Jazz Piano 10 Steps from Beginner to Pro
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Do you want to learn jazz piano? Have you tried in the past and pressed pause in discouragement? Do you struggle to comprehend the music theory that jazz pianists seem to roll off their tongues so easily—“just play an E♭7(♯9♭13)“? Maybe you’ve been playing for a while, but you still get that lump in your throat when someone asks, “Do you play jazz?” What does is take to really be considered a professional jazz pianist and how can you get there? Friend, if you want to learn jazz piano, you’ve come to the right place. In this Quick Tip, Jonny is going to give you 10 steps that provide a solid roadmap for your journey. Will you join us? Chances are, you are already a few steps further along than you think! Check out the following preview…
- Major Scales
- Major & Minor Triads
- 7th Chords
- Chord Shells & Guide Tones
- Chord Extensions & Alterations
- Rootless Voicings
- Block Chords
- Drop 2 Voicings
- Quartal Voicings
- Upper Structures
Whether you’re brand new to the piano or pursuing a career in jazz studies, this Quick Tip will help you understand where you are by identifying the highway markers from beginner, to intermediate, to pro!
Let’s dive in!
Step 1: Major Scales
The first step to learn jazz piano is to learn all 12 of your major scales. The easiest scale to play is the C Major scale which is all white notes.
One reason why major scales are important to learning jazz piano is because many jazz melodies use notes from the major scale. A great example of this is Bart Howard’s “Fly Me To The Moon” made popular by Frank Sinatra.
Did you notice that the melody is all white notes? This melody comes from the C Major Scale. If you need help learning all 12 major scales, then our Beginner Piano Foundations Level 1 Learning Track is a great place for you to begin your journey.
Next stop, step 2.
Step 2: Major & Minor Chords
The second step to playing jazz piano is to learn all 12 of your major and minor chords. Pictured below are a C major triad and a C minor triad (the word triad simply specifies a three-note chord built in 3rds.)
Why is it important to know major and minor chords if you’re playing jazz? Well, most chords in jazz tunes are built on your major and minor chords. For example, on “Fly Me To The Moon,” you can play the entire song using primarily major and minor chords.
If you haven’t learned all 24 major and minor chords yet, the Beginner Piano Foundations–Part 2 Level 1 Learning Track is designed to guide you through learning all of your triads.
In the next step, we’ll add an additional chord tone to our basic triads to create jazzy sounding 7th chords.
Step 3: 7th Chords
The third step to learn jazz piano is to master 7th chords. There are 5 types of 7th chords—Major 7, Dominant 7, Minor 7, Diminished 7, and Half-diminished 7. It’s important to learn to build and play each of the 5 types of 7th chords starting from any root.
Knowing the five types of 7th chords is essential to learning jazz piano because a jazz pianist must be able to interpret a lead sheet notation style common in fake books. The majority of chord symbols you will find in a fake book are 7th chords. It also important to know different ways that jazz musicians refer to these chords. For example, the Diminished 7 chord is also referred to as “fully-diminished” to distinguish it from it’s half-diminished counterpart. Likewise, the C Half-Diminished 7 chord shown above is also quite commonly expressed as C Minor 7(♭5)—this designation simply prefers to highlight its similarity to a Minor 7th chord, albeit with a lowered 5th tone.
Here is how “Fly Me To The Moon” would look with 7th chords.
If you don’t know your 7th chords, our Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track is designed to bring you from mystery to mastery!
By learning your 7th Chords, you will be prepared for the important concept of Chord Shells & Guide Tones!
Step 4: Chord Shells & Guide Tones
Step 4 to learn jazz piano is to master your chord shells and guide tones in all 12 keys. This skill plays a critical role in transitioning your sound from a beginner to more of an intermediate player.
What is a chord shell?
A chord shell is a left hand piano voicing that omits one or two notes from a 7th chord. You can construct a basic chord shell by omitting the 5th. This prevents the voicing from being too muddy and really opens up the sound. The remaining notes are the root, 3rd and 7th of the chord.
