The Absolute Beginner's Guide To Ragtime Piano

The Absolute Beginner's Guide To Ragtime Piano

An iconic style of music that is inherently linked with the likes of the piano, Ragtime is perhaps one of the most iconic styles of music from the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. Characterised by its playful, almost honky tonk style of melody and chord progressions and rich full of personality, the Ragtime piano style is known far and wide as being a brilliant blend of European classical and African syncopation music.

Ragtime piano is often most easily spotted by its independent, ‘ragged’ hand movements (where the genre gets its name) and the mission of trying to encapsulate mimicking that of an entire band on one instrument. Today we aim to break down a very brief history of Ragtime, how you can get started with learning ragtime and a few techniques to begin your learning journey. 

Characteristics of Ragtime Piano Playing

As mentioned, the most iconic part of the ragtime playing style is that of jumping hand movements as the pianist tries to portray that of an entire band playing.

In Ragtime playing, each hand works independently, working in an almost marching like manner to keep a steady, jumping rhythm. The left hand represents that of the bass and percussion, with the lowest of notes aiming to replicate that of a tuba or larger brass instrument, whilst the upper movements of the left hand also represent that of steady drum patterns that keep the piece flowing in an ‘oom-pah’ rhythm. The difficulty here is the jumps between the lowest notes and the higher end of the left hand movements, but this is often done in a rather structured manner, making it surprisingly easy to pick up once you have got the progressions mastered.

Meanwhile, the right hand in ragtime is reserved almost exclusively for playing syncopated melodies. Using a fluttering combination of both on and off beat movements, players are able to mix rhythms between the right and left hands, which is what gives Ragtime that characteristic sound that is designed to make the listener move their feet and tap along.

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Where To Begin With Ragtime? 

The absolute first name that you will find when doing any level of research into the world of Ragtime piano is Scott Joplin, and for good reason! Often dubbed the ‘King of Ragtime’ and is probably the most familiar name when it comes to the style, he is perhaps best known for his pieces such as ‘The Entertainer’ or ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, both of which are fantastic places to begin a ragtime journey. As you begin to explore other names within the ragtime world, the likes of Eubie Blake and James Scott will soon open up and are other fantastic areas of Ragtime to begin exploring.

How to Start Playing Ragtime Piano? 

At first, Ragtime playing can seem a little intimidating due to the jumping movements and strange progressions not typically found in the likes of classical or even modern music, however with just a few tips and tricks, getting started with Ragtime is easy.


Ragtime is more of a swing style and can be considered bluesy or jazzy, however it tends to lack the constant dissonance and grunge of these styles and uses more major sounding chords to create a light, airy, and fun sound. 

Rather than playing some simple chords, Ragtime piano playing likes to break them down and play them more as separate notes. Whilst this may sound a little strange at first, it is easier to view each finger as trying to replicate a different part of the entire band. The three simple steps below will help exemplify this further and are a great place to begin learning Ragtime.

Step 1: Learn The Jumping Left Hand

One of the base techniques for Ragtime piano is the jumping left hand. In Ragtime, as mentioned the left hand acts as both percussion and bass, it acts as the metronome for the song and creates the groove. Practise some simple jumps of jazz or major chord progressions, using the left pinky as the bass and the rest of the hand as the drum beat. Mastering this technique is one of the easiest ways to get started with Ragtime improvisation as you begin to progress and start improvising, this technique will always bring you back to a solid base and more cohesive piece.

Step 2: Learning Basic Rag Rolls

Rag rolls are the best secret to learning to play ragtime piano. This technique refers to the right hand repeating patterns where the melody is played in octaves and 2 chord tones are added in between. There are three main components of a basic rag roll that will help you get started.

  1. The chord is generally arpeggiated from the tonic up and are the 3rd and 5th notes of the chord
  2. The outer notes are played as octaves
  3. The rhythm is always syncopated - meaning that the accent of the music is on the ‘and’ of the bar, or on a beat you don’t expect.

Tip: Listen to the likes of ‘The Entertainer’ by Scott Joplin to see what we mean here. This is a classic example of a forward rag roll.

Step 3; Enhancing Your Rag rolls

With basic rag rolls mastered, you can begin to make them more complicated. Like explained above, the same can be done for reverse rolls - then more complicated combined rolls that mix forward and backward movements.

Adding Yourself Into The Music

Ragtime is an incredibly experimental form of music and is best played when you add your own playing styles into the equation. Elements of improvisation based around the fundamentals all add immense levels of colour and flare into Ragtime piano, making it a fantastic genre to enhance creativity and helping students understand the physical playing of music rather than simply reading music off a page.

Perhaps the best way to learn more about the flare of Ragtime and enhance your playing skills is to listen to Ragtime regularly, this is the best way of internalising the skills and techniques available at your fingertips when experimenting with improvisation. It creates a base for you to compare your own music against and see how you can improve against some of the greats.

We hope you enjoyed this brief overview and insight into the world of Ragtime piano, its forms and how you can begin getting started with it. To learn more about Ragtime, we would recommend exploring the works of Ragtime By Scott Joplin, written by Jean Kleeb or to improve your improvisation skills, explore our guide here.

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