Play Cocktail Jazz Piano in 3 Steps
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Does your cocktail jazz piano playing sound a little basic and limited? Do you want to learn how to play cocktail piano like a pro? With these 3 easy steps you’ll be able to play cocktail piano just like a seasoned professional:
- Learn the melody
- Learn chord shells
- Harmonize the melody on top of chord shells
This simple approach is so easy to learn and can be applied to virtually any song! We will be applying this method to the tune “The Way You Look Tonight,” the most famous version (and Jonny’s favorite) is by Frank Sinatra. Let’s start by learning the melody!
Step 1: Cocktail Jazz Piano: Melody
The first (and most important) step to learning any song is to start with the melody. The melody is the part of the song you sing, and is what makes every song unique and easy to identify. You can follow along with our Smartsheet to practice at different tempos, or change the key if you like. Here’s the melody for the first phrase of the tune:
One of the things Jonny likes best about this tune is that the melody uses all the notes from C Major (no black keys!). Spend some time practicing this melody so that you feel very comfortable playing it: we will be adding harmony later! Next, let’s look at using chord shells to enhance your cocktail jazz piano playing.
Step 2: Chord Shells
The typical approach a lot of pianists use when playing cocktail piano is to play the melody while arpeggiating the chords underneath. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it does sound a little basic and is quite limited in its scope. By using chord shells instead, you will free your left hand up to play more interesting rhythmic and harmonic ideas and you won’t feel trapped by playing arpeggios throughout the whole song. We are going to break up the phrase into three segments, starting with segment 1:
As you can see, a chord shell is the building block of any chord, using only the root, 3rd, and 7th. These three notes are the only ones you need to hear the harmony; all the other notes in a chord serve to add color and depth. Play each chord slowly, and notice that your left hand doesn’t have to move very much! One of the best things about chord shells is that each shell is a half or whole step away. Jonny loves how easy they are to play! Next, let’s look at segment 2:
Play through each of these the same way you did through segment 1. This segment is a walk down segment because each chord shell moves down by a half or whole step. Pretty cool right? You’ll see how good these sound once we add roots to each chord in the next section. Before that, let’s finish up with segment 3:
This one is easy! The last two chord shells use 4ths: E to A and F to B.
If you want to learn more about chord shells, check out our Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones course.
Once you have all three segments down, let’s move on to adding bass notes.
ADDING BASS NOTES
Just like with chord shells, we are going to break up the phrase into three segments. Start by playing the root of each chord followed by the chord shell as you work through each segment:
Pay attention to how the segments fit together: 2 follows 1 and 3 follows 2, but after segment 3 segment 1 repeats. Practice this until you can play it comfortably, and remember to use the Smartsheet if you want to follow along!
Notice how gorgeous each of these sound with the bass notes? That’s one of Jonny’s favorite things about using chord shells. They are simple, easy to play, and beautiful! By alternating bass notes and chord shells, you are actually creating a moving tempo and groove that sounds fantastic for cocktail jazz piano. Next, let’s harmonize the melody.
Step 3: Harmonizing the Melody
There are a myriad of ways to harmonize melodies. You can use different intervals, harmonic substitutions, switch octaves, or use block chords. All these options are great, but hard to keep track of! You also have to practice each of them enough to be able to play melodies smoothly using them all. For this lesson, we will be using a simple way to harmonize that sounds beautiful and professional: harmonizing the melody using 6ths.
To find an interval of a 6th, start with the melody note and count down 6 notes. Remember to always count the starting note as 1! Here’s what the melody looks like harmonized:
Memorize the shape of a 6th in your right hand, as the feeling and distance between your pinky and thumb is the same no matter what notes you’re playing. Keep that feeling in your hand as you play the melody, and before you know it you’ll be playing a beautiful, harmonized melody like a seasoned pro!
Cocktail Jazz Piano: A Few Extra Things
If you want to add some more harmony and color to your left hand, you can play 7ths instead of just roots:
To find the 7th of a chord, play an octave and drop the top note down by one note. Alternate 7ths and chord shells for more color, and experiment with using 7ths and just roots to craft a left hand part that you love.
You can also improvise over this song using one scale: the gospel scale. The notes of this scale are C, D, Eb, E, G, and A and it works over all the chords. It’s an easy and fun way to personalize the song!
If you want to learn more about the gospel scale, check out our The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale) 1 and The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale) 2 courses.
If you want to dig in more to cocktail jazz piano playing, our Cocktail Jazz Piano Accompaniment 1 and Cocktail Jazz Piano Accompaniment 2 and The Way You Look At Me 1 and The Way You Look At Me 2 courses are a great place to start. The Way You Look At Me is a Jonny May original based on the tune we’ve been learning, The Way You Look Tonight.
Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip.
Blog by Austin Byrd / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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