Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
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  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
  • Smooth Jazz
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If you are seeking to become proficient on piano at improvisation, then you have probably already studied a few scales. But what’s the next step after you have learned basic scales? For many, the assumption is that you must move on to more complicated scales. However, there’s another way. Today’s Quick Tip is all about getting more with less. It’s about what you do with your scales. In fact, today’s lesson breaks down 5 separate techniques you can use to improvise piano with just 1 scale! You’ll learn to improvise using:

  • Stepwise Motion
  • Melodic 3rds
  • Outlining Chords
  • Diatonic Triads
  • Diatonic 7th Chords

By applying these techniques to the major scale, you’ll find fresh new piano improv ideas that sound great!

Intro to Improvise Piano with 1 Scale

Today’s lesson explores various techniques to improvise piano with 1 scale. Why? Because if a student can’t sound good with 1 scale, will they really sound better with 2 or more? You can instantly see the rationale for an improv approach that seeks to minimize materials in order to maximize results. Therefore, we will demonstrate how to improvise piano with five techniques that use only 1 scale and 1 chord.

Today’s lesson sheet is in the key of C major. However, you can easily transpose the material to other keys as needed with our Smart Sheet Music. This lesson also includes 4 downloadable backing tracks for use in practicing the techniques described in this lesson. The lesson sheet and backing tracks appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

The lesson sheet is organized into three steps:

  1. Left Hand Accompaniment
  2. One Scale for Improv
  3. Five Improv Techniques

Let’s examine step 1.

Step 1: Left Hand Accompaniment

First, we’ll need to provide a simple piano accompaniment to support our right hand as we learn to improvise with 1 scale. The accompaniments on today’s lesson sheet can be divided into two broad categories: (1) wholes notes and (2) stride-style. Feel free to choose any left hand accompaniment below that you find most accessible or interesting. You can even mix and match the various options.

Whole Note Accompaniments

Each of the following chords produce a C major tonal environment for improvisation with a slightly different sound.

Whole Note Accompaniment~C Major Triad Piano left hand chords

Whole Note Accompaniment~C Major 7 piano left hand 7th chords

Whole Note Accompaniment~C Major 6 piano left hand 6th chords

Stride-Style Accompaniments

Once you feel comfortable playing the chords above, you may want to add some rhythm in your left hand to drive the accompaniment. The dotted-quarter to eighth-note feel of the Charleston groove adds just enough movement in the left hand without getting in the way. Notice that the rootless sounds of C Major 9 and C 6/9 can be played as a four-note voicing or a three-note voicing. Jazz pianists use these voicings interchangeably or may gravitate toward a particular voicing according to their preference.

Stride-style C Major 7 jazz piano accompaniment left hand

Stride-style C Major 9 Accompaniment jazz piano left hand rootless voicing

Stride-style C Major 6/9 jazz piano accompaniment left hand quartal

For each of the examples above, you can also play the root of the chord down an octave for a fuller bass sound. On the other hand, you can even omit the root entirely when playing with a rhythm section.

Our full-length course, How to Improvise a Solo with the Major Scale (Level 2, Level 3), contains additional accompaniment patters and styles for you to explore.

Alright, you’re are now ready for step 2 in which you’ll examine the 1 piano scale we’ll be using to improvise with the right hand.

Step 2: C Major Scale

The C major scale is often the first scale that piano students learn. Chances are, you have played this scale many times. Hopefully, at the conclusion of today’s lesson, you’ll have harnessed the potential of this “rudimentary” scale in new, creative ways. Here is the scale in 1 and 2 octaves with traditional right hand fingers.

C Major Scale with Right Hand Fingerings Improvise Improvisation 1 octave

C Major Scale in 2 Octaves Right Hand Fingers Improvise Improvisation

The C major scales shown above are presented in decontextualized form. While these standard fingerings are useful for the development of solid piano technique, our goal is actually to not use the scale in this manner. Rather, we want to improvise piano lines that are so creative and interesting that they almost conceal the fact that they are drawn from 1 common scale.

In the next section, you’ll learn 5 separate techniques to improvise with this 1 scale.

Step 3: Five Techniques to Improvise with 1 Scale

#1: Improvise Stepwise Motion with 1 Scale

An improv line or fragment in which notes primarily move to adjacent scale tones is considered to be stepwise motion. Of all the scale improv techniques we’ll explore in today’s lesson, this is the most “scalar” so to speak. Stepwise motion isn’t necessarily bad. However, early improvisors are often trapped into playing only stepwise motion. In addition, they have a tendency to begin and end their lines on the root, which makes matters less desirable.

