A Beginner Guide to Jazz Piano Improvisation
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Are you looking to explore beginner jazz piano improvisation? Well, look no further. This Quick Tip is written especially for beginners and features essential jazz piano tips and tricks that will have your improvisation surprising you and your listeners in no time. Here’s what you’ll learn:
- 2 seventh chords
- 2 accompaniment rhythms
- 1 very useful scale
- Improv lines using quarter notes, eight notes and triplets
- 4 slides
- 1 turn
- 2 great-sounding runs
Improvisation is NOT hard if you know the tools for creating amazing jazz lines. If you are a beginner or intermediate jazz pianist, this lesson will give you the tools you need to be spontaneous with your improvisation. And advanced players and piano educators will be reminded of the simple ingredients that make an improvised solo effective.
Let’s get started.
Left Hand Approach
In our left hand we’ll be using two seventh chords. What are seventh chords? Seventh chords are four-note chords commonly used in jazz, blues, gospel and R&B music in which the chord tones are constructed in the format of root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th. However, as a beginner, you may prefer to understand a seventh chord as a triad with an additional note. The additional note is a seventh above the root.
The chords shown above represent two different kinds of seventh chords—a minor 7th and a Dominant 7th chord. A minor 7th chord is constructed by starting with a minor triad and then adding a minor 7th above the root (see Dm7). To construct a Dominant 7th, start with a major triad and then add a minor 7th above the root (see G7).
If you need to work on your familiarity with these seventh chords, we have full courses on Minor 7th Chord Theory and Application and Dominant 7th Chord Theory and Application designed to help you gain mastery.
Now let’s look at a chord progression that uses these chords. The 1 to 4 progression is one of the most common progressions in Western music. Today’s example is in the key of D minor.
Did you notice in the example above that the G7 chord is inverted? What is an inversion? An inversion is when a chord’s notes are reordered so that the root is no longer on the bottom. In the example above, inverting the G7 requires less hand travel allowing for ease of playing, but more importantly, it creates a smooth connection between the chords resulting a preferable sound. Jazz musicians refer to this as voice leading. Note that there are two common tones between Dm7 and G7. The common tones are show below in bold-font:
Dm7: D-F-A-C | G7: G-B-D-F
In most cases the best voice leading occurs when you retain the common tone(s) in the same octave. This naturally requires at least one of the chords to be inverted, as this cannot be done if both chords are in root position. You will automatically sound like a more proficient jazz pianist when you voice your chords with smooth voice leading as show in the example. If you want additional examples of voice leading with seventh chords and inversions, you will love our course Learn Lead Sheets with 7th Chords.
Now that you have great sounding jazz piano chords, let’s explore some accompaniment patterns. These will serve as a backdrop for your beginner jazz piano improvisation. First, let’s begin with whole notes. This is a great way to allow you to focus on your right hand while improvising.
You’re getting the hang of it. Next, let’s explore some rhythmic variation. Try playing the Charleston Groove as shown in the following example.
Great job! As a new improvisor, these two left hand accompaniments are really all you need to get started. When you’re ready for more, our course on Jazz Swing Accompaniment 1 covers 10 approaches on how to accompany a jazz swing tune.
Right Hand Approach
Now that you have a foundation for your left hand, let’s get your right hand creating some amazing improv lines. I think you’ll be surprised by how far you can go with a simple six-note scale.
The Gospel Scale
If you haven’t learned The Gospel Scale yet, you’ve been missing out. With these six notes you will be able to improv over countless chords and progressions in a variety of styles. The example below shows the F Gospel Scale.
What is The Gospel Scale?
The Gospel Scale uses tones from a major scale in the following construction: 1-2-#2-3-5-6. This scale is also sometimes called a Major Blues Scale (as well as a couple other names). For an in depth study, consider our courses on Scales for Improv on 7th Chords and The Extended Turnaround Improv 1.
Next, we’ll learn techniques for creating lines using the Gospel Scale. Lines are little musical sentences that have a start and an end point. I recommend that beginners start by keeping their lines confined to a single hand position. The example below shows position 1 of the F Gospel Scale
From this position you can begin to improvise using quarter notes. Explore ascending and descending lines. Consider beginning your lines from different pitches and by starting on different beats. I recommend practicing with the backing track. The backing track for this lesson is included with your PWJ membership and can be accessed from the bottom of this page when you are logged-in.
Next, you are ready to explore eighth note lines and triplet lines. I have written out samples below of quarter note, eighth note and triplet lines in position 1.
You’re doing great…ready to take it up a notch?
Beginner Jazz Piano Improv—Adding Jazz Idioms
One of the main reasons that beginner jazz piano improvisation students stay stuck is because they haven’t learned jazz piano idioms—those genre-specific tricks of the trade. This is often the main difference between sounding authentic, or not. The great news is that these idioms are not hard to learn or apply, but you do need someone to show them to you. Well, that’s why Piano With Jonny exists! Let’s look at some common jazz piano techniques for right hand improvisation.
You can instantly stylize your improv lines by adding slides. Slides are ornaments that somewhat resemble grace notes in classical piano music. Here are four slides you can add from the F Gospel Scale in Position 1.
Next, let’s talk about turns. This is one of my favorite jazz piano techniques. You’re going to want to watch the Quick Tip video to get a feel for how play these with the correct inflection and timing.
Lastly, let’s play some runs. Runs are licks spanning several octaves up or down the piano. Here are two descending runs using the F Gospel Scale. A harmonized run add notes played simultaneously in a few spots.
Congratulations! You are definitely on you’re way to playing some amazing solos with these classic jazz piano techniques. You can also check out the Smart Sheet Music for this lesson if you need to transpose these slides, turns and runs in to another key.
To hear how I apply all the techniques from this lesson in a performance, check out my solo piano cover of the Nora Jones tune “Don’t Know Why.”
And if you want a deep dive into more incredible sounding solo techniques, consider these other popular PWJ courses below:
- Soloing Over a 251 Progression (Levels 2 & 3)
- The 10-Lesson Blues Challenge 1 (Level 2)
- The 10-Lesson Blues Challenge 2 (Level 3)
- The Bible of Blues Riffs 1 (Level 2)
- The Bible of Blues Riffs 2 (Level 3)
- Funky Blues Soloing 1 (Level 2)
- Funky Blues Soloing 2 (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with me, and see you in the next piano Quick Tip!
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