Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Riffs
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Funk
  • Gospel
  • R&B
  • Smooth Jazz
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Do you want to learn how to play smooth jazz piano, but don’t know where to start? In this piano lesson, you going to learn how to improvise piano in the smooth jazz style. If you like the sound of Joe Sample, David Benoit, Bob James, and Dave Grusin, then this smooth jazz piano lesson is for you. In the lesson, you will learn:

  • The Most Important Smooth Jazz Chord Progression
  • A Must-Know Smooth Jazz Grip
  • The Smooth Jazz Scale
  • Essential Smooth Jazz Piano Exercises
  • How to Improvise Using the Above Techniques

Whether you are new to the piano or have experience playing, this lesson will give you the tools to start playing smooth jazz piano today with total freedom. Let’s dive in!

Step 1: Smooth Jazz Piano Chord Progression

The first step to playing smooth jazz piano is to learn the most important smooth jazz chord progression, 1-4 Progression. This progression is used on hundreds of smooth jazz songs, and it’s very easy to improvise over.

The 1-4 Progression

The 1-4 Progression uses two very simple chords: C minor 7 and F dominant 7. Here is a very simple way to play these chords:

Smooth jazz piano chord progression
Smooth jazz piano chord progression

If these chords don’t look familiar to you, don’t worry! You can learn all of your minor 7 chords in our Minor 7 Theory & Application Course and your dominant 7 chords in our Dominant 7 Theory & Application Course.

If you have some experience playing piano and want to play even more interesting chords, I recommend adding chord extensions to these chords to make them more colorful. For example, you can turn your C minor 7 chord into a C minor 9, and you can turn your F dominant 7 chord into an F13 chord:

Rootless voicings
Rootless voicings

These chords are called Rootless Voicings, and if they look unfamiliar to you, you can learn all of your Rootless Voicings chords in our Rootless Voicings Course. You can pick either the simple 7th chords that I taught you earlier or the Rootless Voicings chords.

Essential Smooth Jazz Groove

Once you’ve got these two chords in your fingers, you’ll want to establish a strong smooth jazz groove. One of the best smooth jazz piano grooves to use on any Smooth Jazz progression is this one:

Smooth jazz piano essential groove
Smooth jazz piano essential groove

This particular rhythm is used on many smooth jazz songs, so it’s important to master it before moving on. Once you feel that you can play it comfortably, I recommend playing it with the included backing tracks, which can be downloaded on the bottom of this page after logging into your membership. Next, you’ll learn the most important grip for improvising endless right hand licks and riffs.

Step 2: Smooth Jazz Grip

If you listen to smooth jazz pianists, you’ll hear many of the songs licks and riffs repeated. This is because smooth jazz pianists use the same Grip Positions when improvising a smooth jazz solo. Some grip positions are more common than others, but there is one in particular that is used more than any other. I call this the Smooth Jazz Grip. Check it out!

Smooth jazz piano grip
Smooth jazz piano grip

This grip uses only 5 notes, so it’s incredibly simple to play. I recommend practicing in both the blocked and broken techniques above. Now, learning the grip notes is important, but how do smooth jazz pianists use this grip to improvise a solo? To accomplish this, you must understand the 3 most common smooth jazz techniques that pianists use.

Smooth Jazz Grip Technique 1: 8th Notes

The first technique you should master in this grip is 8th notes. With 8th notes, you will play 2 notes per beat by harmonizing the bottom 4 notes of the grip (C Eb F and Gb) with the top note A. For example, here is an excellent 8th note exercise:

8th note exercise for smooth jazz piano
8th note exercise for smooth jazz piano

Feel free to change this pattern by starting on the top note Gb and going down/up. You can also come up with your own exercise to master this technique. Next, we’ll look at slides.