To improvise piano with 1 scale using stepwise motion, it’s best to place chord tones on the primary beats. Furthermore, the most interesting stepwise lines have points of entry or arrival that embrace several tones of the tonic chord. Here is a great example of a stepwise line from today’s lesson sheet that enters on the 3rd of C Major 7, places a chord tone on each beat and then culminates on the 5th of the chord.

Improvise Piano with 1 scale using stepwise motion
To improvise piano with 1 scale using stepwise motion, it’s best to target chord tones on the primary beats (1, 2, 3 & 4).

Consider taking a moment now to play this line along with one of the backing tracks. Next, see if you can play a line of similar shape entering from a different chord tone of C Major 7. Finally, begin experimenting with your own lines.

Well done! Now you’re ready to explore the second technique to improvise piano with 1 scale.

#2: Improvise Melodic 3rds with 1 Scale

As an improv technique, 3rds refers to a sequence that draws on ascending or descending melodic 3rds. The essence of this structure is represented in the following figure.

C Major Melodic 3rds improvise piano with 1 scale
Sequence of ascending and descending melodic 3rds on C major scale.

Similar to stepwise motion, the goal in improvising with melodic 3rds is not to simply rattle off this sequence. Instead, we want to dissect these melodic cells and creatively explore their potential. Specifically, we must notice that there are macro and micro levels at work here. For example, the first two measures ascend on the macro level. Additionally, each melodic 3rd is presented as an upward skip on the micro level. Similarly, the last two measures descend on the macro level and each melodic 3rd is presented in downward skips on the micro level. The following diagram represents the shape of this line through both lenses.

Melodic 3rd with Macro and Micro Lense improvise piano with 1 scale
It’s possible to creatively improvise on piano with 1 scale using melodic 3rds by exploring unique combinations of macro and micro shapes.

Consider what would happen if we preserve the macro shape but invert the micro shapes? For example, let’s keep an ascending line for two measures followed by a descending line for two measures. However, we’ll play downward 3rds for the first two measures and upward 3rds for the second two measures. As a result, we get the following line.

Macro Ascending & Descending with opposite micro shapes
This figure preserves the macro shape of the previous example while inverting the micro shapes.

Micro Permutations on Melodic 3rds

As you can see, the juxtaposition of macro and micro shapes using melodic 3rds is dripping with creative potential. The example below draws on the first two melodic 3rds from the C major scale—C to E and D to F. Each example below preserves the ascending macro shape while presenting distinct permutations on the micro level: (1) Up, Up; (2) Down, Down; (3) Up, Down; (4) Down, Up.

Melodic 3rds Permutations Improvise piano with 1 scale
Melodic 3rds present opportunity for creative combinations of upward and downward skips in ascending and descending lines.

Consequently, we can construct a much more interesting “arch-shaped” line using melodic 3rds by rearranging the micro shapes of our original example.

Melodic 3rds Line with Micro Permutations Jazz Improvise with 1 major scale
Sample improv line using melodic 3rds with randomized micro structure.

Now that’s a pretty hip sound! In fact, this the type of approach that produces improv lines like we find in measures 8–9 on today’s lesson sheet.

3rds Example from Lesson Sheet improvise piano with 1 scale
Sample improv line using melodic 3rds over Cmaj7.

For more practice exploring improv lines with stepwise motion and melodic 3rds, check out our course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Chord Tone Targets (Level 2).

Are you ready for the next technique to improvise piano with 1 scale? Let’s keep going!

#3: Outlining Chords with 1 Scale

The third technique we can use to improvise piano with 1 scale is the outlining chords technique. On one sense, this is akin to simply playing arpeggios with the chord symbol. However, the heart of this technique focuses on the unique intervalic properties of 7th chord inversions. Consider the following diagrams.

Ascending Chord Outlines Jazz Arpeggios Piano Improv

Descending Chord Outlines Jazz Arpeggios Piano Improv

Did you notice what happens when we play inversions of a seventh chord? The interval of the 7th becomes a 2nd when inverted (see gray circles above). Therefore, outlining 7th chords combines aspects of our first two techniques—stepwise motion and melodic 3rds! As a result, we have some pretty shapely melodic material to draw from.

