The Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment Guide
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Learning to accompany on piano in the jazz swing style can be overwhelming, especially for beginners. There are so many iceberg topics—chords and voicings, extensions and alterations, rhythms and comping. However, today’s Quick Tip will give you a simple system that you can use as a beginner to get a respectable jazz piano accompaniment sound using just 3-notes per chord! Then, you’ll apply these chords to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” which contains one of the most important song forms in jazz literature. You’ll learn:
- 1 Essential Jazz Song Form
- 13 Jazz Chords
- The Guide Tones Jazz Voicing Technique
- 2 Comping Rhythms
This Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment Guide is the perfect lesson for vocalists looking to accompany themselves at the piano, or for any pianist interested in exploring the jazz swing style.
Intro to Jazz Piano Accompaniment for Beginners
Today’s lesson uses a simple jazz piano arranging technique:
- 2 notes in the right hand
- 1 note in the left hand
That’s all! However, by placing these notes in the sweet spots of the instrument, we’ll still get a surprisingly full sound. For example, our left hand will play in the lower register of the piano resulting in a sound that is comparable to that of a double bass. Then, our right hand will fill out the harmony with 2 notes in the middle register of the instrument. Take a listen for yourself.
As you can hear in this example, this beginner jazz piano accompaniment technique provides a professional sound that is perfectly suited to support a melody.
Does that chord progression sound familiar? It is George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” which was debuted by Ethel Merman in the 1930 Broadway musical Girl Crazy. However, the iconic chord progression, referred to as Rhythm Changes by jazz musicians, has provided the form and inspiration for countless other tunes of the swing and bebop eras. The term contrafact describes a musical composition in which new lyrics or a new melody borrow the harmonic structure of an earlier work. In fact, Rhythm Changes is one of the most common forms in jazz literature, second only to the 12-Bar Blues. Here is a brief sample of “Rhythm tunes” as they are commonly called:
- “Shag” – Sidney Bechet, 1932
- “Cotton Tail” – Duke Ellington, 1940
- “Seven Come Eleven” – Charlie Christian, 1941
- “Moose The Mooch” – Charlie Parker, 1946
- “Anthropology” – Charlie Parker, 1949
- “Oleo” Sonny Rollins, 1954
- “The Theme” – Miles Davis, 1955
- “The Eternal Triangle” – Sonny Stitt, 1957
- “Rhythm-A-Ning” – Thelonious Monk, 1957
As you can see, learning the chords and song form in today’s beginner jazz piano accompaniment lesson makes for some very efficient practice!
Let take a closer look now at the form for “I Got Rhythm.”
Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” uses a common 32-bar AABA form in which each section is 8 measures in length. The A sections features the same melody and chords with different lyrics. The B section features a contrasting melody and chord progression. Examples of other jazz standards that use this form are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields’ “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” The 32-bar AABA form is so common in jazz repertoire that is also known as song form. (Hint: tunes that use this form commonly employ a D.C. al Fine.) The diagram below demonstrates two ways in which the form may be expressed in a score.
Now that you’ve got a framework for the architecture of the song, you can begin to master the chords one section at a time.
Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment: Step 1
A primary goal of today’s lesson is take the beginner jazz piano student beyond root position chords when performing in an accompaniment situation. However, we’ll begin our exploration by looking at each of the chords in root position to ensure you build your chords with the proper notes. This information is foundational to constructing proper jazz piano voicings in the following sections.
A Section Chords in Root Position
Today’s beginner jazz piano accompaniment lesson is in G Major. You can download the lesson sheet and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily change the key of today’s lesson using our Smart Sheet Music.
It’s important to state at the outset that with a form as common as Rhythm Changes, there are many common harmonic variations. Just like with the Blues form, jazz musicians love to add passing chords and reharmonization to Rhythm Changes. Therefore, the chord changes in today’s lesson represent just one possibility. When playing with other musicians, you will need to use your ears carefully.
