Beginner's Guide on How to Play Piano Like McCoy Tyner

McCoy Tyner is a legendary jazz pianist and there is a simple trick to put a little bit of his sound in your playing.

There are a handful of jazz pianists who helped shape our world and McCoy Tyner is one of them. He broke into the big picture when he played with John Coltrane and since then has never looked back. I've seen him live several times and even had a chance to speak with him at length once. Great player, humble guy, and here's something you can do to add a bit of his sound to your playing.

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Me, Jazz Alley, McCoy Tyner, History

It was around 1987 and McCoy Tyner came to Seattle to do a week of shows at Jazz Alley with his trio. I went to just about every show. Back then, the alley entrance to Jazz Alley was more of a back door, a cat's entrance and since I wasn't quite old enough to drink, that's where I'd hang out.

McCoy Tyner -

The folks at Jazz Alley were kind enough to let me stay there in the shadows and when I finally realized this (as a young man, I was super nervous about "breaking the rules") I took advantage of the situation and saw dozens of shows this way until I left the country in 1991 to start my overseas gigging career.

It was around this time that Marc Seales, my jazz piano mentor at the University of Washington, said that if I wanted to be a musician I had to do two things: work in the music business (I got a job at an agency) and two, hang out with musicians and watch shows.

Part two was more difficult because hanging out meant being with people and talking to them about something. Even today it's hard for me to do that at times, I never know what to talk about and conversations around me often don't make sense. Eventually I resort to blurting out something that I think is interesting but usually turns out completely inappropriate.

Back to McCoy Tyner. On one of the nights that I watched McCoy Tyner from my spot at the top of the stairs, Marc Seales was at the show and saw me. At that moment I sort of felt like someone who had been caught because of a strange guilt response to life in general that I had developed (I've overcome this and it's another story for another time.)

A few days later at jazz improv class in the basement of the UW music building, Marc mentioned seeing me at the McCoy Tyner show. Fact is, he had been there several times that week and saw me each time although I only noticed him once. Scary.

I don't remember what song we were all working on, but as usual I was playing careful, spending more energy worrying about being jazzy or beboppy enough to such an extent that my playing suffered.

Marc was kind enough to stop the session and starting talking about seeing McCoy the week before. He also mentioned that he had seen me lurking about then said, "Scot, you were there, why don't you play this song like McCoy would play it?" After listening to McCoy for a week I had no problem adding some "Tynerisms" to my playing on that day.

Fast Forward to Now: Your Recipe for Tynerisms

Stacked fourths in the left hand, modal lines in the right, power, driving, no remorse or looking back. My McCoy Tyner impression in Jazz Improv turned out great because after almost a solid week of watching McCoy live night after night, I knew something about his sound and how to make it.

FYI, the McCoy Tyner book of transcriptions from the Jazz Giants series will give you an up close look at McCoy's playing.

If you've studied McCoy's playing or even listened to him a few tunes, you know that he is the grand master of modal fourths. His left hand will consist of stacked fourths while his right could be doing something as simple as riffing on the blues scale.

Left Hand Stacked Fourths

McCoy Tyner - how to play like McCoy

The first thing you have to figure out is the relation between 7th chords and the stacked fourth chords that go with them. The guideline here is straightforward: Start your stacked fourth on the root of the chord.

Learn Jazz Piano - How to Play Like McCoy Tyner

These are root based stacked fourths, but keep in mind that there are several rootless stacked fourth chords that fit with any given 7th chord. If this is your introduction to stacked fourths, stick with root based stacked fourths for now because it's the easiest way to start jamming.

The trick: Now here's where your McCoy Tyner sound comes from. It's not just the stacked fourth, it's a tendency he has to use the 3rd of the chord in his right hand while playing the stacked fourth in his left.

Fourths in the Left Hand, Thirds in the Right Hand

How to Play Like McCoy Tyner -

Taking this a step further, you can flip this around and play chords in your left hand based on thirds while playing lines in your right hand based on fourths.

Thirds in the Left Hand, Fourths in the Right Hand

How to play piano like McCoy Tyner by Scot Ranney &

To get the full effect take one of the ideas above and develop it for a while (8 bars, 16, entire chorus, etc) before switching or mingling the other style.


Part of McCoy's magic is the tension he develops in his music and he is able to do that by sticking with an idea until it's ripe. Don't eat a green banana and don't move from one improvisation idea to the next until it's ripe. If you do, you'll lose your connection with the audience and maybe never get it back for that song.

The audience wants a happy ending, but they don't want it right away.

Give them tension, build it up, be patient, and then when the time is ripe, when your band, yourself, and the audience is ready for reality to snap in your music, you'll know it, you'll feel it, and you'll get the kind of musical explosion that we strive for.

Patience in music, in life, in love, with yourself.

Patience means observing what's going on without being caught up in it. In music it means working out an idea long enough that it builds a reality in the musicians and the listeners minds instead of being caught up in a moment of letting your fingers do whatever they want. It's the difference between reading the first word of every sentence in a book and reading all the words- you'll get through the book either way, but it won't make sense unless you read all the words.

Until a musical reality, a foundation of what you're trying to say musically is built, anything else you do won't have weight.

You know those times you're listening to a solo and you wish it would go on forever? How about those times you wish a solo would finish before it started? Take a close look at those situations, what sets them apart? Time, notes, and the biggest factor of all, improviser patience.

Hope this helps you add some good stuff to your playing, keep on jamming!

The Jazz Giants Piano Transcriptions series has put out a nice McCoy Tyner Edition. Check it out for a closer look at McCoy's playing.

How to play like McCoy Tyner from

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by Scot Ranney on 04/05/2015, 12:33
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