The following example from today’s lesson sheet demonstrates how to improvise with 1 scale using the outlining chords technique.

Sample Line~Outlining Chords
Chords outlines provides unique combinations of stepwise motion and melodic 3rds for a creative improv sound.

You can discover even more about improv with outlining chords in our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Outlining Chords (Level 2).

Let’s jump into our next technique to improvise piano with 1 scale.

#4: Diatonic Triads with 1 Scale

The next technique you can use to improvise piano with 1 scale is to use diatonic triads for your melodic material. Diatonic triads are 3-note chords built on each scale tone. The image below shows the seven diatonic triads found in C major.

Diatonic Triads in C major for piano improv
Diatonic triads are an effective technique to improvise piano with 1 scale.

In theory, you can get can actually improvise with any of these triads over C major. However, further categorization of these triads into primary and secondary categories will help you experience the most effective results.

Primary Triads

Primary triads have the most stable relationship with a given chord symbol. The example below shows the primary triads for improv over a C major 7 chord (also C 6/9). Can you guess why these triads are the most stable diatonic triads for improv over C major?

Primary Triads to improvise piano with 1 scale
Primary triads for improv on C major 7. These diatonic triads have the most stable relationship with a major chord.

If your answered that these triads contain the chord tones and extensions from C major 7, you’re correct! For example, an E minor triad provides the 3rd, 5th, and 7th of C major 7. Similarly, a G major triad contains the 5th, 7th and 9th. Also, an A minor triad produces a C major 6 sound (or a C major 13 sound when the 7th is included). You can learn more about these relationships in our course on Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2).

Secondary Triads

Professional jazz pianists also improvise using the following secondary triads over C major 7. However, it is important to recognize that these triads contain a tension called an “avoid note” or “weak tone.” The avoid note for a major chord is perfect 4th above the root—in this case, the note F.

Secondary Triads to improvise with diatonic triad pairs
Secondary triads for improv on C major 7. Secondary triads contain a tension known as an “avoid notes” or “weak tone” with respect to the given chord symbol.

Improvising with Triad Pairs

Jazz musicians like to combine pairs of diatonic triads to improvise interesting lines. The triad pairs improv technique commonly draws on a pair of triads at time. The most effective combinations use either two primary triads or one primary triad and one secondary triad. For example, you could improvise over C major 7 with the following triad pairs:

  • G major and A minor (both primary triads)
  • E minor and D minor (one primary triad and one secondary triad)

In fact, the  following example from today’s lesson sheet actually uses both of the triad pairs mentioned above.

Sample Line with Triad Pairs
The triad pairs technique allows you to eloquently improvise piano with 1 scale.

Take a moment to explore this technique with one of the backing tracks included with today’s lesson. Just like the other techniques we’ve explored so far, you’ll likely find this quite enjoyable and liberating.

You can explore improvising with diatonic triads further in our course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Diatonic Triads (Level 2).

Well, there’s one more technique to go. Let’s take a look.

#5: Diatonic 7th Chords with 1 Scale

Our fifth and final technique to improvise piano with 1 scale is diatonic 7th chords. This technique is expands on technique #4 above by using 4-note chords instead of 3-note chords as the basis for creative inspiration. Therefore, let’s examine each of the diatonic 7th chords in C major.

Diatonic 7th Chords in C piano improv right hand advanced
Diatonic 7th chords in C major.

Primary and Secondary Diatonic 7th Chords

Just like improvising with diatonic triads, we can categorize diatonic 7th chords based on their harmonic properties. Primary diatonic 7th chords contain stable tones whereas secondary diatonic 7th chords contain more tension.

Primary and Secondary 7th Chords in C to improvise piano with 1 scale
To improvise with diatonic 7th chords over a major 7th chord, focus on the primary 7th chords built on the 1st, 3rd and 6th scale degrees.

The following example from today’s lesson sheet demonstrates how to improvise piano with 1 scale using primary diatonic 7th chords.

Sample Improv Line with Diatonic 7th Chords
Sample improv line using primary diatonic 7th chords over C major 7.

To explore improv with diatonic 7th chords further, check out How to Improvise a Solo with the Major Scale—Lesson 6 (Levels 2 & 3).


Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s Quick Tip! Hopefully, you’ve found improvising with the C major scale to be anything but boring. Here is list of course references for today’s material.


2-5-1 Soloing with…

Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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