Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Improvisation
  • Lead Sheets
  • Reharmonization
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Holiday
  • Jazz Ballads
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Do you love the song Have Yourself the Merry Little Christmas? Today, I’m going to teach you how to play the lead sheet for Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas in a beautiful jazz ballad piano style, or Cocktail Jazz piano style.

Let’s get started.

Step 1: Start With A Simple Lead Sheet

The first step to playing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in a beautiful jazz ballad style, and furthermore, any song in a jazz ballad style, is to start with a lead sheet.

What is a lead sheet?

A lead sheet is sheet music that contains the most basic elements of a song: the melody and chords.  Oftentimes, the lead sheet contains lyrics, but this is not necessary. A lead sheet usually does not include the left hand bass clef or any right hand harmony notes – as a jazz pianist, you are expected to add that.

If you look up a lead sheet for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you will most likely find one that contains these four chords:

C Major 7, A minor 7, D minor 7, and G7

Here is how you would play these chords in root position:

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas jazz piano song chords
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas jazz piano song chords

Depending on the lead sheet, you might find this song in a different key, or you might find slightly modified chords from the above.  However, most lead sheets will be very similar to the above chords.

Make sure you can play the chords in root position in the left hand before adding anything.

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see students make – they try adding all kinds of chord colors and fills to their arrangement, yet they don’t really know the basic chords in the song!

Don’t make this mistake! Take the time to master the 7th chords in a song chords.

If you don’t know all your 7th chords, you can learn all major 7, minor 7, and dominant 7 chords, how to use them in songs, and dozens of exercises in our Jazz Foundations Learning Track here.

I also encourage you to practice the left hand chords with the backing track, which can be downloaded on this page after you log into your membership.

Once you’ve got the 7th chords down, it’s time to apply the 8 Jazz Ballad Piano arranging techniques.

Step 2: Add the 8 Jazz Ballad Piano Arranging Techniques

So you’ve got your melody and chords.  What next?

At this point, I recommend going through all of your chords and adding chord extensions.

Arranging Technique #1: Chord Extensions

Chord extensions are the 9, 11, and 13 of a chord.  They are simple to find -simply take your major scale for given chord, and find the 2nd, 4th, and 6th note.  Those are your 9, 11, and 13.  For example, in an A7 chord, you can find your extensions by playing the A major scale.  The 9 is the B, the 11, is the D, and the 13 is the F#.

For example, here are your chord extensions on a C Major 7 chord:

Chord extensions on a C Major 7
Chord extensions on a C Major 7

Now, when adding chord extensions to an arrangement, you need to know which extensions to add to which chords.  Here is a guideline that I use with students:

  • Major 7 Chords: Add the 9 and/or 13
  • Minor 7 Chords: Add the 9 and/or 11
  • Dominant 7 Chords: Add the 9, 13, b9, #9, #11, and b13

For a deep dive on how to use chord extensions on jazz ballads, checkout the course 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches (Level 2 & Level 3)

Arranging Technique #2: Chord Alterations

On dominant 7 chords, it is very common to add beautiful chord colors called the b9, #9, #11, and b13.

For example, here are some common chord alterations added to a C7 chord:

C7b9, C7#9, and C7b13#9 chords, jazz piano chord alterations (altered chords)
C7b9, C7#9, and C7b13#9 chords, jazz piano chord alterations (altered chords)

Almost any combination of these notes work very well, but it is important to understand how to combine these to make especially beautiful chord voicings.  For a deep dive on this concept checkout the Coloring Dominant Chords With Upper Structures course.

Arranging Technique #3: Slides

One of the easiest things to add to your arrangement is slides, and these create a blues or gospel sound, depending on the slide you use.

A slide is like a grace note – you play the note below or above your target not very briefly.

For example, here is a common blues slide that is added to a melody note E:

Blues chromatic slide
Blues chromatic slide

For this arrangement, you can use both diatonic slides (gospel slides) or chromatic slides (blues slides). You can learn more about mastering slides in the 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2 & Level 3).

