The Roots of Modern Piano Style
Like many forms of music, Honky-Tonk and Boogie-Woogie piano had very humble beginnings and started off as very basic forms. Over the years, however, they evolved and became more sophisticated and more popular. These genres served as the basis for much of what would become Jazz, Country, and Rock n’ Roll. In this article, we will go over a brief history of these similar yet distinct styles of piano.
Honky-tonks had their origin in the late 1800s. They were bars that served working class patrons and were often dens of prostitution. They were (and are to this day) primarily found in the Deep South and Southwest portions of the US. Often, these establishments offered dancing and other forms of entertainment, along with live music.
The first type of music to be associated with honky-tonks was a style of piano playing that became known as Honky-Tonk piano. Having a Blues root, it was similar to Ragtime music, but emphasized rhythm over melody. This had a practical purpose, as many pianos in these bars were in a serious state of disrepair, with out-of-tune or even non-functioning keys. Over time, Honky-Tonk music evolved into a strain of country music called Hillbilly music and helped to form the basis of modern Country music. Such early Country luminaries as Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb were instrumental in making the Honky-Tonk sound popular. Although the term Honky-Tonk now typically refers to a full-band sound, Honky-Tonk piano is still popular.
Like Honky-Tonk, Boogie-Woogie piano had its origin in the late 1800s. Also like Honky-Tonk, Boogie-Woogie started as a piano style that eventually evolved into a full-band genre. The basic music form of Boogie-Woogie is 12-bar in 4/4 time and has a rapidly ascending and descending bass line, as seen here:
Even though the piano was eventually joined by vocalists and other instruments as the Boogie-Woogie style became more popular, the piano continued to play a pivotal role in the genre. (This was not the case with Honky-Tonk, which became a sort of rough country music.)
A Dying Style?
What sets these genres apart from other ones discussed on this website is that there are very few artists known today for playing piano strictly in these styles. The vast majority of piano players who play well in these genres use them as mere elements of a larger genre, such as Country or Rock. Turn on a radio or go online and you will find artists from the Rolling Stones to Bruno Mars to Garth Brooks using key elements of these forms in their music.
That does not mean that these basic piano styles are, by themselves, dead. Quite the contrary! Although they may not have the mass appeal of some other genres, Honky-Tonk and/or Boogie-Woogie piano can still be found in a bar or club near you. Both of these forms of feel-good piano music can readily be found online or at a music store, too.