Jonny May
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Have you bought into the scale improv myth?  The scale improv myth goes something like this—more interesting improv requires more interesting scales. That’s like a painter with 7 colors saying, “I have 7 colors to paint with, but I can only think of 1 thing to paint. If I only I had 7 more colors to paint with, then I could think of more things to paint.” The truth is that scales by themselves don’t necessarily make your solo sound interesting. Instead, what will make your solo sound more interesting is what you do with your scales. That’s right, more interesting improv requires more interesting improvisers! In today’s Quick Tip, we’ll show you how to improvise using diatonic 7th chords. This often neglected improv technique uses only the 7 tones of the major scale. However, it will create tons of new inspiration for you and your listeners. You’ll learn:

  • Diatonic 7th Chords
  • Primary & Secondary Pairs
  • 1 Primary Pair Exercise
  • 3 Solo Examples with Outlining 7th Chords

If you primarily use diatonic 7th chords for left hand accompaniment, then this lesson is you. After today’s lesson, you’ll be able to improvise sweet jazz piano lines by outlining diatonic 7th chords in your right hand.

Let’s dive in!

Intro to Improvise with Diatonic 7th Chords

The focus of today’s lesson is using diatonic 7th chords as melodic material for improvisation. This is particularly helpful in generating lines that go beyond simply ascending and descending with stepwise motion. But what exactly does diatonic mean?

What does diatonic mean?

The Latin prefix dia means “through” or “across” and tonic comes from the Greek word tonos meaning “tone.” Therefore, diatonic chords are literally the all chords through a given tonality—for example, C major. The opposite of diatonic is chromatic or chromaticism. The circle below on the left illustrates the concept of diatonic 7th chords in C major. The center and right circles represent two related chord categories to C major involving chromaticism.

Diatonic 7th Chords, Secondary Dominants, Modal Mixture, Borrowed Chords, Modal Interchange, Improvise, Harmonize, piano
Diatonic 7th chords (left) are within the key. Secondary dominants (center) and modal mixture (right) use chromaticism to stretch the tonality.

Today’s Quick Tip involves only the first circle on the left. However, our library contains other Quick Tips discussing secondary dominants and modal mixture. In addition, we offer two full-length courses on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3).

Diatonic 7th Chords in C Major

The first step to improvise with diatonic 7th chords it to review all your diatonic 7th chords in whichever key your are in. Since today’s lesson is in C major, the illustration below shows the each of diatonic 7th chords in C that we’ll use to improvise.

C Major Scale & Diatonic 7th Chords to improvise jazz piano
Diatonic 7th chords are built on each tone of major scale within the key signature—in this case, C Major.

If you’d like a sequential path to master your diatonic 7th chords in all 12 keys, check out our Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2) course. In the next section, we’ll discuss which diatonic 7th chords are best to use to improvise.

How to Improvise with Diatonic 7th Chords

So how do you start using diatonic 7th chords for melodic material in your improv? First, it’s important to realize that some chords are more effective than others. Therefore, it helps to divide the diatonic 7th chords into two categories—primary pairs and secondary pairs. The primary pairs category contains those diatonic 7th chords that work best to improvise lines over a C Major 7. Secondary pairs will also work when used sparingly. However, they contain some dissonances which require careful treatment. The examples below shows our primary and secondary pairs in C major. Each chord is labeled based the relationship of the root to the overall key.

Primary Pairs

Improvise with Diatonic 7th chords—Primary Pairs
Improvise by combining diatonic 7th chords from the primary pairs category to generate tasteful jazz piano lines.

Secondary Pairs

Improvise with Diatonic 7th Chords—Secondary Pairs
Diatonic 7th chords in the secondary pairs category contain dissonances requiring careful treatment to improvise effectively.

What if you want to improvise with diatonic 7th chords in another key? Simply access our Smart Sheet Music to quickly transpose this lesson to the key of your choice!

In the next section, you’ll learn a practical exercise to get the primary pairs under your fingers.

Primary Pair Improv Exercise

When we use diatonic 7th chords in our improv lines, this is called outlining 7th chords. The following exercise outlines the primary pairs over a C6 chord. Note that the exercise begins on a 1-build (C major 7). Next, it outlines a 3-build (Em7). In the 2nd measure, the exercise outlines the 6-build (Am7) followed by another 1-build. Finally, the chord outlines are reversed as the exercise descends in measures 3 and 4.