Arranging Technique #4: Passing Chords

Passing chords are very important if you want to add interesting chords in between chords on your lead sheet.  One of the most common ways of doing this is with chord families – that is, using chords that have shared tones. Other common techniques include adding 2-5-1 chord progressions whenever you want to target a chord.

For example, you could add two chord before a C Major 7 is you use a 2-5-1 progression like this:

2-5-1 chord progression in C Major, jazz piano
2-5-1 chord progression in C Major, jazz piano

For a deep dive on all the passing chords you can use in jazz, checkout the Passing Chords & Reharmonization courses (Level 2 & Level 3).

Another great summary of passing chords can be found in this Quick Tip.

Arranging Technique #5: Melodic Fills

Melodic fills are when you add a melody in the gap of your tune.  When using this device, the most important thing is to use notes that match your chord.

For example, it is very common to use the C Mixolydian scale to fill on a C7 chord:

C Mixolydian scale over a C7 chord
C Mixolydian scale over a C7 chord

For a deep dive on which notes work over every type of chord you’ll see in jazz and popular music, plus how to create interesting fills, checkout the Scales for Improv courses (Level 2 and Level 3).

Arranging Technique #6: 6ths

6ths are a very simple way of harmonizing your melody without having to think too much about it.  With this technique, you would add a harmony a 6th interval below your melody note, but be careful! You will not always use a major 6th or minor 6th interval.  The 6th interval comes from the scale, so the exact distance will change depending on the chord you are on.

Here is how you could harmonize a C melody using 6th intervals:

Harmonizing the C scale with 6th intervals on piano
Harmonizing the C scale with 6th intervals on piano

For more on using 6ths in your arrangement, check out the Love Progression course.

Arranging Technique #7: Tritone Substitution

A more advanced arranging technique, Tritone Substitution chords are a type of passing chord that can be added to your lead sheet.

What is a tritone substitute?

A tritone substitute is a chord substitute that can be used on a dominant 7th chord by using the dominant 7 chord a tritone, or 3 whole steps, away from the target chord.

So if you have a G7, you can substitue this chord for a Db7 (Db is three whole steps away from G7).  Why? Because both chords share the same 3rd and 7th, which are the essential notes of the chord (they define the chord quality).

Here is an example of tritone substitution on a G7 chord:

Tritone substitute on a G7, jazz piano passing chord
Tritone substitute on a G7, jazz piano passing chord

For more on Tritone Substitution, checkout the Passing Chords & Reharmonization Level 3 course.

Arranging Technique #7: Secondary Dominants

Secondary Dominants are a more intermediate harmonic technique, and they are a great way to add chords to your arrangement.

What is a secondary dominant?

A secondary dominant is a dominant 7th chord that is a perfect 5th above your target chord.

Here is an example of a secondary dominant chord that can be used between a C Major 7 and an A minor 7:

Secondary dominant piano passing chord
Secondary dominant piano passing chord

Therefore, if I have a A7, or a AMaj7, or a Am7 as my target chord, I can use the E7 just before this chord to set it up.  The key here is that the setup chord is a 5th away, and it must be dominant!  By the way, the target chord can be any chord quality, like Major, Minor, or Dominant.

For more on secondary dominants, checkout the Passing Chords & Reharmonization Level 2 course.

Step 3: Put it All Together

The final step is to take all of the above arranging techniques and combine them into a beautiful arrangement.  Now, it’s one thing to understand the technique, but it’s another thing to understand how to add them to a particular melody and do so in a musical way.

After all, every melody is different and requires a slightly different treatment.

The best way to master this is to apply these concepts to multiple songs in multiple keys.  We’ve done this for you in our Jazz Ballad Learning Tracks (Level 2 & Level 3).  And if you want to dive right into a course on this topic, you can with  The Way You Look At Me course.

Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip!

Your teacher,

Jonny May


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