How to Play Jazz Piano Like Oscar Peterson

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
15:53

Learning Focus
  • Analysis
  • Improvisation
Music Style
  • Blues
  • Jazz Swing

I remember the first time I heard Oscar Peterson play the piano and I thought, “I want to play jazz just like that!” Ever since, he has been one of my favorite jazz pianists. In this Quick Tip, I am going to break down the Oscar Peterson piano solo played on “C Jam Blues” at his Live in Denmark concert of 1964. I’ll be showing you exactly what techniques he used to improvise this solo, including:

  • Scales
  • Chord outlines
  • Blues ornaments
  • Harmonized melodic lines

Oscar Peterson is one of the greatest piano technicians of all time. Yet, by focusing on the techniques in this Quick Tip, an Oscar Peterson piano sound will be within your grasp!

Let’s look these ingredients one-by-one.

Oscar Peterson Piano Scales

You might be surprised to learn that large portions of this solo are derived from just two basic scales—the Minor Blues Scale and the Major Blues Scale (also known as “the Gospel Scale”). We will also look at solo segments drawn from the Mixolydian Scale and the Dominant Bebop Scale.

What is the Minor Blues Scale?

The Minor Blues scale is a 6-note scale consisting of the notes C  Eb F F# G Bb. It is constructed from the following tones of the Major Scale: 1-♭3-4-♯4-5-♭7.

C Blues Scale

What is the Major Blues Scale?

The Major Blues Scale is a 6-note scale consisting of the notes C D Eb E G A. It is constructed from the following tones of the Major Scale: 1-2-♭3-3-5-6.

C Gospel Scale (C b3 Pentatonic)

What is the Mixolydian Scale?

The Mixolydian Scale is a mode constructed by playing a major scale beginning from the 5th tone. Another way to understand the Mixolydian Scale is as a major scale with a ♭7. Therefore, a Mixolydian scale can be expressed as follows: 1-2-3-4-5-6-♭7. This scale is commonly used when soloing over Dominant chords. In C Major, you would expect to find a G7 functioning as a V chord. The G Mixolydian Scale would be the notes G A B C D E F♮.

G Mixolydian Mode

As you can see, this is synonymous with a C Major Scale beginning from the 5th tone (G).  Or, it could be compared to a G Major Scale with a ♭7 (F♮). Our next scale is closely related to the Mixolydian Scale.

What is the Dominant Bebop Scale?

The Dominant Bebop Scale is an 8-note scale originating from the Mixolydian Scale with an added Major 7th. It is often played in 8th notes with the Major 7th occurring as a passing tone on an upbeat causing all the downbeats to outline the chord tones of a Dominant 7th chord. This scale is frequently used in descending lines.

G Dominant Bebop Scale

If these scales are less familiar to you, you can get a refresher in our Quick Tip entitled Essential Blues Piano Scales: Major & Minor Blues Scale.  You may also enjoy our full course on  Scales for Improv on 7th Chords.

Now, let’s see how Oscar Peterson used these scales in his improvisation on C Jam Blues.

Oscar Peterson’s Scale Application

Blues Scales

Let’s begin with a C Minor Blues lick. Oscar Peterson’s fragment below is purely C Minor Blues which he then combined with other materials.Oscar Peterson C Minor Blues Lick

Isn’t that sweet? A great way to make this your own is to experiment with different rhythmic variations. How would it sound if you started it on beat 1? Could you place it on beat 4 and let it wrap across the bar line? Practicing a lick in this manner is comparable to trying to use a new word in a sentence—you are programming your subconscious mind to recognize possible applications.

Now, let’s see how Oscar Peterson used the C Major Blues scale in this solo.

C Major Blues Lick

Not too difficult, huh? But it sounds great! In fact, Oscar Peterson used this lick or slight variations of it throughout this solo. You may notice that he uses this motif over several different chords including F7, F#dim7, C/G, D7, C7 and A7—so don’t be afraid to drop this into your solo vocabulary and let your ear be the judge. For a note-by-note guide on analyzing and constructing solo ideas, check out our courses on Breaking Down A Jazz Solo (Level 2, Level 3).

How about using both blues scales together? In the next lick, Oscar Peterson combines notes from the Minor Blues Scale and the Major Blues Scale, using both the 6 and the ♭7.

Combined C Minor Blues & C Major Blues Lick Oscar Peterson Piano

Great job! Now, let’s examine the other scales we’ve discussed.

Mixolydian Scales

Jazz pianists commonly use Mixolydian scales to improvise over Dominant 7th chords. In the excerpts below, you’ll see how Oscar Peterson applied this scale in his solo over various chords.

