How to Improvise Piano with Black Keys Only

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
12:00

Learning Focus
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Practice Tips
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
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If you’re new to improvising on the piano, you might feel overwhelmed with all the chords, scales, and other music theory that’s being thrown at you! You’re not alone. But what if I told you that you can actually create some absolutely gorgeous lines and improvise piano using only the 5 black keys? 

To do this we’ll be using 2 easy but rich chords that use only the black keys. They fit wonderfully in the context of the included contemporary jazz (and smooth jazz) backing track. Of course, they are also very usable in many other styles of music, including pop, rock, and other styles of jazz piano.

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • The 2 lush chords using only black keys
  • 3 awesome piano improvisation techniques and patterns for beginner through advanced pianists
  • Exercises including grips, harmony notes, and harmonized turns

Let’s dive in!

Getting Ready: The 2 Chords to Improvise Piano With Only Black Keys

So let’s start by learning these 2 simple chords. These chords will help set the foundation for all the cool improvisations we’ll do using only the black keys! Here they are:

The first black key chord for piano is called Gb(6/9)
The first black key chord for piano is called Gb(6/9)

The second black key chord for piano is called Ab9(sus4)
The second black key chord for piano is called Ab9(sus4)

Sounds cool, right? Now I know the names of these chords might sound complicated (you can check out Intermediate Piano Foundations, Part 1, and Part 2 to learn more), but don’t worry too much about that now. In actuality, they are only using black notes of the piano!

In fact, each one uses all 5 at the same time, just at different positions. The first has Gb as the lowest note, and the second has Ab as the lowest note. Once you get the first chord, you can simply slide up your hand 1 black key and play 5 black keys starting from there.  Try playing each chord until it feels comfortable under your left hand.

Once you’re ready try playing this groove with the chords in the left hand. It plays on each beat, what we call a 4 on the floor groove:

Playing our 2 black key piano chords on each beat, called 4 on the floor groove 1 measure each chord
Playing our 2 black key piano chords on each beat, called 4 on the floor groove 1 measure each chord

Try playing it with the backing track at the bottom of the page for each of these steps to really get the full effect of the chords and techniques.

So how do we actually improvise on the piano over these chords using only black keys? Let’s find out.

Piano Improvisation Technique #1: Black Key Grips

If someone gave you some ingredients, would you simply toss them all in a pot and expect a delicious meal? It’s a possibility, but most likely not! It’s the same with improvising music. In this context, any black key will work, but to get the best results we should follow a good recipe, or good improv techniques to get the most appetizing sound.

The first one uses what we call grips. What are grips? Put simply, they are a specific group of notes. When improvising on the piano we like to think of different groups of notes and patterns instead of only single notes.

Grips don’t necessarily fit the “requirements” to be called one of the common chords or scales. However, they tend to be easy shapes to remember and sound great to play and improvise in different contexts.

Here are the 2 grips that work using only black keys:

The second turn has Db as the highest and lowest note
The second turn has Db as the highest and lowest note

Try to play cool melodies and rhythms from within these 2 grip positions on the piano, even moving from one to the other and in different octaves. It’ll help create more cohesive sounding lines thinking in this way.

TIP: If you’re familiar with pentatonic scales, which is what using only the 5 black keys are, these grips can be thought of as 2 great shapes to play within any pentatonic scale.

Piano Improvisation Technique #2: Harmonized Notes On the Black Keys

Now, we are going to take things to the next level and learn how to harmonize the notes we choose to improvise with on piano using only black keys.

There are a few different ways to do this, but in this lesson, we are going to use a simple method of skipping 1 black key below our top note and playing the following black key as the harmony note.

I’m going to walk you through this process with 2 examples below. We’ll take whatever note we chose to improvise with (the melody note), then skipping just 1 black key we’ll harmonize it with the black key that follows:

Example 1 of taking our melody note (Ab in this case), and skipping a black key and harmonizing with the following black key
Example 1 of taking our melody note (Ab in this case), and skipping a black key, and harmonizing with the following black key

Example 2 of the same piano harmonization technique this time with Bb as the melody note
Example 2 of the same piano harmonization technique this time with Bb as the melody note

Pretty cool, right? Once you wrap your head around the concept, try playing the exercise below to cover the harmonization of each possible black note  (also a neat pattern to learn on its own):

Black key harmonization exercise covering every possible black key on the piano
Black key harmonization exercise covering every possible black key on the piano

If you want to know more ways to harmonize your lines, check out G Blues Improvisation (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). 

Piano Improvisation Technique #3: Black Key Harmonized Turns

This technique requires a little bit more piano technique, but it sure sounds great once you get it down!

What is a harmonized turn? Generally, a turn is a nice little embellishment on the piano that quickly alternates between two adjacent notes. Harmonizing the turn involves adding a harmony note to 1 or more notes involved in that turn (usually just the beginning note).

Check out our 2 harmonized turns using only black keys:

The first black key harmonized turn on piano has Ab as the highest and lowest note and is harmonized with a 5th
The first black key harmonized turn on piano has Ab as the highest and lowest note and is harmonized with a 5th

The second turn has Db as the highest and lowest note and is also harmonized with a 5th
The second turn has Db as the highest and lowest note and is also harmonized with a 5th

Usually, these turns involve two steps: a grab, which is laying your hand down on the first harmonized note of the turn, then following with the actually turn motion (the alternation of the bottom note in this case).

When you are comfortable playing the harmonized turns shown above, try the exercise below to put each of these turns in a more musical context:

Exercise incorporating our 2 black key turns up the piano over the chord progression
Exercise incorporating our 2 black key turns up the piano over the chord progression

TIP: Lighten up your fingers when playing turns, so you get a more flowy and dreamy quality in this style.

If you want to learn more about turns and harmonized turns then check out The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale) (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).

Summing It All Up

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson on how to improvise on the piano using only black keys. It’s crazy how much beautiful music can be created using only 5 notes. In this case, all the black keys of the piano. Hopefully, this helps you to realize that improvising doesn’t have to be intimidating and will give you the confidence to keep growing your craft on the piano.

Be sure to keep experimenting and having fun finding your own sounds using the concepts discussed in this lesson as a foundation. Be sure to download the PDF below with all the exercises and notated chords discussed in this lesson. You can download the smart sheet music as well to play them in any key you wish. There is also the backing track available to help you practice these techniques and to improvise with.

If you want a deeper dive into the many techniques and sounds discussed in this lesson, be sure to check out some of the following courses here at Piano With Jonny:

Thanks for checking out this Quick Tip. See you in the next one!

Blog written by Daine Jordan/Quick Tip by Jonny May

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