Jazz Piano Complete Beginner Lesson – 10 Steps
Are you a complete beginner who would like to learn jazz piano? If you think you need to learn a million scales, arpeggios, and chords to play jazz, then you are wrong! You can start playing jazz right away, even if you have zero piano playing experience. In this beginner jazz piano lesson, you are going to learn the first steps to playing jazz piano, including:
- How to play beginner jazz chords
- The most important beginner jazz progression
- How to move between chords efficiently
- The most important beginner scale for jazz piano improv
- 3 essential beginner jazz improvisation techniques and beginner exercises
- How to improvise a jazz solo
By the end of this lesson, you will have a firm grasp for jazz foundations. You will undertand basic jazz harmony, how jazz chord progressions work, and best of all, how to express yourself freely by improvising jazz piano. Let’s dive in.
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 1: Know Your Key
If you are a complete beginner and want to play jazz piano, the first step is to understand what a key is. By understanding what a key is, you will fully understand where jazz melodies and chords come from.
What is a music key?
A music key is simply a set of 7 notes that we call a Major Scales. Scales are important because they are used to create melodies and chords. For today’s beginner jazz piano lesson, you will use one of the easiest keys or scales of them. It’s time to learn your C Major Scale!
What is the C Major Scale?
The C Major Scale has the notes C D E F G A B and C. Here is what they look like on the piano:
If you read sheet music, here are the notes:
(If you don’t read sheet music, you can learn from our Smart Sheet Music. This shows a digital light-up keyboard alongside the sheet music.)
As you can see, they are all white notes. This makes it especially easy to learn the chords because you don’t have to use any black notes. It’s important to play this scale up and down the piano because it will help you remember the scale. You can use any fingers you want, but the goal will be to memorize all of the notes from the C Major Scale. You can test yourself by playing a random white note on your keyboard and asking yourself what the note is.
Here is a quick video to summarize this section:
If you want to do a deep dive and learn all of your note names, beginner exercises, stretches, and how to read basic notation, checkout our Introduction to the Keyboard Course.
Now that you know your C Major Scale, next you will learn your first jazz chord!
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 2: Jazz Chords
Nothing creates the sound of jazz more than gorgeous piano chords, but how do jazz pianists play such beautiful sounding chords? The first step is to understand how chords are built.
How Chords Are Built: The Rule of 3rds
Beginner jazz chords are built simply by picking one note of the C Major scale and stacking notes by skipping every other note. For example, if you start on the note C, skip the D, and play the E, you have a 3rd spacing, or “interval”:
Next, you can add another note on top of the E by skipping the F and playing the G, which gives you a happy major chord:
Major 7 Chord
However, it still doesn’t quite sound jazzy. To get that jazzy sound, you simply add one more third interval on top of the G. As a result, this is what our final chord looks like:
This chord is starting to sound jazzy! This chord is called a C Major 7 chord. We call it a C Major 7 because this chord contains a simple 3-note C Major chord on the bottom and we are adding a B on top. We call the B the 7th because it is the 7th note of a C Major Scale. In other words, if you start on the bottom note C and count up 7 notes, you will end up on the B. Therefore, we call this chord a Major 7 chord because it is a major chord with the addition of the 7th note of the scale. Not too confusing, right? Here’s a quick review of this section:
If you don’t know your major and minor chords, you can learn all of them in our Level 1 Foundations Learning Track. You can also learn all of your 7th chords in our Level 2 Foundations Learning Track.
Now that you know how to build a 7th chord, next you need to understand the concept of Scale Chords, or Diatonic Chords.
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 3: Scale Chords
In jazz music, you have multiple chords on a song, but how do composers choose which chords to use? There are many different techniques that composers can use to decide which chord they want, but there is one fundamental rule behind almost all jazz songs: jazz songs use primarily scale chords, or diatonic chords.
What are diatonic chords?
Diatonic chords are beginner-level chords that belong to the key that you are playing in, meaning that you can build a 7th chord on any note from the C Major Scale. For example, let’s build a diatonic chord on the D.
