3 Must-Know Jazz Piano Licks
Do you want to know what one of the biggest myths out there is when it comes to improvisation? As a young jazz student, I was taught that improvisation means “spontaneous composition.” Maybe you have heard a similar definition. This is really a distortion of the truth. In actual practice, improvised lines are not “spontaneously composed” as much as they are “spontaneously recalled.” This is a significant distinction, especially since jazz language parallels spoken language. Proficient speakers do not spontaneously create words or phrases when they speak—the create meaning by drawing from their vocabulary and experience. So if you want to be a great improviser, you really need to learn some jazz piano licks. That’s what this Quick Tip is all about! You’ll learn:
- The most essential jazz chord progression
- 4 chord shell voicings
- 3 essential jazz techniques
- 3 authentic jazz piano licks
If you feel stuck when it’s time to solo, then this Quick Tip is for you! The jazz piano licks and techniques you’ll learn about below will influence your playing for years to come.
Let’s dive in!
The Most Essential Jazz Chord Progression
Before we get into the licks, we need to set a harmonic context. For today’s lesson we’ll be using the 2-5-1 progression. This is the most commonly occurring chord progression in jazz music. We’ll be in the key of C for this lesson. I have included the scale and corresponding diatonic chords in C Major below:
If you need a refresher on how to find these root position 7th chords, you’ll find our course on Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises to be a great resource.
2-5-1 Chord Progression in C Major
We can use the knowledge above to find the chords in C that make a 2-5-1 chord progression: Dm7→G7→C Major 7.
In this example, the 1 chord lasts for two bars so I substituted a C Major 6 in the last bar to add variety. In general, you can use a C6 interchangeably with a C Major 7, although in some cases your melody might suggest one or the other.
For this particular lesson, I recommend using chord shells in the left hand.
What is a Chord Shell?
A chord shell is a two-note, left hand piano voicing comprised of a chord’s root and 3rd or root and 7th. The specific context and range determines which option is more appropriate. In some cases, either chord shell will fit. Take a look at the shells I have chosen below for this progression.
Note that in the chord shell for C6, the 6th is substituted for the 7th, just as in the 7th chord. If you want to master all your Major 7, minor 7, and Dominant 7 chord shells in all 12 keys, check out our course on Chord Shell and Guide Tone Exercises . You could also choose play this progression using more advanced rootless voicings.
Excellent! Now that you’ve got your canvas, let’s put a brush in your hand.
Must-Have Jazz Piano Lick #1
The first lick we’re going to learn today is based on a G Dominant Bebop Scale. This scale is an essential technique used for jazz improvisation. Let’s start by previewing the lick.
I love the sound of this lick! Sound what going on here? This lick uses the G Dominant Bebop scale, which is closely related to the Mixolydian mode, with an additional note.
What is the Mixolydian mode?
The Mixolydian mode is most easily understood as a Major scale modified by a ♭7. Therefore it is constructed as follows: 1-2-3-4-5-6-♭7. The G Mixolydian scale would be G A B C D E F♮. Another way of saying this would be a C Major scale beginning on G. (I have another Quick Tip strictly dedicated to modes called How to Practice Scales for Jazz Piano.)
The Dominant Bebop Scale
The Dominant Bebop scale adds the ♮7 into the Mixolydian scale while keeping the ♭7, making it an 8-note scale: 1-2-3-4-5-6-♭7-♮7, or G A B C D E F♮F♯.
One of the reasons the Dominant Bebop Scale works so well for jazz improv is because it has 8 notes. When this scale is played in descending 8th notes, the notes placed on the downbeats outline a Dominant 7th chord. Note that the ♮7 and 4 (weak tone) occur on upbeats as passing tones.
Jazz musicians will often use the Dominant Bebop Scale on the 2 chord and the 5 chord in the 2-5-1 progression just like in Lick #1.
Lick # 1 Break Down
In the second measure of Lick #1, I switch to the Major Blues Scale as I change directions. Finally, the third measure outlines a C Major 9 chord with the D♭ acting as a chromatic upper neighbor to the C on beat 3.
Let’s practice this lick together slowly at 70 BPM.