The first four bars of the A section follow the structure of two turnaround progressions back-to-back. That’s the common name for a 1-6-2-5 chord progression. Since the turnaround progression is repeats, it is common to use some chord substitutions for the sake of variety, especially in the second turnaround progression. The example below from today’s lesson sheet uses this approach.
The Jazz Language
Did you notice that all these chords contain four notes? The most common type of four-note chord is called a 7th chord. In fact, the term 7th chord refers to the presence of the fourth note which is the distance of a 7th interval above the root. The diagram below illustrates the difference between a triad which contains three notes and a 7th chord containing four notes.
There are thirteen chords required to play this beginner jazz piano accompaniment of “I Got Rhythm.” However, in total, there are 5 main classifications of 7th chords and 12 different notes that can act as the root. Therefore, there are a total of sixty possible 7th chords in all. Learning all sixty chords in a worthy goal for all beginner jazz pianists.
- For a quick overview of all sixty 7th chords, check out our handy All 7th Chord Types–Reference.
- When you’re ready, you can master all 60 chords in our Intermediate Piano Foundations–Part 1 Learning Track.
- For the reader who just wants to know it all, check out our Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide for additional types of chords including 6th chords, sus chords, extensions, alterations and more!
Perhaps you’re wondering about the Roman numerals in blue on the example above. This is called harmonic analysis or functional analysis. Why is this important? Well, it enables musicians to classify the sounds they hear. That way, when they hear a chord sound or progression they like, they can mentally “save it for later” and reproduce it any key. Harmonic analysis for jazz musicians is as essential as mathematical formulas for engineers, DNA strands for geneticists, and HEX color codes for designers. In fact, you can explore harmonic analysis in the following PWJ courses that are included with your membership:
- Bach Prelude in C Harmonic Analysis (Levels 1–3)
- Jazz Standard Analysis 1 (Level 2)
- Jazz Standard Analysis 2 (Level 3)
Alright, now let’s learn the B section of “I Got Rhythm.”
B Section Chords in Root Position
The B section of “I Got Rhythm” contrasts the A sections in many ways. Most notably, the harmonic rhythm slows down substantially. This doesn’t mean that the tempo changes. Rather, harmonic rhythm describes the pace at which the chords change in a given progression. For example, the A section features the harmonic rhythm of a half-note since the chords change every two beats. By contrast, each chord lasts a full two measures in the B section! Let’s take a look at the chords of the B section in root position.
Did you notice that the B section contains all dominant 7th chords? Theses chords exist in special relationship to one another. They follow counter-clockwise movement around the circle of 5ths. As such, each chord acts as a V7 chord to the following chord. This type of harmonic movement is a staple of jazz repertoire.
You can master counter-clockwise movement of Dominant 7th chords and other common dominant movement in our course Dominant 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2).
Well done…you’ve learned all the chords for “I Got Rhythm.” Now you’re ready to use the guide tones technique to play a beginner jazz piano accompaniment.
Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment: Step 2
In this section, you’ll learn one of the most important jazz piano skills for beginners—the guide tones technique. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say that this single jazz piano skill separates the casual student from the serious learner of jazz piano. That’s because the guide tones technique addresses a significant issue that root position chords does not—voicing leading.
What is voice leading?
In composition and arranging, voice leading describes the consideration given to the manner in which each pitch moves from chord-to-chord. Generally speaking, good voice leading seeks to do the following:
- retain common tones in the “same voice” from chord-to-chord (think SATB choral texture)
- resolve other tones with close movement (stepwise or 3rds) as in a melody
- avoid disjunct or unnecessary leaps
This is the reason why it is important for a beginner jazz piano accompaniment to go beyond root position chords. The key is understanding how to use guide tones.
What are guide tones?
The term guide tones refers to the 3rd and 7th of a 7th chord. These notes are especially important because they influence a chord’s quality (major 7, dominant 7, minor 7) and also guide its resolution. In fact, a chord’s guide tones can be used as a stand-alone shell voicing.
Let’s compare an example of a 2-5-1 progression in G major with root position chords and then the same chord progression arranged with the guide tones technique.
