Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
  • Lead Sheets
  • Reharmonization
Music Style
  • Blues
  • Funk
  • Gospel
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
  • Latin Jazz
  • Smooth Jazz
  • Stride
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Do you want to play beautiful arpeggios and runs up the piano to start your jazz tune or improvisation? In today’s jazz piano lesson, I’m going to teach you how to play 2 jazz piano intro runs that you can use on any lead sheet or fake book melody.

And the best part is that these runs work on almost any jazz style or genre, including Cocktail Jazz, Jazz Ballad, Jazz Swing, Latin Jazz, Bossa Nova, Samba, and more! Plus, these intro jazz piano runs can be used as an outro, so what you will learn is extremely practical.

Let’s get started.

How Most Beginner Jazz Students Play Runs

When I hear most beginner jazz piano students improvise a jazz piano intro run (or synonymously, “arpeggio”) at the beginning of a jazz lead sheet, they play a simple dominant 7th chord up the piano.

For example, let’s say you had a jazz piano song in the key of C major.  One of the best ways to start the song is to play a G7 arpeggio up the piano before you start the song, which most likely begins on a C major chord.  Here is an example of a run that I hear many beginner jazz students play:

G7 piano arpeggio run
G7 piano arpeggio run

As you can see in this demonstration, the student is playing a G7 straight up the keyboard.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this. However, it just sounds very plain.

You see, if you want to improv a run before a jazz tune, you need to know how to make your arpeggios and runs sound jazzy.

5 Guidelines for How to Play a Jazz Intro Run

In order for your jazz piano intro run to sound more jazzy, it is essential that you follow these 5 criteria:

  1. Play your run on a dominant chord built on the 5th note of the key that the song is in. 
  2. Add chord extensions to your run.
  3. Add chord alterations to your run.
  4. Use a 3 or 4-note right hand position.
  5. Use single-note left hand targets.

Your jazz runs most definitely do not need to meet all 5 of these criteria, but the more of them you meet, the better your run will sound.

Now before I teach you the arpeggio run, I want to briefly cover what we mean by chord extensions and alterations because these are crucial for constructing beautiful runs.

Chord Extensions and Alterations

In jazz piano, you want to add colorful notes to your chords, and we call these chord extensions and alterations (or altered notes).

For example, on a G7 chord, it is very common to add chord extensions, like the 9 which is an A, or the 13 which is an E.

It is also very common on a G7 chord to add alterations.  These are the b9 which is the Ab, the #9 which is the A#, the #11 which is the C# (also referred as b5), and/or the b13 which is the Eb (also referred as #5).

By adding these colors to your chords, you will immediately get a more jazzy sound.

(For more on chord extensions, checkout the Coloring Dominant Chords with Extensions course)

But, which colors do you add, and in what combinations?  Well, there are certain combinations that work incredibly well and create different sounds.

In fact, certain combination of chord extensions and alterations work better for a Cocktail Jazz tune, and others work better for a Blues tune.

And this brings us to our next, and most important topic, the 2 jazz runs. Now that you understand chord exertions and alterations, it’s time to learn your first beautiful jazz run, and I call this the Cocktail Jazz Run.

Jazz Piano Intro Run #1: Cocktail Jazz Arpeggio Run

The Cocktail Jazz Piano Intro Run is probably the most common intro run used among professional jazz pianists.  It has that classic, romantic jazzy sound, and when you play it, the audience will expect for you to play a beautiful jazz ballad.

Here is the run exactly as I recommend that you play it:

G13(#11b9) Cocktail Jazz piano arpeggio run with Dm11 chord setup
G13(#11b9) Cocktail Jazz piano arpeggio run with Dm11 chord setup

As you can see, we are no longer playing an ordinary G7 up the piano.  Now we are adding some very colorful notes.

The Setup

Before we talk about the run itself, I want to explain the “setup” that we have before the run.  Basically, when you start a song, you could simply play the run and then the song.  However, it is much more musical to play a melodic line that leads you into the run.

One of the best ways to do this is to place a Dm7 chord before the G7 chord.  This creates a 2-5-1 chord progression in the key of C, where the 2 chord is Dm7, the 5 chord is G7, and the 1 chord is C Major 7.  This is an extremely important progression in jazz, and an excellent way to move between chords.

Now, on the Dm7, we are spreading the notes of the chord out, but we are also adding an 11 to the chord, which is the G.  This is a very common chord extension note to add to a minor 7 chord, and it makes the chord sound rich and beautiful.

Mastering Run #1

Now, let’s look at the actual G7 chord.  From the bottom, we play the notes G F Ab B C# and E. What a gorgeous chord!! This chord has the essential notes of a G7 (G, B, and F), but it also has 3 very beautiful added notes.

