The Most Important Improv Exercise for Jazz Piano

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
17:59

Learning Focus
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
  • Jazz Swing

Do you want to learn how to improvise jazz piano? Most student learn a few cool jazz chords and scales, but they never really understand how to connect their scales to create a beautiful jazz solo. In today’s piano lesson, I’m going to teach you what I would consider to be the most important improv exercise for jazz piano. Specifically, you will learn:

  • The Most Important Chord Progression for Jazz Piano Improv
  • A Beginner Left Hand Accompaniment
  • An Intermediate Left Hand Accompaniment
  • 3 Essential Scales for Improv
  • Connecting Scale Exercise for Beginners
  • Connecting Scale Exercise for Intermediate & Advanced Players

Whether you are a total beginner or you have experience playing jazz piano, this lesson will give you the tools that you need to improvise jazz piano comfortably. Let’s get started.

Step 1: The Turnaround Chord Progression

The first step to improvising jazz piano is to pick a chord progression that is simple. Now, there are many common chord progressions that are used in jazz, such as the Cycle of 5ths, the 12-Bar Blues, the Extended Turnaround Progression, and the Sentimental Progression, but most of these progressions have a lot of chords.  If you want to master jazz piano improv, then is essential to pick a chord progression with fewer chords so that you can focus on mastering the basics of jazz improv.

What is the best chord progression for jazz improv?

The best chord progression for jazz improv is the Turnaround Progression because it has only 4 chords. Not only is it easier to solo over 4 chords, but the Turnaround Progression is very practical because it is used on hundreds of different jazz standards like Cheek to Cheek, The Way You Look Tonight, Let’s Fall In Love, Blue Moon, and Heart and Soul to name a few.

(To do a deep dive on the Turnaround Progression, checkout the Amazing Turnaround Progression here).

How do you play the Turnaround Progression? Here is the Turnaround Progression piano notation:

Turnaround progression in the key of C for jazz piano
Turnaround progression in the key of C for jazz piano

Now, if you don’t read sheet music, that’s OK! You can learn all of the notes from this lesson with our Smart Sheet Music here, which shows you a digital light-up keyboard for all the notes in the lesson. You can also change the key with the click of one button to practice this lesson in any key.

Now that you know the Turnaround Progression, it’s essential to learn a left hand accompaniment.

Step 2: Left Hand Accompaniment

The next step to learning the most important improv exercise for jazz piano is to have a solid left hand accompaniment to play in the left hand. Now, you could play the simple root position chords that you learned earlier, but these just sound a little too bland. Even if you are a beginner jazz pianist, you can still make these chords more interesting without making the chords too hard to play. How do you do this? With chord shells.

Beginner Accompaniment: Turnaround Progression Chord Shells

If you are a beginner jazz pianist, I highly recommend that you play chord shells.

What is a chord shell?

A chord shell is where you play only 2 or 3 notes of a chord instead of all 4 notes. Therefore, instead of playing the full chords that you learned earlier, we will leave out the 5th note from the chord. Why do we do this? Because the 5th is a non-essential note.

Therefore, if we remove the 5th from every chord, we end up with this:

Turnaround progression in the key of C for jazz piano with chord shells : guide tones
Turnaround progression in the key of C for jazz piano with chord shells : guide tones

By the way, the top 2 notes of the chord (the 3rd and 7th) are called “guide tones” and they are the 2 essential notes in the chord.

Now that you have the chord shells, you’ll want to apply a root-chord pattern, or what I call a Stride Ballad pattern:

Cocktail stride accompaniment on the turnaround progression for beginner jazz piano students
Cocktail stride accompaniment on the turnaround progression for beginner jazz piano students

Sounding pretty good, huh?! The final step is to invert some of the chords so that all of the chords are relatively close to one another. We call this good “voice leading” and it’s an essential aspect of good jazz piano playing. Here are the inverted chords:

Cocktail stride accompaniment on the turnaround chord progression for beginner jazz piano students using inverted guide tones
Cocktail stride accompaniment on the turnaround chord progression for beginner jazz piano students using inverted guide tones

Now, if you want to master your chord shells and guide tones, checkout the Chord Shells and Guide Tones course here.

