Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Exercises
  • Groove
  • Improvisation
  • Lead Sheets
  • Rhythm
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing
Free Lessons

Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!

Do you want to learn how to improvise minor jazz piano? In today’s piano lesson, I’m going to teach you 3 exercises to master improvisation.  You’ll learn:

  • The Minor Turnaround Progression (the most important progression in minor jazz!)
  • Root Position Chords
  • Inverted Chords
  • The Charleston Groove Accompaniment (the most important groove in jazz)
  • The Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale (works over all the chords)
  • 3 Improv Exercises exploring 8th notes, turns, and patterns
  • Strategies for creating interesting lines

If you are a beginner or intermediate level jazz piano student looking to take your jazz piano improv and soloing to the next level, this lesson is for you.

Let’s dive in.

Step 1: The Minor Turnaround Chord Progression

If you want to improvise minor jazz piano, it is essential to first pick a chord progression that is commonly used in jazz tunes. One of the most common minor jazz progressions is the minor turnaround progression.

What is the minor turnaround chord progression?

The minor turnaround progression is a chord progression that follows the sequence Im7, VIm7b5, IIm7b5, V7. If you were to play this chord progression in the key of C minor, the chords would be Cm7, Am7b5, Dm7, and G7.  Here is the sheet music for this progression:

Minor turnaround progression in root position in the key of C for jazz piano improv
Minor turnaround progression in root position in the key of C for jazz piano improv

Chord Explanation

Why do we use these chords for the minor turnaround progression? Because the progression creates a natural cycle. You see, chord typically move by a 5-1 relationship.  A G7 usually leads to a C of some sort. A C usually leads to an F of some sort.  If we analyze these chords, you’ll notice that the Am7b5 is a 5th above the next chord Dm7b5, the Dm7b5 is a fifth above the next chord G7, and the G7 is a 5th above the next chord Cm7. This is called a Cycle of 5ths Progression, and you can do a deep dive on it in our Cycle of 5ths in 3 Jazz Styles course.

When a cycle of 5ths is used in this I VI II IV capacity, it is called a Turnaround Progression, or Rhythm Changes progression. The turnaround progression is used on hundreds of jazz tunes, including I Got Rhythm, Cheek to Cheek, The Way You Look Tonight, and many other tunes. For a deep dive on the Turnaround Progression, how to harmonize it, how to use it in songs, and how to solo over it, checkout The Amazing Turnaround course and the Soloing Over a Turnaround course.

Now, why do we call the 6 chord minor 7 b5, and the 2 chord minor 7 b5? It’s because these chords are a function or a result of the C natural minor scale: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C. If you play diatonic 7th chords on each scale degree (C Eb G Bb being the first chord, D F Ab C being the next chord, etc), you’ll discover that the two chord and the 6 chord are minor 7 b5, or half-diminished 7th chords. Why does the G7 use a B in the chord? Because it is based on the C melodic minor scale.

A Note on the Minor 2-5-1

Now, I want to point out that the Dm7b5, G7, and Cm7 chords form what is called a minor 2-5-1 progression, and this is the most important minor chord progression in jazz music. If you want to play jazz piano, it is essential that  you master this progression in all keys (you can do this in our Minor 2-5-1 Exercises course).

Now, before we move on, make sure you are solid on the minor turnaround chord progression. If these 7th chords look unfamiliar to you and are a struggle, I have put together some excellent courses below that will help you master them:

Now that you understand the Minor Turnaround Progression, it’s time to play them in inversions.

Step 2: Inversions

If you want to improvise minor jazz piano, it’s essential that you have a simple left hand accompaniment. Right now, we have to jump to each chord because all of the chords are in root position. This is not ideal if you are playing jazz piano because jumping to chords requires a lot of attention, and it’s best to focus your attention on your right hand solo. How do you overcome this? With chord inversions.

If we re-arrange the notes of our minor turnaround progression, we end up with this:

Minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano using inversions
Minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano using inversions

As you can see, now it is much simpler to play the chords because we hardly have to move between chord positions.  This is one of the hallmarks of jazz comping (jazz comping means to “accompany” another musician). A good jazz player will use chord inversions in their left hand so they can focus on their right hand improvisation.

For a deep dive on jazz comping techniques, checkout the course 5 Jazz Comping Approaches.

Now that you have the chord inversions, let’s make the rhythm more interesting.

Step 3: Charleston Groove

When you are improvising minor jazz piano, it is essential to play interesting rhythms in the left hand to accompany your right hand solo. Now, if you are a complete beginner when it comes to jazz, it’s fine to hold your chords for the full duration of the measure. However, that can become a bit stale after a while. It’s a lot more interesting to throw in some chord pops.  But how? One of the best ways to comp in your left hand is to use what I call a “stock jazz groove”.

What is a stock jazz groove?

A stock jazz groove is a groove that you can use to  comp or accompany on just about any jazz swing tune.  The most important stock jazz groove is the Charleston Rhythm or Charleston Groove, which goes like this:

Charleston groove/rhythm
Charleston groove/rhythm

I would practice clapping the rhythm before playing it in your left hand. Once you have the rhythm down, let’s go ahead and add the chords:

Minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano using the Charleston rhythm
Minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano using the Charleston rhythm

If you want to do a deep dive on mastering your grooves and rhythms, checkout our Two Hand Coordination Exercise courses (Level 2 & Level 3).

You’re doing a great job! Now that we have the left hand covered, let’s dive into the right hand and talk about how to improvise some sweet solos!

