Using the sustain pedal whilst playing the piano is typically a must when it comes to classical music, but there are lots of other styles out there that require a different approach.
Take piano blues and boogie woogie for example. This style of music has some elements of classical in its core, but ultimately has a very different approach to how it’s played along with a very different rhythm and bass line.
First of all, let’s take a look at what the sustain pedal actually does and how it works on an acoustic compared with a digital piano…
What does a sustain pedal do on a piano?
The sustain pedal does exactly what it says – and is designed to ‘sustain’ the notes you play. This means that when the pedal is pressed down and you play a note, the sound will continue until you lift off the pedal.
Here’s a great video that explains how the sustain (or damper) pedal works –
So on an acoustic you have these ‘dampers’ that always sit on the strings to ensure the sound is instantly stopped after you’ve played a note, which means that when the pedal is pressed down the dampers raise off away from the keys allowing the sound to continue once the hammers have struck the strings.
Why do I need to use a sustain pedal when playing the piano?
You don’t actually have to use the sustain pedal if you don’t want to as it’s not essential, however if you are wanting to ensure the song you are playing sounds smooth and fluid, you may find that the sustain pedal is what you need in order to get that flowing sound.
Many classical songs for example require the use of the pedal in order for the melodies to connect together correctly. Take for example one of the most famous piano pieces ever written – Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. If you don’t use the sustain pedal whilst playing this song, it just won’t sound right. Each note you play will sound too distant from the other, and nothing will connect right.
Playing the blues or boogie woogie is very different from playing standard classical songs when it comes to using the sustain pedal. The melodies in the right hand don’t tend to require the need for ‘connection’ and the pedal isn’t as essential as it would be for a Beethoven or Mozart piece.
Also, the rhythmic left hand boogie doesn’t require the pedal as it needs to be played often quite short. Here’s a great example of how the left hand bounces along to create the rhythm, as well as those fantastic right hand licks –
So we’ve established that the sustain pedal isn’t usually required to play piano blues or boogie woogie, but that doesn’t mean to say that you can’t. I often use the sustain pedal at the end of a blues song if I play a nice fancy arpeggio up the keys, to ensure the notes hold and finish of the song in style.
I do also use the sustain pedal sometimes during the song, but this is only to connect the odd note and probably more force of habit than anything else. It isn’t something you’d miss if I didn’t push the pedal down!
So the great news for anyone looking to learn the blues and boogie woogie is that you don’t have to also worry too much about learning how to use the sustain pedal – and it’s something that can be looked at further down the road when you’re more comfortable with the piano/keyboard.
On a final note, I always use the pedal as a drum when I’m playing piano blues and boogie woogie, as I am so used to sitting my foot on their anyway from my original classical background. I love the feel of my foot bouncing up and down on the pedal, and it goes up and down so quickly that it doesn’t effect the sound enough to notice.
So there you are – why not just use the pedal to keep yourself in time!