Exercise Outline 7th Chords with Primary Pairs
The exercise above is a great way to prepare to improvise with diatonic 7th chords using primary pairs.

One of the best ways to get comfortable outlining 7th chords in your improv is to drill them at various tempos with the proper feel. This lesson includes 4 backing tracks to help master this skill. The lesson sheet and backing track are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

Now let’s look at some sample lines that demonstrate how to improvise in various ways while outlining diatonic 7th chords.

Solo Examples Outlining 7th Chords

So what does it look like to improvise jazz piano with diatonic 7th chords in actual practice? The following 3 sample lines will demonstrate how you can integrate diatonic 7th chords in various interesting ways. In each example, primary pairs are indicated in blue and secondary pairs are indicated in green. Let’s take a look at the first example.

Solo Example 1

Solo Example 1
Solo Example 1: Both 8th note and triplet figures work great when improvising diatonic 7th chords.

This example contains pretty straight-forward usage of diatonic 7th chords. The easiest way to get started is to place a 7th chord on beat 1 and another on beat 3 (see measure 9 above). Another similar practice involves compressing the chord rhythmically by delaying the entrance of the first note. In order to complete the 7th chord before the next strong beat, a triplet is used on the weak beat (see measures 8 and 10 above). A more advanced approach is to place a diatonic 7th chord “over the bar” (see measure 8 to 9). This will frequently require the usage of a transition note or notes to connect various 7th chords together.

Let’s check out another example.

Solo Example 2

Solo Example 2 enclosure jazz piano improvisation
Solo Example 2: Diatonic 7th chords can be used with various durations, metrical placements, melodic shapes and even enclosures.

Example 2 demonstrates how jazz improvisation with diatonic 7th chords can employ various durations, rhythmic placements, melodic shapes and transitions. For example, consider measure 12 above. Unlike example 1 which consistently uses two diatonic 7th chords per bar, the opening figure of example 2 stretches a single diatonic 7th chord over the entire measure using a combination of 8th notes and quarter notes. Also, did you notice that outlining 7th chords can begin at the top, bottom, or middle of a given chord? For example, the primary pairs in measures 12 and 13 each begin in the middle of the chord which results in an intriguing shape and sound. Example 2 also employs use of a secondary pair in measure 13. However, this secondary pair is well-balanced within the context of several primary pairs. Lastly, notice that measure 14 combines an enclosure with an ascending 7th chord.

What is an enclosure in jazz?

Enclosures are a melodic improv device jazz musicians use to lead to a chord tone by preceding the target note with its neighbor notes. Neighbor notes are either a half-step or whole-step above and below the target note. Enclosures can use diatonic neighbor notes (derived from the same parent scale as the target note) or chromatic neighbor notes (a half-step from the target note). Additional terms for enclosure include encircling tones, rotations, surround notes and cambiata in traditional music theory.

Now, let’s explore one more sample line using diatonic 7th chords.

Solo Example 3

Solo Example 3
Solo Example 3: This line contains an impressive flurry of triplets which is quite accessible because it uses diatonic 7th chord shapes.

This example demonstrates yet another creative and effective use of diatonic 7th chords in jazz improvisation. A casual glance at the notation may initially cause you to conclude that this lick uses triadic shapes. After all, each beat of measures 16 and 17 contains a triad. However, the blue annotations show that these are really diatonic 7th chord shapes. Each 7th chord is used twice—first with its upper 3 notes and then again with its lower three notes. This enables the pianist to unleash an impressive flurry of triplets that sounds much more difficult than it actually is.


Congratulations, you’ve completed this lesson on how to improvise jazz piano with diatonic 7th chords. As you have seen, you really can sound great with just one scale! Would you like learn even more professional jazz improv techniques you can use on the major scale? Check out How to Improvise a Solo With the Major Scale (Level 2, Level 3). This course is packed with additional exercises and pro tips including turns, triad pairs and patterns. Another related course for further study on today’s topic is our 2-5-1 Soloing with Outlining Chords (Level 2).

Thanks for learning with us today. Come back soon!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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