Let’s examine the example with root position chord first. Imagine each of the four notes represents an individual voice in SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choral texture. Notice that each voice resolves by leap as we move chord-to-chord. Not only is this very difficult to sing, it is also not very melodic. Furthermore, it ignores the inherent energy created by tensions within each chord. For example, with counter-clockwise dominant 7th chord movement around the Circle of 5ths, the 7th of each chord is a ½ step above the 3rd of the following chord. The voice leading principle seeks to resolve this tension within the same voice.
Combining Guide Tones & Inverted Guide Tones
Look again at measures 3–4 in the example above which uses the guide tones technique. Notice as we move from chord-to-chord:
- the 7th of each chord resolves downward by a ½ step to the 3rd of the following chord
- the common tone is retained in the same voice
This voice leading is only made possible because the first and third chords feature inverted guide tones which voice the 3rd above the 7th. This is easiest to visualize when all the notes are notated in bass clef as in the following example. Here are two possible arranging solutions for this progression using alternating guide tones and inverted guide tones to provide good voice leading. (Note: the voice leading principle is less concerned about leaps in the bass voice—these are common).
It’s important to recognize that the alternating pattern of guide tones and inverted guide tones is the best solution in this example because the chords themselves are moving down by a 5th (or up by a 4th). When a chord progression features closer movement, it is not necessary to alternate between guide tones and inverted guide tones.
Measures 3 and 4 of “I Got Rhythm” contain an example of a chord progression with close movement. In fact, the Bm7 →B♭º7 → Am7 progression moves downward chromatically. In this case, our beginner jazz piano accompaniment should not alternate between guide tones and inverted guide tones. Rather, we should use the same voicing to preserve the stepwise motion in each voice.
A Section—Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment with Guide Tones Technique
Now, let’s play a beginner jazz piano accompaniment for the entire A Section of “I Got Rhythm” using the guide tones technique. (Note that the example below from today’s lesson sheet features both staffs in bass clef to avoid excessive ledger lines.)
Well done. Once you feel like you have these voicings under your fingers, the next step is to try practicing along with one of the backing tracks. This lesson includes four backing tracks that appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. The included lesson sheet also notates the B section of the tune voiced with the guide tones technique.
In the final section, we’ll examine two common rhythmic patterns that we can add to our chord voicings to further stylize our beginner jazz piano accompaniment.
Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment: Step 3
After you’ve learned the chord changes and worked out your voicings, the final step to creating a beginner jazz piano accompaniment is to apply some staple jazz rhythms. In this section, we’ll apply two of the most common jazz rhythm patterns to our chord progression.
Rhythm Pattern #1: 4-On-The-Floor
Let’s start with the 4-On-The-Floor technique. This accompaniment pattern uses quarter notes on all four beats at a medium-soft volume. This technique is sometimes referred to as “Freddie Green style” comping named after the legendary guitarist who pioneered this sound with the Count Basie Orchestra for over 50 years.
Rhythm Pattern #3: Charleston
A second rhythm pattern option for a beginner jazz piano accompaniment is the “Charleston rhythm.” This rhythm is named after the immensely popular Swing-era tune composed by pianist James P. Johnson in 1923. The syncopated rhythm features a dotted-quarter-note followed by an eighth-note tied to a half note. Therefore, the first chord enters on beat one and the second chord enters on the “and of two.” The rhythm is played “short-LONG, short-LONG.”
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s Quick Tip on beginner jazz piano accompaniment. We’ve covered plenty of information on a variety of topics. In fact, you can explore full-length courses on many of these topics in our course library. Here are some courses related to today’s lesson:
- Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises (Level 2)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2)
- Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Jazz Swing Accompaniment (Level 2, Level 3)
- The Amazing Turnaround (Levels 2 & 3)
- 4-On-The-Floor Blues (Level 2, Level 3)
- 5 Jazz Comping Approaches (Level 2, Level 3)
- Jazz Standard Analysis (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you again soon.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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