Excellent job! You’re ready to try this lick with the backing tracks that accompany this lesson. You can download the backing track in three different tempos and the lesson sheet for this Quick Tip from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also access the Smart Sheet Music for this lesson with your PWJ membership which allows you to transpose these licks into any key with one click.
Let’s take a look at another jazz piano lick.
Must-Have Jazz Piano Lick #2
The second example of our must-have jazz piano licks is based on an essential technique that happens to be one of my favorite scales—the Dominant Diminished Scale. Let’s take a listen.
Do you see why I call these “must-have” licks? At the core of this lick is the ascending G Dominant Diminished Scale in the second measure.
What is the Dominant Diminished Scale?
The Dominant Diminished Scale is an 8-note scale used to improvise over Dominant 7th chords and is constructed of alternating half-steps and whole-steps beginning with a half-step. The resulting scale features three altered chord extensions—♭9, ♯9, ♯11. Let’t look closer now at the G Dominant Diminished Scale that is used with G7.
If this scale is new to you, it may sound unusual to the ear at first, but it sounds excellent in the context of improv over a Dominant 7th Chord. If you want to take a deep dive on this topic, check out our course Scales for Improv on 7th Chords. You may also want to check out our course on Piano Chord Alterations.
Lick #2 Break Down
So what else is going on in Lick #2? Great question! Let’s look at the following analysis:
This lick beginnings with a Dm9 chord outline in the first measure and then connects with a chromatic walk-up into the 3rd of the G7 chord in the second measure and proceeds to ascend the G Dominant Diminished Scale. The third measure outlines a C Major 9 and the last measure lands on a super hip #11 before resolving to a couple chord tones.
Now, let’s practice this lick together slowly at 70 BPM.
Nice job! Let’s take a look at one more lick and improv technique you have got to have.
Must-Have Jazz Piano Lick #3
One important characteristic of authentic jazz lines is an angular shape, with purposeful change of direction. Great lines don’t just go up and come down, they gracefully meander like a mature river. Jazz pianists use a technique call enclosure to create these purposeful changes in direction. Let’s listen to our final example and then I’ll explain this technique in detail.
What is an enclosure?
Enclosure is a melodic technique jazz musicians use to lead to a chord tone by preceding the target note with its neighbor notes. Neighbor notes are the notes either a half-step or whole-step above and below the target note. Enclosures can use diatonic neighbor notes (derived from the same parent scale as the target note) or chromatic neighbor notes (a half-step from the target note and not necessarily from the parent scale).
Let’s look at some examples:
The example above uses chromatic enclosure because the target tone D is approached on each side by half-step. Since the enclosure begins with the upper neighbor, it is called an upper enclosure.
The example below is a chromatic lower enclosure because the enclosure begins with the lower neighbor.
For a more in depth study on enclosures, check out our Quick Tip on Chord Enclosures Jazz Piano Improv Exercise.
Lick #3 Break Down
The Lick #3 analysis diagram below shows how this lick makes extensive use of upper and lower enclosures to target chord tones. Notice that the chord tones are placed in a metrically strong position on either beat 1 or beat 3 and the enclosure begins on the weak beat preceding the target.
Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it sounds good and by drilling this lick into your vocabulary you will start to add enclosures to your lines more naturally.
Now, let’s practice Lick #3 slowly together at 70 BPM.
Congratulations, you’ve done outstanding! If you enjoyed the jazz piano licks and techniques in this Quick Tip, you will also enjoy our following courses:
- Soloing Over a 2-5-1 Progression
- Breaking Down a Jazz Solo (Level 2, Level 3)
- Bossa Nova Soloing Challenge
- Scales for Improv on 7th Chords
That’s all for today. Thanks for learning, and I’ll see you in the next piano lesson.
Get free weekly lessons to your inbox!
More Free Lessons
What makes certain chords sound jazzy? Learn everything you need to know about jazz piano chords and simple steps for constructing voicings.
Learn how to take a classical piece of music and turn it into a swinging jazz piano tune using jazz rhythms, chords, and fills on Für Elise!
Improve your speed, strength, clarity, coordination and control with these 5 essential piano exercises for all playing levels.
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
The Piano With Jonny Membership
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Try us out completely free for 14 days!