Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
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Have you noticed that many words are easier to say than they are to spell? I still remember being disqualified from the 6th grade spelling bee on the word asthma. I had never seen it written down. Who knew it wasn’t a-s-m-a? Similarly, many concepts on the piano are easier to play than they are to comprehend. When it comes to jazz piano improvisation, too many students stop before they even start because they assume they don’t have the formal training, theory knowledge, or piano technique needed to improvise freely. The problem with that sort of thinking is that it takes good things like training and technique, and turns them into obstacles rather than tools. If your goal is to improvise jazz piano, you really can get started today. In this lesson, Jonny shares 3 simple steps to begin playing beginner cocktail piano without any prerequisites! You’ll learn:

  • 4 Chords
  • 1 Scale
  • 3 Improv Exercises

There is one other hinderance to learning to improvise that we should mention up front—fear. Improvisation is scary. However, keep in mind that not all fears are equal. Some fears protect you from danger, while other fears seek to prevent discomfort. Fear of improvisation falls into the latter category. Remember, the only way to learn improvisation is by improvising. Are you willing to face the discomfort of possibly sounding awkward at first? As we begin, keep in mind that there is no actual danger in attempting to improv beginner cocktail piano. In fact, you’ll probably be surprised at how much you enjoy it!

Here we go!

Step 1: Turnaround Progression

You can begin improvising beginner cocktail piano by using one of the most common chord progressions in jazz repertoire—The Turnaround Progression. This progression is also known as a 1-6-2-5 progression because the chords frequently appear in that order. However in today’s lesson, we’ll actually begin the on the 2 chord. First, you’ll want to get comfortable with the hand shape of each of the following 4 chords in your left hand.

Beginner Cocktail Piano Chord Diagrams

You might be wondering how these chords are constructed? For example, it’s true that most beginners would think of the first chord as an F Major 7 rather than a D minor 7. The chord voicings above are called rootless voicings. Jazz pianists will often use rootless voicings especially when playing with a bass player to create rich piano colors. While the theory behind these voicings is more of an intermediate concept, you’ll find that these beautiful voicings are quite accessible to play. And if you want to dig further into their construction, check out our lesson on Rootless Voicings—Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application.

Once you feel comfortable shifting between these chords, the next step is to practice playing a beginner jazz ballad accompaniment pattern. For this lesson, we’ll play each chord for one measure in quarter notes.

Beginner Cocktail Piano Accompaniment Left Hand

Great job! To hear how these chords fit with a bass player, try playing along with the backing track for this lesson. The backing track and lesson sheet are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also quickly transpose this lesson into any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Step 2: Beginner Cocktail Piano Scale

In this step, you’ll learn a scale that you can get a lot of mileage out of for improvising beginner cocktail piano. It’s the Mixo-Blues Scale. This nine-note scale plays quite comfortably in the right hand using just three fingers.

C Mixo-Blues Scale for Beginner Cocktail Piano

You might be wondering about the Mixo-Blues name? This is a hybrid scale that combines elements of three different scales in one: (1) the Major Blues scale (2) the Minor Blues scale, and (3) the Mixolydian scale. As with many hybrid concepts, naming conventions vary widely. For instance, you might also see this scale called a Mixolydian Blues scale or even a Mixo-Dorian scale. You can learn more about each of these scales in our full-length course on Scales for Improv on 7th Chords.

Step 3: Improv Exercises

In this step, you’ll learn to put your hands together to play tasteful beginner cocktail jazz piano improvisation that sounds amazing! In order to improvise at will, you will first need to get comfortable coordinating some of the rhythmic possibilities. The following three exercises contain essential techniques that go into creating strong improv lines. These exercises will also help to get the sound of this jazz vocabulary in your ears and your fingers.

8th Note Exercise

The most basic rhythmic technique for jazz improvisation is 8th notes. In the following exercise, you’ll play the Mixo-Blues scale along with our left hand beginner cocktail piano accompaniment. Practice playing the 8th notes with a swing feel. Keep in mind that the purpose of this exercise is to build hand coordination and familiarity with the improv note choices. In a performance setting, you will want to improvise lines that breathe by placing tiny gaps in the melody that function like punctuation for the listener.

8th Note Exercise

Triplet Exercise

Next, we’ll practice playing triplets in the right hand. The exercise below will prepare you to add triplets to your lines with ease.

Triplet Exercise

Slides Exercise

Lastly, a signature sound of cocktail jazz piano playing is the tasteful use of finger slides. The following exercise will help you explore and master this essential jazz piano technique.

Slides Exercise

Congratulations! That completes today’s lesson. For additional cocktail jazz piano improv techniques, check out our Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge course.

There is one more important ingredient for developing as an improvisor…an audience! Family and friends make great cheerleaders when learning jazz piano. Be sure to set aside some time to play for them regularly. You can also join our online community of friendly piano enthusiasts in the Piano Challenges Facebook Group.

Thanks for learning with us. We hope to see you again soon.


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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