How to Play Jazz Piano Like Oscar Peterson
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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:
- 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.
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.
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♮.
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.
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
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.
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.
Great job! Now, let’s examine the other scales we’ve discussed.
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.
Now, let’s consider another example. The following lick uses A Mixolydian over an A7 chord.
Dominant Bebop Scales
Our final scale example uses a sweet descending D Dominant Bebop scale fragment ending with an enclosure. Check it out.
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.
Next we have an ascending G Augmented triad over a G7 chord.
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.”
The next Oscar Peterson piano lick we’ll examine uses a bluesy harmonized turn which he repeats over 3 bars.
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.
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!
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