 6+, 5, 5+, 5, 5+
4+, 4, 5+, 4
5+, 5, 6+, 6, 6+, 5, 5+, 5, 5+
4+, 5, 5+, 4, 4+
Then the resolving lick before the singing at 1:23:
4, 5+, 5
Here, you’ll find the transposed licks to practice on the higher octave:
9+, 10, 9+, 9, 8+, 9, 8+
7+, 8, 8+, 8
8+, 9, 9+, 10, 9+, 9, 8+, 9, 8+
7+, 9, 8+, 8, 7+
Here, you’ll find some new ideas for improvising on the song:
6+, 6, 6+, 5, 5+, 4, 5, 5+, 4+
5+, 5, 6+, 5, 5+, 4, 5+, 4
7+, 6, 6+, 5+, 5, 5+, 4, 5+
4+, 4, 5+, 5, 5+, 4, 4+, 4+
Here are the play-along videos for your practice – enjoy!
A little general information about Billy Joel’s Piano Man:
In 1973, after signing a new contract with Columbia Records with the legendary Clive Davis, Billy began to be known to the general public thanks to songs such as Captain Jack, The Ballad of Billy the Kid, and Piano Man. These songs are still extremely well-known today, and the single Piano Man hit the top 20 on the charts, giving this artist his first golden disc award. Do you know who played harmonica on this tune? His name is Kevin Spacey, a singer and actor, he said he wasn’t a really good harmonica player when Billy asked him to play the intro, but he promised to learn it better for the occasion. He also said he had to practice much in that period!
Thank you for joining me for this lesson. I hope you enjoyed the song, and I invite you to take a look at my harmonica school page, where you’ll find many courses that can improve your playing skills on the harmonica. See you there!