Smooth Jazz Grip Technique 2: Slides

Once you have mastered 8th notes, the second technique I recommend mastering is slides. Slides are a hallmark of smooth jazz piano and will give your playing that “authentic” smooth jazz sound. The way to slide is by striking the Gb with your middle finger and immediately playing the F underneath. I also recommend playing the top note A at the same time to create a harmonized slide. Once you’ve mastered this technique, try this slide exercise over the smooth jazz chords:

Slide exercise for smooth jazz piano
Slide exercise for smooth jazz piano

You’re doing a great job! Once you can play this, I recommend playing with the included backing tracks. Remember that there are 3 tracks at different tempos, so you’ll be able to play at a comfortable speed. The final technique you will learn next is turns.

Smooth Jazz Grip Technique 3: Turns

If 8th notes and slides are “the cake”, then turns are the “icing on the cake”. Turns are very exciting and will make your playing really sparkle. The way to turn is to start on the F with the index finger. Then turn off this note by going to the note above Gb, and then back down to F and Eb. I also recommend harmonizing your turn with the A above. Once you have this technique down, here is the smooth jazz piano turn exercise that I recommend:

Turn exercise for smooth jazz piano
Turn exercise for smooth jazz piano

You’re doing a great job! As you are learning these licks, I recommend practicing them in other common smooth jazz keys like F and G. You can do practice this entire lesson in any key with the click of one button with our Smart Sheet Music. Now that you’ve learned the left hand chord progression and smooth jazz grip, it’s time for step 3. In this step, you’ll learn the 3rd and final ingredient before you start improvising: the smooth jazz scale.

Step 3: The Smooth Jazz Scale

What is the smooth jazz scale, and why is it important? The smooth jazz scale is the scale that most smooth jazz pianists use to maneuver up down the piano to their grip positions. This scale is important because it will help you smoothly move into higher and lower areas of the keyboard. Now, there isn’t really one official smooth jazz scale (smooth jazz pianists use many scales). However, there is one in particular that is used much more than others, and that is the blues scale.

If you already know your C blues scale, you can skip ahead, but if you don’t, here’s a quick summary.

C Blues Scale

The C Blues Scale uses 6 notes: C Eb F F# G and Bb. You can play the scale using only 2 fingers, your thumb and middle finger. Here is the C Blues Scale:

Smooth jazz scale
Smooth jazz scale

I recommend practicing this scale up and down the piano. If you want specific exercises on mastering this scale and gaining speed, I recommend our 10-Lesson Blues Challenges (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). Now that you know your C Blues scale, it’s time improvise smooth jazz piano.

Improvise Smooth Jazz Piano

Now that you have the “tools” to improvise smooth jazz piano, it’s time to create your own improvisation. The way smooth jazz pianists improvise is by playing “lines”, which are musical phrases with little pauses in-between.

Firstly, I recommend creating lines in your grip position. Start with simple 8th notes lines and focus on creating a variety of lines using only 8th notes. Each time you play a new line, try starting on a different note from the grip. You can also explore starting on new beats. Secondly, focus on slides and playing a variety of lines using slides. Remember to pick different starting notes for each line. Thirdly, focus on turns by using turns in every line. Once again, be mindful to start each line on a different note and a different beat.

Once you’ve focused on each of the above techniques, try combining them where each line uses 2 or more of the above techniques. Remember that the most important thing is variety. Start line one with 8th notes, then slides, then turns. On line two, start with slides, 8th notes, and turns. Finally, start line three with turns, 8th notes, and slides.

Finally, once you can improvise comfortably using the above techniques, incorporate the blues scale to maneuver to your grip position in higher and lower areas of the keyboard.

Final Steps

Now that you can improvise smooth jazz piano, what’s next in your piano journey? Well, there is a lot more you can do to play interesting smooth jazz lines. For more smooth jazz chord progressions and licks, I recommend the Funk & Smooth Jazz Grooves & Licks Courses (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).

For more on how to improvise interesting smooth jazz and funk lines, I recommend the Funky Blues Soloing Courses (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).

If you want to learn how to make your smooth jazz chords more colorful and interesting, I recommend our Piano Chord Extensions and Piano Chord Alterations Courses.

Finally, if you want to hear how I improvise in the Smooth Jazz & Funk Styles, checkout my Swag Time improvisation.

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

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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