First, we have the Ab, which is the b9 – this is our chord alteration.  Next, we have a C#, which is the #11 or the b5 – this is also a chord alteration.  Last, we have the E, which is the 13 of the chord (you could also think of this as the 6).

So, the name of this chord is a G13(#11,b9). In other words, it’s a G13 because it contains the essential G7 chord plus the 13, and in parenthesis we add the chord alterations.

However, there is a very cool hidden major chord within this right hand chord voicing.  Do you see it?  Put your alterations and extensions together – G#, B, and E.  What is that? It’s a simple E major chord! That’s right – we took an E major chord and imposed it over the root, 3rd, and 7 of the G7 chord to create a beautiful sound.

What do we call this?  It’s called an Upper Structure, and it is one of the defining aspects of a jazz theory. As you can see, you can use this Upper Chord Structure in your run, and it creates an amazing sound.

For more on how to use upper structures to color chord, checkout the Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures Course)

Now, as you practice this run, I encourage you to first block your positions (play all the notes together – Ab B C# E and F – in each octave).

Next, I recommending arpeggiating your chord (playing the notes broken), working on only one octave from Ab to Ab. Pay special attention to the sheet music and notice that there are stems up and stems down.  This is important.  The stems up indicate the right hand, and the stems down indicate the left hand.

Now, it’s important to tie this point back to the 5 characteristics of jazz runs.  Remember I said that you want single note targets in the left hand? In this run, your left hand will play the Ab, while your right hand plays the other 4 notes (B C# E and F).

Using a single-note for left hand is crucial for these 2-hand runs because it helps you play the run quickly.  You see, that single note is a visual target for your left hand and helps you find the new position in your right hand.

Learning Tip: if your run has one or more black notes, it is best for your left hand target to play one of these black notes, not a white note.

Now that you have practiced one octave, practice 2 octaves.  Work on gaining speed and landing on the target note Ab right on time.  Finally, work though all your octaves until you get to the top of your piano.

Finally, once you have this jazz piano intro run, go ahead and play a jazz tune. Some excellent tunes to checkout are:

Now that you have learned the Cocktail Jazz Piano arpeggio, it’s time to the learn the Blues arpeggio-run.

Jazz Piano Intro Run #2: Blues Arpeggio Run

If you are going to play a blues song from your fake book or lead sheet, you want to play a run that that has a blues sound.  This is the run that I use if I were playing a blues:

G13(b13#9) Blues piano arpeggio run with Dm11 chord setup
G13(b13#9) Blues piano arpeggio run with Dm11 chord setup

As you can see, this run is on a G7 chord, so we are setting up the key of C.  Therefore, this would be used on a C blues.

Now, why do we call this a “blues run”? I mean, couldn’t this run be used on any any song?

Well, yes the run could be used on any song, but the reason it works particularly well as a blues run is because it uses notes from the blues scale.

The C blues scale notes are C Eb F F# G Bb, and C.

Look at the G7 chord… you’ve got an Eb and a Bb in the chord.  These notes are borrowed from the blues scale, so when you play these notes in the G7 chord, it sounds really nice to then launch into a 12-bar blues in the key of C.

It’s also helpful to analyze this chord to understand what it really is.  The Bb is the #9, and the Eb is the b13 of the G7 chord.  Therefore, we would call this run a G7(b13#9).

Notice that in our setup, we changed the melody slightly to better work with a blues.  The melody now goes down to an Eb, which will sound much better on most C blues tunes because the Eb comes from the C blues scale.

Now it’s time to practice this run.  Start by blocking the positions of the run up the piano.  Then try arpeggiating the chord, first working on one octave, then two octaves, then three octaves, and so on. Really pay attention to the Bb as your visual target note to find your position.

And finally, try this run before a blues lead sheet. Here are some excellent blues tunes and improvisation courses this run would be perfect for:

St. Louis Blues Challenge (all playing levels)
10-Lesson Blues Improv Challenge (beginner/intermediate and intermediate/advanced)
Cruella De Vil (beginner/intermediate and intermediate/advanced)

You might also enjoy learning 3 essential blues endings here.

Putting It All Together

Now that you’ve learned these two runs, it’s important that you actually use them in your jazz piano improv.  Whenever you start a jazz tune, try these runs.

I highly encourage you to practice these 2 runs in all 12 keys.  In fact, you can change the sheet music to any one of the 12 keys with the click of one button with our smart sheet music here.

Finally, if you enjoyed this course, I encourage you to check out the full-length course, where you learn 6 Jazz Intro and Outro Runs. Not only do  you learn the runs, but we work on developing speed, applying them to various songs, and playing them in the most common jazz keys.

Happy practicing!

Jonny May

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