If you are more on the intermediate or advanced side and have experience playing jazz chords, let’s talk about the more interesting way to play the chords using Rootless Voicings.

Intermediate/Advanced Accompaniment: Turnaround Progression Rootless Voicings

If you are more on the intermediate/advanced side, I highly recommend that you use rootless voicings to play your chords.

What is a rootless voicing?

A Rootless Voicing is a chord that does not contain the root. These chords are very colorful and usually contain additional notes, such as chord extensions and chord alterations.

So how do we use rootless voicings on the Turnaround Progression? Here is my favorite way of playing them:

Cocktail stride accompaniment on the turnaround chord progression for intermediate : advanced jazz piano students using rootless voicings
Cocktail stride accompaniment on the turnaround chord progression for intermediate : advanced jazz piano students using rootless voicings

If you analyze these chords, you’ll notice the extra “color” notes that are added to each chord, called Extensions and Alterations respectively. You can do a deep dive Chord Extensions here and Chord Alterations here.

While these chords might sound complex, they are actually very easy to play once you memorize them. If these chords look very unfamiliar, don’t worry! We have a very helpful course to help you learn all your rootless voicings for all 12 keys here.

Now, I recommend that you play the above exercise with the included backing track, which can be found at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership.

Now that you can play the Rootless Voicings, it’s time to learn the 3 scales that you will use for the exercise for jazz piano improv.

Step 3: 3 Scales for Improv on the Turnaround Progression

The key to having a good Connecting Scale Exercise is to have multiple scales that are different from one another. Now, you COULD improvise over this whole chord progression using one or two scale (I call this the single and double-scale approach and you can them here). However, if you want your improvisation to sound more “colorful”, then you will need to learn multiple scales.

The good news is that for the turnaround progression, which has 4 chords, you only need to learn 3 scales because one of the scales works with 2 of the chords.

What 3 scales should you learn to improvise over the Turnaround Progression?

The 3 scales you should learn to improvise over the turnaround progression are the C Major Scale, the C# Diminished Scale, and the B Diminished Scale.

The C Major Scale

If you don’t know the notes of the C Major Scale, here they are:

C major scale for jazz piano improv on C major 7 and D minor 7 chord
C major scale for jazz piano improv on C major 7 and D minor 7 chord

The C Major Scale is all white notes, and this scale is the scale that we will use to improvise over the C Major 7 and D Minor 7 chords. In other words, the C Scale sounds great on these chords! But what about our other two chords, A7 and G7? On these chords, you’ll want to use more interesting scales that use more black notes (so there is more “color” in your improvisation). Let’s start with our first chord, A7.

C# Diminished Scale

When improvising on an A7 scale, there are a lot of scales you could use (you can learn many in our Scales for Improv on 7th Chords here), but my favorite scale is the C# diminished scale.

What is the C# Diminished Scale?

The C# Diminished Scale contains these notes: C# D# E F# G A Bb and C. It is an 8-note scale. It follows a pattern of whole-step, half-step, whole-step, half-step all the way up and down the piano. Here is the piano notation for the C# Diminished Scale:

C# diminished scale for jazz piano improv on A7 chord
C# diminished scale for jazz piano improv on A7 chord

Now why does this scale sound so good on an A7 chord? Because it hits so many interesting colors (chord extensions and alterations). Specifically, it hits the b9, #9 #11, and 13.

What about the next chord, the G7?

B Diminished Scale

When improvising on a G7 chord, one of the best scales to use is the B Diminished Scale

What’s the B Diminished Scale?

The B Diminished Scale contains the notes B C# D E F G Ab and Bb. It is an 8-note scale and follows a whole-step, half-step pattern all the way up and down the piano. Here is the piano notation for the B Diminished Scale:

B diminished scale for jazz piano improv on G7 chord
B diminished scale for jazz piano improv on G7 chord

Why does this sound so good on a G7? Because it hits so many chord extensions and alterations, like the b9, #9, #11, and 13.

Now that you know your scales, let’s dive into our fist exercise.

Step 4: Beginner Jazz Improv Exercise

When it comes to the most important improv exercise for jazz piano, you’ll want to use the Connecting Scales Exercise, but you also want to keep it simple if you are more on the beginner side! How do we accomplish this? My recommendation is to use the first 5 notes each scale.