If you start on the low D and skip every other note, you end up with the notes D F A and C:
In jazz, we call this our 2 chord because this chord is built on the second note of the C Major Scale. The technical name for this chord is D Minor 7, but don’t worry about the technical names for these chords. If you do want to learn the technical names of these chords and master them in all keys, you can in our Minor 7 Chords Theory & Application course. The most important thing is that you understand the concept that chords are built on notes from the scale by skipping thirds.
Next, you can continue using this idea for all of the notes of the C Major Scale. For example, if we build a 7th chord on the 3rd note of the C Major Scale, we have the notes E G B D:
The 4 chord is built we build a chord on the 4th note of the C Major Scale, we have F A C E:
If we build a chord on the 5th note of the C Major Scale, we have the notes G B D F:
The 6 chord is built 6th note of the C Major Scale with the notes A C E G:
Finally, if we build a chord on the 7th note of the C Major Scale, we have the notes B D F A:
To summarize the above concepts, here is the sheet music for the diatonic chords:
Most jazz musicians will simply refer to these chords as numbers. For example, the C chord will be called the 1 chord, the D is the 2 chord, the E is the 3 chord, etc. With this numbering system, jazz is simplified and musicians don’t have to “think” too much about the chords they are playing.
If you want to learn your diatonic chords in all 12 major keys, you can in our Level 1 Foundations Learning Track. You can learn all of your diatonic 7th chords in all 12 keys in our Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises.
Now that you know the diatonic chords in the key of C Major, next you will learn the most important progression in jazz music. This is called your 2-5-1 chord progression.
2-5-1 Chord Progression
If you are a beginner jazz piano student, it is critical that you learn the most important chord progression in jazz music: the 2-5-1 chord progression.
What is the 2-5-1 Chord Progression?
The 2-5-1 chord progression is a jazz chord progression that uses the D, G, and C diatonic chords in the key of C Major. Because you have already learned your diatonic chords in the key of C, now you simply need to play them in the order of 2-5-1:
Here is the sheet music for the 2-5-1 progression:
Pretty simple, huh? It’s important to practice jumping to each of these chord positions because this will help reinforce each of the chords. It’s also important to practice these chords because they are used all the time when playing jazz. For example, the 2-5-1 is used on jazz standards like Fly Me to the Moon, Autumn Leaves, and The Way You Look Tonight.
Here’s a quick summary of this section:
Now that you know your 2-5-1 chord progression, next you’ll want to simplify your chord progression so that you don’t need to jump between chords. You can do this with chord inversions.
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 5: Chord Inversions
When playing beginner jazz piano, you don’t want to have to “think” too much about the left hand chords when improvising a beginner jazz solo. Therefore, you want your chords to be as close together as possible so that you don’t have to look at your left hand while it jumps between chords. You can do this with a chord inversion.
What is a chord inversion?
A chord inversion is when we take a chord and change the order of notes. For example, if you take your 5 chord in the key of C (G B D F), you can move the top two notes (D F) to the bottom of the chord:
This creates a new jazz chord, built with the notes D F G B. We call this a chord inversion because we re-arranged the order of notes. We use a chord inversion to minimize the jumping between chords. For example, if you look at the first 2 chords in the 2-5-1 chord progression (D to G), there is a big jump. However, if we use the G chord inversion, there is minimal movement between chords. Below is an example of what our 2-5-1 sounds like now:
Now, the chords are much closer together, and we can play the full 2-5-1 chord progression without having to think too much about the chords. As a result, you can solo more freely in our right hand and focus on playing our beginner jazz improvisation.
Here is the notation for the 2-5-1 with the chord inversion for you to practice:
Finally, you can watch a summary of this section in the video below:
If you want to learn more about the 2-5-1 chord progression and play it in the most important inversions, you can in our 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises course.
Adding 1 Additional Chord
The final step to making this jazz progression sound interesting is to add an additional 1 chord at the end of the 2-5-1, which produces a 2-5-1-1 chord progression. With 4 chords, the chord progression will feel more complete because most music is divided intro groupings of 2.
