Can these R&B artists really play piano or is it just a gimmick?

Craig Maestro
3 min readApr 19, 2021


It is no secret that popular R&B singers who also play piano or keys add an important value to their brand of sophistication, education, and musicality. This cultural tradition following the legacy of singers-pianists such as Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Marvin Gay has set up a high standard not only for the artists’ ability to play the piano but also to write music. In this blog, I compared the piano skills of four R&B artists: Jacob Collier, Bruno Mars, John Legend, and Alicia Keys, based on three parameters: piano skills, harmony knowledge & Improvisation, and commerciality. This is not a reflection of the artist’s voice, ability to sing, or commercial success, only a close look at their piano skills.

Jacob Collier

Piano skills: great, his technique allows him to improvise freely.

Harmony knowledge & Improvisation: Superb, Jacob is a Jazz musician with a very deep understanding of music & harmony

Commerciality: very commercial for a Jazz artist, but not commercial enough for a mainstream R&B artist.

Piano or gimmick? Definitely piano. Jacob Collier is a great musician who is not afraid to play sophisticated music and complex compositions, he will not settle for the simplicity of commercial music. It comes with a price; his music sounds at times too complex which limits his commercial success when it comes to mainstream R&B music.

Bruno Mars

Piano skills: great piano technique

Harmony knowledge & Improvisation: superb knowledge of R&B writing and harmony

Commerciality: very commercial

Piano or gimmick? Definitely piano. A true continuation and representation of the R&B piano legacy and writing.

John Legend

Piano skills: good

Harmony knowledge & Improvisation: not an “improviser”, tends to use simple harmony

Commerciality: very commercial

Piano or gimmick? piano, however overall, John Legend seems more of a songwriter than a concert pianist

Alicia Keys

Piano skills: good

Harmony knowledge & Improvisation: not an “improviser”, compositions are mostly based on harmonic loops.

Commerciality: very commercial

Piano or gimmick? both. Although Alicia Keys is a great singer with many commercial hits, claiming the word “keys” entails being an extraordinary or authority, the absolute best. When comparing her to artists like Jacob Collier and Bruno Mars, her piano playing, technique, improvisation skills, and harmony knowledge are not up to par. She is more of a songwriter.

It would be nice to have more R&B artist-pianists raising the bar when it comes to R&B piano knowledge and harmony to continue the legacy of the great R&B compositions, sophistication, and contribution to our music world.