First, let’s block the first 5 notes of a C Major Scale for the C Major 7 Chord: C D E F G:

Blocked position 1 - for C major 7 and D minor 7 chords
Blocked position 1 – for C major 7 and D minor 7 chords

Second, let’s block the closest 5 notes of the C# Diminished Scale for the A7 chord: C Db Eb E F#:

Blocked position 2 - for A7 chord
Blocked position 2 – for A7 chord

Third, let’s block the closest 5 notes of the C Major Scale for the D minor 7 chord: C D E F G:

Blocked position 1 - for C major 7 and D minor 7 chords
Blocked position 1 – for C major 7 and D minor 7 chords

Fourth, let’s block the closest 5 notes of the B Diminished Scale for the G7 chord: C# D E F G:

Blocked position 3 - for G7 chord
Blocked position 3 – for G7 chord

Now that you’ve blocked these positions, practice going up and down the scale using 8th notes. You can add either of the left hand accompaniments. However, my recommendation is to use the beginner accompaniment to keep it simple:

Best exercise for jazz piano improv for beginner students; connecting scale exercise 1
Best exercise for jazz piano improv for beginner students; connecting scale exercise 1

You’re doing great! It’s time to start improvising jazz lines. For this, you can basically hit any notes that you want from these positions as long as you are playing the right scale. Make sure to leave little gaps in between your lines. Try starting on different notes and going in different directions.

Now if you want to do a deep dive for beginners on how to create awesome jazz lines over the turnaround progression, checkout our Soloing Over the Turnaround Course here.

Next, let’s talk about the intermediate exercise.

Step 5: Intermediate/Advanced Jazz Improv Exercise

If you’re more on the intermediate/advanced side, then I recommend that you do a connecting scale exercise using the full scales. To accomplish this, we will follow this simple pattern:

On the C major 7 chord, start on C and play the first 8 notes of the C scale going up. On the next chord, A7, play the corresponding scale (C# diminished) going down 8 notes. Then on the D minor 7 chord, play the corresponding scale (C major) going up 8 notes. Finally, on the G7 chord, play the corresponding scale (B diminished) going down 8 notes.  If you follow this pattern, you will end up starting where you stopped. I would play this over the intermediate left hand accompaniment.  Here is the first 4 measures of the intermediate connecting scale exercise:

Best exercise for jazz piano improv for intermediate : advanced students; connecting scale exercise 2
Best exercise for jazz piano improv for intermediate : advanced students; connecting scale exercise 2

Now, if you want the full downloadable lesson sheet music for this exercise, you can find it at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership.

Sound pretty cool, right? The final step is to start improvising lines with these scales. Remember that you can use any of the notes from the scales as long as they match the chord. Remember to use little gaps in-between your lines. Focus on the transition points between scales. Generally it sounds best to transition to a new scale by using a half step or a whole step.

If you want to do a deep dive on intermediate/advanced techniques for soloing over the turnaround progression, you can find them here.

And if you want to learn other awesome scales that you can use on the turnaround chords, checkout the Scales for Improv on 7th Chords course here.

Putting It All Together

My final recommendation is to practice your improv exercise over common jazz keys like the key of F, Bb, and Eb. Also, practice improvising over songs that use the Turnaround Progression.

And if you enjoyed this course, I’ve put together some of my top Turnaround Courses and Improv courses below:

Finally, if you want to hear how I would improvise over the Turnaround Progression in the context of a song, checkout my improvisation of The Way You Look Tonight.

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

Your teacher,

Jonny May

 

Free Lessons

Get free weekly lessons to your inbox!

More Free Lessons

Learn how to play stride piano in the style of Fats Waller. Building from a lead sheet, you'll learn the stride left hand and right hand embellishments.

Learn how to play jazz piano if you are a complete beginner. In this lesson, you'll learn 4 essential jazz chords, 1 scale, and 3 improvisation exercises.

Learn 2 essential blues scales for blues piano improv: Major Blues Scale and Minor Blues Scale. Learn an exercise and how to improvise a blues solo.

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

The Piano With Jonny 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. Try us out completely free for 14 days!

Start Your Free Trial