What are guide tones?
The term guide tones refer to the 3rd and 7th tones found in a 7th chord. The guide tones determine the type of 7th chord and also guide its resolution.
In the first example below, the G has been omitted from the C Major 7th chord resulting a closed position chord shell—it is called a closed position shell because all of the notes are contained within an octave. The second example shows an open position chord shell which uses inverted guide tones so that the chord spans a distance greater than an octave. Another way of explaining an open position shell is a voicing using the root, 7th and 10th (a 10th is a compound interval of an octave + a 3rd).
Now, let’s look at a harmonization of “Fly Me To The Moon” using chord shells. In the example below, the chord shells are broken-up so that the root is played first, and the the guide tones are play afterward. The D minor 7 and C Major 7 chords are in closed position shells in which the root is played an octave lower. The A minor 7 and G7 are in open position.
Chord shells important for supporting the right hand while improvising. Chord shells also form the foundation for many advanced two-hand voicings. If you want to listen to a famous pianist who used lots of chord shells, check out Bud Powell.
To master this important skill, we have a dedicated course in our library on this topic called Chord Shells & Guide Tone Exercises.
In the next step, your learn to color the sound of your chords by adding chord extensions.
Step 5: Extensions & Alterations
Step 5 to learn jazz piano introduces extensions and alterations to add warm, bright and even dark chord colors to give them an unmistakable jazzy sound.
What are chord extensions?
Chord extensions are any of the three additional chord tones above the 7th that jazz pianists add to enhance the harmonic color which can include the 9th, 11th or 13th. (We don’t talk about the 8th, 10th or 12th because these are already in the chord as the root, 3rd and 5th; rather, extensions are actually the 2nd, 4th and 6th that we encounter as we continue to build up in thirds above the 7th.) In the diagram below, the left hand plays a C Major 7 while the right hand adds extensions. The chord symbol references the highest extension that is including in the chord.
In addition to chord extensions, jazz pianists also use chord alterations to add complex dissonances to their harmonies.
There are four chord alterations that jazz pianists can use to embellish their harmonies—the♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13. Simply put, a chord alteration is a chord extension with an accidental. Alterations are most commonly used on dominant chords. A dominant chord that features a chord alteration is referred to as an altered dominant. Therefore, you will also hear chord alterations referred to as altered dominant tones or altered dominant extensions. The diagram below shows each of the chord alterations applied to a C7 chord. Note, the term altered dominant could refer to any of the chords shown.
In actual practice, the extensions and alterations will not always be the highest pitch in the chord as shown in the above diagrams. It is common to play extensions and alterations in inner voices. Let’s see an example of “Fly Me To The Moon” with the application of chord extensions and alterations.
Once you are familiar with all your extension and alterations, you’ll be ready to add rootless voicings to your chord vocabulary.
Step 6: Rootless Voicings
One essential component to sound like a professional jazz pianist is to add rootless voicings to your vocabulary. If you want to play jazz piano like Bill Evans, then you need to know all 12 of your major 7, minor 7 and dominant 7 rootless voicings.
What are rootless voicings?
Rootless voicings are jazz piano voicings that feature chord extensions of the 9th or the 13th while omitting the 5th and the root. Rootless voicings are played in the middle register of the piano and can be played in either hand. In the diagram below, the root is shown but is not considered part of the voicing itself. Jazz pianists will often play the root in the left hand and then leap to the rootless voicing.
Rootless voicings that are built up from the 3rd are referred to as an A Voicing. In the C13 above, the A Voicing is formed by playing the chord tones 3-13-7-9 (E-A-B♭-D). Rootless chords built on the 7th are considered a B Voicing and use the tones 7-9-3-13 (B♭-D-E-A).