Step 4: The Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale

Once you lave the left hand chords, the next step in playing minor jazz piano is having a scale that works on all of these chords.  Now, many advanced jazz piano players will learn up to 4 scales that work over each chord. Because there are 4 chords in this chord progression, that means that you could use up to 16 scales to improvise… YIKES!! If that sounds overwhelming to you, then you’re not alone! You see, if you are more of a beginner or intermediate jazz piano player, you DON’T need to learn multiple scales to improvise over a chord. In fact, you can often learn just one scale to improvise over multiple chords. I call this single-scale improvisation.

When it comes to the minor turnaround progression, there is one scale that you use to improvise that sounds great over all of the chords, and it’s called the Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale.  Here is the sheet music notation:

C Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale for jazz piano
C Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale for jazz piano

Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale Explanation

As you can see, this scale looks a lot like C harmonic minor, but we are adding a Bb to the scale.  This is how we get the name Bebop – we are adding one additional note so that when you play the scale, the chord tones end up on the primary beats instead of the secondary beats. Now, if you want to do a deep dive on the Bebop scale, plus every scale I use to solo for every chord type, checkout the Scales for Improv courses (Level 2 and Level 3).

Before learning the next 3 exercises to improvise minor jazz piano, I highly encourage you to practice this scale up and down the piano. Try to build speed and automation. I also highly recommend that you learn this scale in other common jazz keys like F, Bb, and Eb. You can practice this scale easily in all 12 keys with the click of one button with our Smart Sheet Music here.

Now that you’ve learned the Harmonic Minor Bebop Scale, let’s talk about exercises to help you master improvisation.

Step 5: 3 Exercises to Master Minor Jazz Piano Improv

Exercise 1: 8th Notes

If you want to improvise minor jazz piano, the first and most important note value is your 8th note. If you analyze the solos of great jazz pianists like Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, you’ll discover that the most common note value is the 8th note.  Therefore, it is essential that you master this fundamental rhythm.

Here is an 8th note exercise that you can practice over the Minor Turnaround Progression:

8th note exercise for improv over the minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano
8th note exercise for improv over the minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano

As you can see, where are playing up and down the Harmonic Minor Bebop Scale in the right hand while playing the Minor Turnaround Progression in the left hand with the Charleston Rhythm. Do you see how all the pieces are coming together? Now, it’s really starting to sound nice!

I highly recommend that you practice this exercise with the backing track, which can be downloaded on this page after logging into your membership.

Creating Lines with 8th Notes

Now that you can play 8th notes, it’s time to work on improvising lines.  How do you do this? I would start with the first 5 notes of the scale (C D Eb F G) and play short phrases. You can use ANY of these notes on any of the chords and it will sound great. Be sure to leave little gaps in your lines.

Once you can improvise with the first 5 notes, try the other notes of the scale.  Feel free to jump to higher octaves of the keyboard. Push yourself to try playing notes that you wouldn’t normally play.  Make sure you are playing a balance up-lines and down-lines. Try starting your lines on different beats. For a deep dive on how to create interesting jazz lines, checkout the Soloing Over a 2-5-1 course.

Now that you have mastered 8th notes, it’s time to move onto turns.

Exercise 2: Turns

Turns are arguably my favorite technique when I play minor jazz piano improv.

What is a turn?

A turn is where you take a note from the scale, like Eb, and you turn up and down from the note using the notes Eb F Eb D. Here is an example of an Eb turn:

Piano turn on Eb
Piano turn on Eb

Using this idea, you can play turns on any notes from the C Harmonic Minor Bebop scale:

Piano turn on Eb and D using the C Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale
Piano turn on Eb and D using the C Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale

Now that you can play turns, let’s do an exercise where we play a turn on each note of the scale going up, while playing the left hand accompaniment:

Turn exercise for improv over the minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano
Turn exercise for improv over the minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano

You’ll want to build speed with the turn and make sure you can play it solidly with the left hand. One of the biggest struggles I see with beginner jazz students is mastering the rhythm of the turn. If you are struggling with this rhythm, that’s normal! You can do exercises to master the turn technique in this lesson.

Once you can play the turn exercise, it’s time to try using turns in your solo. I like to use turns when I’m playing down-lines. The key is to experiment, and have fun!

It’s time to learn our final improvisation technique: patterns.

Exercise 3: Patterns

An improv pattern is where you play several notes of the scale and then shift the note relationships up or down.  For example, if you played C D Eb, these are all consecutive notes of the C Harmonic Minor Bebop scale:

Melodic pattern 1
Melodic pattern 1

Now, if you shift this idea up and start on D, you have D, Eb, F:

Melodic pattern 1 shifted
Melodic pattern 1 shifted

Do you see the pattern? You can do this all the way up the scale, and this is exactly what we will do in our final exercise:

Pattern exercise for improv over the minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano
Pattern exercise for improv over the minor turnaround chord progression for jazz piano

After you have built some speed on these patterns, try using them in your improvisation. With patterns, I use them very sparingly, usually to start a phrase. Be creative, and try creating your own patterns.

Step 6: Putting It All Together

The final step to improvise minor jazz piano is to put 8th notes, turns, and patterns together. With these 3 techniques, you can play some very cool lines!

Now if you enjoyed this improvisation lesson, I highly encourage you to checkout these other jazz soloing/improvisation courses:

Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip!

Your teacher,

Jonny May




More Free Lessons

Explore 5 levels of passing chords that you can use to personalize tunes, add variety and increase harmonic expressiveness.

Discover pro insights on how to dress up Erroll Garner's "Misty" with intermediate and advanced jazz piano concepts and techniques.

Get your blues piano soloing chops in shape with Jonny's 10 top blues piano licks. This lesson is guaranteed to get you gig ready!

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

Get instant access to this Quick Tip and other member features with a PWJ 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. Join with the 14-Day Free Trial today!

Get Started