On this last 1 chord, it’s nice to change the chord instead of playing the same chord twice. Therefore, we’re going to modify the chord just a little bit. Instead of playing a 7th chord, we’re going to use a chord substitute to make the progression a little more interesting.
One of the best chord substitutes you can use for a 7th chord is a 6th chord because the 6th and 7th notes of the C Scale will harmonize a C chord nicely. In other words, you can replace the top note of the C Major 7, the B, with the 6th note of the C Major Scale, the A. It’s that easy! Try playing a C6 chord:
Next, add the C6 chord to your 2-5-1 progression:
Here is the notation for the final 2-5-1 chord progression:
Nice work! Here are some pointers for this section:
Now that you have a solid left hand accompaniment to practice your right hand improvisations over, it’s important to increase your speed to about 130BPM. Once you reach the full tempo, play along with the included backing track, which you can download on this page after logging into your membership.
Congratulation! You’re half-way through the lesson. Now that you’ve learned the most important progression in beginner jazz piano improv, next it’s time to learn how to solo, or improvise!
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 6: The Major Blues Scale
Improvisation is the heart of jazz music! Therefore, if you want to improvise beginner jazz piano, you need to understand how to improvise a jazz solo. To improvise a swinging jazz solo over the 2-5-1 chord progression I recommend using the Major Blues Scale.
What is the Major Blues Scale?
The Major Blues Scale, or Gospel Scale, is a 6-note scale consisting of the notes C D Eb E G A:
You can think of it as the following numbers of the C Major Scale: 1 2 3 5 6. However, we are adding an Eb to this, which we would call the flat 3, or b3. This is one of the most important scales that you should learn as a beginner jazz pianist because you can use it on just about any song or style. For a great Quick Tip on using this scale, checkout our Essential Blues Piano Scales: Major & Minor Blues Scale.
We use this scale when improvising beginner jazz because it works over all of the chords from the 2-5-1. Additionally, it adds a very cool “bluesy” sounding note, the Eb. With this bluesy note, you get a nice balance of happy notes that belong to the scale, and the “darker” more “dissonant” note that comes from the Eb.
For a deep dive on how to use the Major Blues Scale in our improvisation, checkout our Extended Turnaround Soloing course.
Shifting the Major Blues Scale
For today’s beginner jazz piano lesson, we’re going to shift one of the notes of the scale down to make soloing a little easier. You can accomplish this by placing the top note of the scale, the A, on the bottom of the scale. Now, the scale will be starting on an A and ending on the G:
Remember that these are the exact same scales. We are simply starting on a different note so that improvising is easier in our next section.
Watch below for a quick overview of this section:
To start improvising with this scale, you’ll need to learn the two grip positions.
The first grip uses the top 3 notes of the C Major Blues Scale. Because we shifted our scale so that G is the top note, the top 3 notes of the scale are Eb E and G:
Here is the notation for Grip 1:
Play these notes together using your index, middle finger, and pinkie. We call these fingers 2, 3, and 5. You can even practice going up and down the the notes of this positions:
Here is a quick review of this section:
Now that you’ve learned Grip 1, let’s learn Grip 2.
The second grip of the C Major Blues scale uses the bottom 4 notes. Because shifted this scale down so that the bottom note is A, the bottom four notes of the C Major Blues scale are A C D and Eb:
Play these notes together using your thumb, index finger, middle finger, and ring finger. We call these fingers 1 2 3 and 4. You can even practice this grip by playing the notes up and down:
You’re sounding great! Now that you can play the two grips, practice shifting between both grips. You can do this by playing all of the notes of each grip at the same time and then jumping to the next grip:
For an summary of this section, checkout this short video:
Now that you know your Major Blues scale and improvisation grips, you’re ready to start improvising beginner jazz. You should start by first practicing 8th notes.
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 7: 8th Notes
If you analyze most professional jazz pianists improvisations, you’ll discover that the most common note value that they use is the 8th note. 8th notes are important because they sound the most lyrical and memorable. In contrast, melodies with fast notes like triplets and sixteenth notes will be harder for the audience to remember. Another example of a good melody is on that is singable. In other words, if you can sing back a melody, then it is probably a strong melody.