The first example is a descending F Mixolydian scale over an F7 chord.

F Mixolydian Scale Oscar Peterson Piano

Now, let’s consider another example. The following lick uses A Mixolydian over an A7 chord.

A Mixolydian Piano Lick

Dominant Bebop Scales

Our final scale example uses a sweet descending D Dominant Bebop scale fragment ending with an enclosure. Check it out.

Oscar Peterson D7 Dominant Bebop

Excellent! You’re doing a great job. Are you ready for the next ingredient?

Oscar Peterson Piano Chord Outlines

As you might have guessed, great improvisation is more than just playing scales. Another common tool used by jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson is chord outlines. This is simply arpeggiating the chord. You can begin your arpeggio from any chord tone. Let’s look at a couple examples. Our first example is an ascending F# fully-diminished 7th chord.

Oscar Peterson F#dim7 Chord Outline

Next we have an ascending G Augmented triad over a G7 chord.

G7(b13) Chord Outline

Do you like that sound? The E♭creates an Altered Dominant sound. Altered Dominants are Dominant 7th chord voicings that use chord extensions (9th, 11th, 13th) that have been altered (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, or♭13).  To learn all about Altered Dominants, check out our courses on Piano Chord Alterations and Coloring Dominant Chords With Upper Structures.

Now, how about some blues licks?

Oscar Peterson Blues Ornaments

In the linear notes for the Oscar Peterson Trio’s 1962 album, Night Train, jazz pianist Dick Katz wrote, “the blues is the lifeblood of every self-respecting jazzman. Mr. Peterson, as we know, is a blues wizard.” In this section, we’ll examine two Oscar Peterson licks that employ great-sounding blues ornaments.

The first lick outlines a 4 chord (F) resolving to a 1 chord (C). This lick is very common in blues, boggie and gospel styles. I call this gesture “gospel connector chords.”

Piano Blues Ornament #1

The next Oscar Peterson piano lick we’ll examine uses a bluesy harmonized turn which he repeats over 3 bars.

Piano Blues Ornament #2

If you like that sound, then you’ll definitely want to dig into our popular Bible of Blues Riffs (Level 2, Level 3) courses.

You’re doing great! We have one last solo ingredient remaining.

Oscar Peterson Harmonized Melodic Lines

A great way to create variety and build excitement in a solo is to use harmonized lines. Harmonized lines combine scale movement, usually from the Minor Blues Scale, with a repeated note on top played with the pinky. Generally, you will use scale degree 1 (tonic) to harmonize above the Minor Blues Scale; you can also use the ♭7.

Let’s see how Oscar Peterson used a harmonized line in this solo.

Oscar Peterson Harmonized Line

You’ll be sure to impress with that lick! Don’t forget to try to play descending harmonized lines also. For more great solo ideas, check out our popular 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2, Level 3) courses.

Oscar Peterson’s Life and Legacy

A few words are fitting here about Oscar Peterson’s life (1925–2007) and legacy.  Like many Piano With Jonny students, Oscar Peterson’s earliest training was in classical piano beginning at age 5. He also began playing boogie-woogie and ragtime as a boy. A native of Montreal, the Canadian pianist began performing professionally as a teenager, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1949 at age 16.

Oscar Peterson’s performing career lasted over six decades in which he won 8 Grammys and performed on over 200 recordings. He was a master of boogie, blues, ragtime, stride, swing, gospel and bebop. Some of his most significant early musical influences were Nat “King” Cole and Art Tatum, along with Count Basie, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. Oscar Peterson penned an autobiography released in 2002 entitled A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson. After his passing in 2007, a Los Angeles Times article recounted his vast musical contribution with acknowledgements from jazz pianists Herbie Hancock, fellow Canadian Diana Krall, Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland and producer Quincy Jones. 

I hope you enjoyed today’s lesson. Thanks for learning with me, and see you in the next piano Quick Tip!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

Free Lessons

Get free weekly lessons to your inbox!

More Free Lessons

Learn slow jazz and blues piano improvisation right now! Essential chords & professional techniques for beginner, intermediate & advanced jazz pianists.

The 10-Step ultimate roadmap to learn jazz piano from beginner to pro—7th chords, chord shells, extensions & alterations, rootless voicings, drop 2s & more!

Super-charge your jazz improv with these 3 must-have jazz piano licks. Note-by-note explanation of how professional pianists create authentic improv lines.

Looking for downloads?

Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!

Start Your Free Trial

Join Us

The Piano With Jonny Membership


Guided Learning Tracks

View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels

Progress Tracking

Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress

Downloadable Resources

Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks

Community Forums

Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums

Become a better piano player today. Try us out completely free for 14 days!

Get Started