Here is an example of how I might play “Fly Me To The Moon” with rootless voicings. I have adjusted the chord symbols to indicate the added extensions in the chords, however the 9th or 13th needn’t be expressed in the chord symbol for you to play a rootless voicing. Jazz pianists will often substitute rootless voicings for their 7th chord counterparts (Am7→Am9 | Dm7→Dm9 | G7→G13 | C7→C13 ).
You can master all of your rootless voicings right here in Rootless Voicings–Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application!
While rootless voicings are primarily an accompaniment tool used by pros, in the next three steps we’ll examine equally important melodic voicings used by pros that sound amazing.
Step 7: Block Chords
Professional jazz pianists like to harmonize their melodies with rich harmonies similar to those commonly found in big band arrangements. The block chord style of George Shearing is a classic jazz piano sound in which the melody is played in octaves with both hands while the right hand plays 3 notes in the inner voices. This technique is also known as locked hands. The example below shows how to harmonize different melody notes over a C6 chord using the block chord style.
This block chord sound can also be used in the right hand alone with the 4 upper voices to allow the left hand to walk a bass line. Here’s is an example of “Fly Me To The Moon” with a block chord melody and a walking bass line.
Next, we’ll learn awesome sounding melodic harmonization techniques for two-hands that you can use when playing with an ensemble.
Step 8: Drop 2 Chords
Drop 2 chords are a beautiful way to harmonize a melody when you have the support of a bass player. Drop 2 chords build on the concept of block chords, although they are more spread apart. Instead of doubling the melody note in the left hand, you can play a drop 2 chord by taking the 2nd note below the melody of your block chord and moving it to the bottom of the voicing in the left hand. The example below shows how to harmonize the same melody notes over a C6 we saw in step 7 with drop 2 chords instead.
Drop 2 chords are especially desirable for melodies that utilize a lot of stepwise motion. Here is how “Fly Me To The Moon” sounds when harmonized with Drop 2 chords.
You can learn all of your drop 2 chords in all 12 keys with our Drop 2 Voicings Smart Sheet.
In the next step, we’ll spread out the voicings even wider using quartal voicings.
Step 9: Quartal Voicings
Another popular way to harmonize jazz melodies is by using quartal voicings pioneered by McCoy Tyner in the 1950s. This technique produces a unique, harmonically ambiguous sound by spreading the notes a fourth apart as much as possible, though sometimes quartal voicings do contain a third as well. Look at the following melody notes from steps 7 and 8 now harmonized with quartal voicings.
Next, we’ll apply quartal voicings to “Fly Me The The Moon” over a backing track to get a big “fourthy” jazz piano sound that cuts through the band.
If you do not know all your quartal voicings, you can learn them in our Quartal Voicings Smart Sheet. You can also download the backing track and lesson sheet for this Quick Tip. Be sure to log in with your membership to access these tools at the bottom of this page.
Now, let’s get into some crunchy jazz chords!
Step 10: Upper Structures
Step 10 to mastering jazz piano harmony is learning to use upper structure triads. This technique creates crunchy sounding dominant chords by placing altered dominant extensions (see step 5) in the right hand in a way that forms a major triad. In the example below, we are playing a G7(♯9♭13) altered dominant by placing an E♭ major triad in the right hand over a G7 chord shell in open position (see step 4). This is also known as a dominant polychord.
When notating altered dominants with upper structure triads, the alterations will often be spelled enharmonically to aid in easier recall. For example, the ♯9 of G7 would be A♯, but it has deliberately been spelled enharmonically as a B♭. This allows you to to recognize the E♭ major triad so that it can be easily remembered.
Here is a harmonization of “Fly Me To The Moon” using upper structures in a Bill Evans jazz piano style.
If you want to learn to use upper structure triads in your playing, check out our Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures course.
Congratulations for starting your journey. No matter where you are on your path, we’d love for you to join our Piano Challenges Facebook Group where you can meet others just like you on the same journey.
Thanks for learning with us today—see you next time.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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