On the other hand, you could use slower notes like quarter notes or half notes. However, you will likely feel that the melody moves to slowly. Therefore, 8th notes are the perfect balance between the extremes of slow and fast notes. Before you start improvising 8th notes, it’s important to practice counting the 8th note rhythm.
How do you count 8th notes?
You count 8th notes 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. In other words, every beat gets divided into two divisions. Here what 8th notes sound like:
Swung 8th Notes
Pretty simple, right? In jazz music, we do something kind of special with the 8th notes: we don’t count them evenly. Instead of giving an equal amount of time between the “1” and the “&”, we give the “1” a little more time and the “&” a little less time. In other words, the “1” is long, and the “&” is short. It’s important to practice counting swung 8th notes for all of the beats by counting the “1, 2, 3, 4” long and all of the “ands” short. For example, here is what swung 8th notes sound like:
Another way that you can count swung 8th notes is by thinking of them as triplets. When you count triplets, you count “1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a”. In other words, every beat is divided into 3 notes. First, clap on every beat and say the above words “1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a”. Here’s what triplets sound like:
Next, clap every beat and say the above words, but skip all of the “ands”. Here is what the above example sounds like:
If you want to learn how to master the swing feel, checkout our Beginner Jazz Swing Accompaniment course. Now that you understand the basic idea behind swing, let’s make up some lines using our first grip.
8th Note Line Beginner Jazz Exercise
For your first beginner jazz piano exercise, you will learn an 8th note line that shifts between Grip 1 and Grip 2:
- First chord (the 2 chord): play Grip 1 in this sequence: Eb E G Eb E G E.
- Second chord (the 5 chord): switch to Grip 2 in this sequence Eb D C A Eb D C A.
- 3rd chord (1 chord): play a short phrase C C A.
- 4th chord (1 chord): play a short phrase A C D C Eb D C.
Here is how to play the right hand and left hand:
If you can read sheet music, you can learn here:
By the way, you can download the full lesson sheet music for this lesson on this page after logging into your membership.
Improvising 8th Note Jazz Lines
Now that you can play this 8th note line, try making up your own lines by using any of the notes from either of your grips on any of the chords. It’s important to note that any of the notes will sound good on any of the chords. The trick is to leave little gaps in between your lines. In other words, you don’t want to play musical “run-on sentences”. It’s also imporant to explore different starting points for each line. For example, sometimes you might start on a C, and other times you might start on a G. You really can’t go wrong!
Watch below for an overview of this section:
If you want to do a deep dive on how to create interesting jazz lines, checkout our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge.
Next, you’re going to learn the second most common note value, triplets.
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 8: Triplets
Triplets are a super fun way to improvise if you are a beginner jazz piano improviser because they create a ton of energy and excitement in your improvisation.
What is a triplet?
A triplet is when you divide a beat into 3 notes. In other words, you count each beat “1 & a”. If you did this on the whole measure of music, you would count “1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a”. For example, here is what the triplet rhythm sounds like:
It’s important to practice clapping and counting the triplets to make sure you have a good sense for them. Once you can do this, let’s go over the jazz improv triplet exercise.
Triplet Line Beginner Jazz Exercise
For your second beginner jazz exercise, you will learn a triplet note line that shifts between Grip 1 and Grip 2:
- First chord (the 2 chord): play Grip 1 in this sequence: D# E G D# E G D# E G E.
- Second chord (the 5 chord): switch to Grip 2 in this sequence Eb D C Eb D C Eb D C A.
- 3rd chord (the 1 chord): play C D C D C A C D C D C A.
- 4th chord (the 1 chord): play a short phrase C D C D C A C.
Great work! Now, here is how to put the hands together for this line:
If you read sheet music, here is how to play it:
If you don’t read sheet music, you can learn this phrase with our Smart Sheet Music, which shows you the notes with a digital light-up keyboard. You can also change the key with our Smart Sheet Music with the click of one button, allowing you to practice this entire lesson in any key.
