Easy Piano Improv – 4 Steps for Beginners
Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!
Improvising beautiful piano music is a highly rewarding personal experience. However, many piano students assume that improvisation is too far beyond their grasp. Fortunately, today’s Quick Tip will change all that! In fact, even if you have little or no piano training, you will be able to improvise after this lesson. With just 4 simple steps, you’ll learn to play easy piano improv that sounds beautiful. You’ll learn:
- 1 Pop Chord Progression
- 4 Easy Chords
- 2 Pinkie Grips
- 2 Amazing Fills
If you’re a beginner piano student, then this easy piano improv lesson is for you. In addition, intermediate and advanced pianists will discover practical improv tips to inspire new musical discovery.
Let’s dive in!
Chord Progression for Easy Piano Improv
Today’s lesson uses one of the most common chord progressions found in contemporary pop music. Specifically, this progression is a 6-4-1-5 progression. To begin with, let’s look at these chords in C major.
You might be asking what the numbers 6-4-1-5 mean? These numbers reference the relation of the each chord’s root to the tonal center of the key. For example, in the key of C major, the C major chord is built on the 1st scale degree. Therefore, C major is called the 1-chord. Likewise, A minor is built on the 6th tone of the scale which makes A minor the 6-chord. Similarly, F major is the 4-chord. And finally, G major is the 5-chord. The following example shows each of these chords’ relationship to the C major scale. (Note: the term triad refers to a 3-note chord.)
If you need in depth coverage on this topic, check out our Key of C Major course.
The Ultimate Pop Progression
If our easy piano improv progression sounds familiar to you, that’s because it almost certainly is. In fact, this chord progression is the basis for hundreds of songs in both pop and contemporary worship styles. The following list contains just a small sample of songs that use the 6-4-1-5 progression:
- Timbaland – “Apologize” (Feat. OneRepublic)
- Maroon 5 – “Never Gonna Leave This Bed”
- Beyonce – “If I Were A Boy”
- Jewel – “Foolish Games”
- Train – “Hey, Soul Sister”
- Toto – “Africa”
- Alan Walker – “Faded”
- AJ Mitchell – “I Don’t Want You Back”
- Sovereign Grace – “Jesus, Thank You”
- Virtue – “Praises To You”
As you can see, this chord progression has allowed countless artists to express their musical voice. In the same way, you can use this progression to discover your own voice with today’s easy piano improv tips.
Step 1: Accompaniment for Easy Piano Improv
Let’s get started with a left hand pattern for our easy piano improv. In the following example, notice that we are only using the root and 5th of each chord. That’s because we want to keep the harmonic texture from becoming too muddy in the lower register of the piano.
At this point, try to memorize this left hand pattern so that you don’t have to read it. If you want to add a bit more momentum, consider playing the progression with a quarter note pulse like this.
Great job, you’re ready for step 2. But first, be sure to download the complete lesson sheet and backing track that appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Step 2: Pinkie Grips for Easy Piano Improv
In this section, you’ll learn an easy pro tip called pinkie grips which results in beautiful piano improv lines. The pinkie grip technique uses a fixed note with right pinkie to harmonize a melody in the other fingers. While this may sound rather advanced, the coordination is not nearly as difficult as it sounds. Check out the following sample piano solo which uses the pinkie grip technique:
What a captivating sound! You may find references to this technique by a few other names. Some authors call this “top harmony.” Others call it a “drone note.” In traditional music theory, a fixed note against a moving note is referred to as oblique motion (as compared to parallel motion or contrary motion). Whatever you like to call it, it sounds great for pop piano improv! Let’s take a closer look at each of the pinkie grips used in this example.
Pinkie Grip 1
The first pinkie grip places the right pinkie on the 5th tone of the key. In this case, that note is G. Then, you’ll use your other four fingers to play an improv melody at the same time. But first, try playing the following grip 1 exercise ascending and descending to get a feel for the technique.
Great job! Next, try playing each of the note pairs above with each of the four chords from step 1. Listen to how they sound together. Then, slowly begin crafting improv lines along with the backing track. Start with quarter notes and then move on to 8th note ideas.
Pinkie Grip 2
Fantastic, you’re ready for the second pinkie grip. Pinkie grip 2 features the right pinkie on the tonic note of the key. In this case, that note is C. Try playing the following pinkie grip 2 scale.
Great job! You are now ready to try some easy piano improv along with the backing track using pinkie grip 2.
Step 3: Fills for Easy Piano Improv
Now that you’ve got the hang of improv with pinkie grips, you may want to add some additional fills. In this section, we’ll cover two right hand fills that add a magical touch to the impact of your solo. Specifically, each fill features a 16th note improv motif that begins with a descending roll into the first note.
Pretty cool, huh? Just wait. This fill really comes alive when we put the hands together. In fact, this fill works well over any of the chords in our 6-4-1-5 chord progression. The key to properly executing this fill is to be sure to place the first D precisely on the “and of 1.” If you find yourself struggling with the timing, try playing the motif without the graces notes at first. Then, once you have the entrance solid, simply roll down into the first note.
Now, let’s try Fill 2, a similar gesture with slightly different pitches.
Great job! Once again, try using this fill over each chord in the 6-4-1-5 chord progression. Then, once you feel like you are getting the hang of it, try playing along with the backing track to be sure your timing is solid.
In the final section, you’ll combine these fills with your pinkie grips to craft a truly captivating piano solo.
Step 4: Putting It All Together
Are you ready to make your solo really stand out? The final step is to put all of the pieces together. For example, the except below features a quarter note accompaniment with improv using both pinkie grips in multiple registers. Also, notice how fill 1 is added in measure 11.
Congratulations! You’ve completed today’s lesson. If you want to learn even more pop and contemporary piano techniques, be sure to check out the following courses:
- Contemporary Progressions and Improv (Level 2, Level 3)
- The Love Progression (Level 2)
- Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment Patterns (Level 2, Level 3)
- Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: Popstinatos (Levels 2 & 3)
Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
More Free Lessons
'Tis the season to let your heart find home with a warm and tender jazz piano ballad arrangement of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
In honor of Thanksgiving, I wanted to express my gratitude towards music. Hopefully, this will inspire you to reflect upon how music has impacted your life in a positive way.
Learn essential techniques to play Brenda Lee's holiday classic, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," in a jazz piano style.
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. Start your free 14-day trial today!