Improvising Triplet Jazz Lines
Now that you have learned the triplet exercise, try creating your own licks. Remember that you can’t play any wrong notes because all of the notes from the Major Blues Scale work with all of the chords. The only thing you can do wrong is to not be creative! Once you’ve started improvise, you might feeling adventurous to expand your solo into other octaves of the keyboard. In this case, you should practice your Gospel Scale in multiple octaves. You can learn this in our beginner Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge.
You can also try popping the chords in the left hand to add some groove. For example, many left accompaniment techniques from the Jazz Swing Accompaniment course will work on this progression.
For a summary of this section, watch below:
Now that you’ve learned triplets, it’s time to learn one final soloing technique: slides.
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 9: Slides
If you want to sound like a pro jazz pianist, then you definitely want to include slides in your improvisation because this ads a bluesy sound to your solo.
What is a blues slide?
A blues slide is when you slide from from a neighboring note of the blues scale to one of the notes of the blues scale. In the case of the Major Blues Scale, there are 4 different slide options, and today I’m going to teach you two of them.
Blues Slide #1
The first slide you will learn is an up-slide to the E. The way you do this is to place your middle finger on D# and slide up to the E just above it with the same finger. Here is that the up-slide sounds like:
Not too hard, right?
Blues Slide #2
Blues Slide #2 is a down-slide from Eb to D. For this slide, place your middle finger on the Eb and slide down to the D with the same finger. Here is what the down-slide sounds like:
Now that you’ve learned your two slides, next you should practice a slide exercise to master it.
Slides Beginner Jazz Exercise
For this beginner jazz exercise, we will explore slides:
- First chord (the 2 chord): up-slide E two times, down-slide D once, and play C A.
- Second chord (the 5 chord): play the same line as above.
- 3rd chord (the 1 chord): up-slide E to G, up-slide E to G, down-slide D to C, down-slide D to C.
- 4th chord (the 1 chord): play the same line as above.
Not too hard, right? Here’s how the hands sound together:
And if you read sheet music, here is the lesson sheet:
If you want to do even more exercises to master your slides, checkout our 10-Lesson Blues Challenge.
For a summary of this section, watch below:
Now that you can play slides, it’s important improvising your own beginner jazz lines using slides. Remember that you can use any slide in any order because both slides sound good on the 2-5-1 chord progression.
Beginner Jazz Piano Step 10: Putting It Together
Now that you’ve learned your 3 improv techniques, how do you actually craft a sweet jazz solo with them? The key is to “tell a story” with your jazz improvisation where you solo builds. There are 3 key techniques to making your solo build: range, texture, and rhythm. First, I could start in the lower range of your keyboard by using single notes and simple rhythms like 8th notes. Second, I would play in the mid range of your keyboard on the second round of the solo and use more 8th notes and maybe some harmony notes. Third, I recommend playing in the upper range of the keyboard and using more triplets and harmonies on the third time through the solo. If you want to learn exactly how to tell a musical story, you can in our Jazz Ballad Composition Course.
More Jazz Learning Resources
Now that you can improvise beginner jazz piano, what’s the next step in your piano journey? Well, there is more to learn! For example, there are all kinds of amazing beginner jazz piano techniques like chord progression and scales that you can use to improvise. There are also many embellishment techniques that you can use in your improvisation like turns, rolls, and ostinatos, runs, and fills.
Where do you learn all this? Well, we’ve put together everything you need in our step-by-step learning tracks. Just start with the beginner Level 1 Foundations Track where you’ll learn piano basics. Then, you can jump into our Level 2 Foundations Learning Track where you can master late beginner Jazz Swing, Jazz Ballads, Latin Jazz, Blues, and many other styles. And you can learn everything you need to know about jazz theory and technique in our intermediate Level 2 Foundations Learning Track.
If you enjoyed this lesson, I encourage you to sign up for our mailing list by clicking here. You’ll get our weekly free Quick Tips sent out to you every week. And if you’re serious about your piano journey and ready to make rapid progress, you can dive into our Learning Tracks and Live Learning Events in the PWJ Membership.
Lastly, if you’re looking for some inspiration on how I build a jazz solo, checkout my improvisation of Fly Me to the Moon here.
Thanks for learning, and I’ll see you in the next Quick Tip!
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