Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Improvisation
  • Technique
Music Style
  • R&B
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Are you a beginner piano student who loves R&B music? If so, then we’ve got great news for you! You can play colorful R&B piano chords even as a beginner. In today’s Quick Tip, The R&B Chord Progression for Beginners, Jonny May shares a soulful R&B progression that’s within reach of beginner pianists. In all, you’ll learn 7 R&B piano chords and 3 improv techniques that sound amazing. Today’s lesson outline includes:

The piano techniques in today’s lesson are both simple enough for a beginner to play and yet refined enough to be heard on your favorite R&B records.

Intro to R&B Piano Chords

The assumption of traditional piano pedagogy is that simple harmony should precede complex harmony. Therefore, if you are a beginner piano student, it’s likely that most of the chords you’ve learned so far contain 3 notes—particularly major triads and minor triads. In fact, triads represent the most basic building blocks of harmony. However, triads have a somewhat bland and unimpressive sonic quality to many modern ears. This is particularly true if you’re accustomed to the more complex harmonic colors of R&B, soul and contemporary urban music.

For most students, complex chords are best understood when presented in the learning sequence after basic chords. However, this does not mean that complex chords cannot or even should not be played by beginner students. In fact, beginner fingers are quite capable of playing many complex R&B piano chords. Even though beginner students will lack the categorical terms necessary to construct and define these R&B chords analytically, they can certainly learn to play them and appreciate them contextually.

Embed from Getty Images

Greg Phillinganes performs onstage at “Q 85: A Musical Celebration for Quincy Jones.” Phillinganes has recorded and toured artists including Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Justin Timberlake, Stevie Wonder and Bruno Mars.

Even though beginner students will lack the categorical terms necessary to construct and define these R&B chords analytically, they can certainly learn to play them and appreciate them contextually.

Moreover, through rote learning—the process of learning something from repetition rather than cognitive understanding—beginners can accurately play complex R&B chords over and over.

Isn’t That Cheating?

But isn’t that “cheating” for beginners to play chords that they don’t understand? Not necessarily. According to the editorial team at Resilient Educator, “Opponents to rote memorization argue that creativity in students is stunted and suppressed, and students do not learn how to think, analyze or solve problems. But, in reality, rote learning and higher-level thinking are actually intimately intertwined.”¹

Esteemed jazz pianist, author and educator Dan Haerle also argues for rote learning in his book Jazz Piano Voicing Skills. “It’s good to take advantage of the nature of rote learning. That is, though it is important to learn what notes are in a voicing, it is also important to learn what a voicing ‘feels’ like. The hand assumes a certain spacing of the fingers or shape when playing any voicing.”²

Therefore, as you play the R&B piano chords in today’s lesson, your primarily concern for now should be how these chords (1) sound to the ears, (2) look on the keyboard, and (3) feel in your hands. For example, observe that each of the chords contain 4 notes, and that many of them contain a cluster in the middle. These chords will fit comfortably in hand of most adolescent and adult students.

When it comes to naming these chords, it’s recommend that you use the specific chord labels that are given, even though the chord suffixes may not have immediate meaning. Keep in mind, however, that the voicings shown in today’s lesson represent just one possible means of expressing the given chord symbol.

Beginner R&B Piano Chord Progression

Since this lesson focuses on learning to play R&B chords contextually rather than analytically, we’ll present these chords within the framework of an R&B chord progression. Even though each example includes music notation, it isn’t necessary for students to be able to read sheet music in order to play these examples. In fact, some students will be better served by learning the examples entirely from the video demonstrations. However, you can develop you music reading skills in our Intro to the Keyboard course for beginners.

If you are a PWJ member, you can download the complete lesson sheet PDF and backing track from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Members can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Now, let’s take a listen to the beginner R&B chord progression from today’s lesson sheet.

Beginner R&B Chord Progression (Left Hand)

R&B Piano Chords

As you can hear, these 4-note R&B piano chords sound fantastic! These are all examples of rootless voicings—a particular type of chord construction that omits the root of the chord while adding additional color notes. Rootless voicings can be played in either hand. For example, professional pianists often use rootless voicings in their left hand when playing solo lines or fills with right hand. However, pros also use rootless voicings in their right hand if they want to include a keyboard bass line.

The following example shows the same chord voicings played in the right hand. Now, the left hand is free to play a bass note for each chord, which is often the root. However, this example contains one exception in measure 3, where the slash chord symbol C69/E indicates that the bass note should be an E.

Beginner R&B Chord Progression (Two Hands)

Beginner R&B Chord Progression for Piano (Two Hands)

To master rootless voicings for all chord types, check out our Level 6 Late Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track.

One you feel comfortable playing this R&B chord progression in your left hand, you’re ready to move on to the next section.

R&B Piano Soloing for Beginners

In this section, you’ll learn one of the most versatile piano scales that professionals use when improvising in just about any style—The Major Blues Scale. You’ll also learn practical methods for applying this scale when improvising to obtain a professional sound.

The Major Blues Scale

The Major Blues Scale (also called “The Gospel Scale”) contains six notes and can be constructed by modifying any major scale according to the following formula: 1–2–♯2–3–5–6. Sometimes, this formula is also expressed as 1–2–♭3–♮3–5–6. In other words, the third scale tone may be spelled with a sharp (♯) or a flat (♭), depending on the context.

Now, let’s take a look at the C Major Blues Scale.

C Major Blues Scale

C Major Blues Scale Notation

[Tap or click on the keyboard to hear the scale.👆🖱🎹🔊]

Let’s try playing an ascending and descending C Major Blues Scale in 8th notes with the right hand. Try using the suggested fingerings shown below.
C Major Blues Scale Right Hand Fingering for Piano

Great job! Next, we’ll examine specific improv techniques that will help you create solos lines that have a professional sound.

R&B Soloing with Scale Clusters

Even though professional pianists use the Major Blues Scale when improvising, the notes alone don’t constitute a technique. Therefore, in this section, you’ll learn how professionals frequently approach this scale in their soloing.

First of all, we’re not going to improvise with all 6 scale tones at once. Instead, we can get better results by focusing on smaller scale clusters. We frequently describe these scale clusters as “grips” since they are played from a fixed hand position. Here are the two grips we’ll use to improvise with the C Major Blues Scale.

C Major Blues Scale Grip 1

C Major Blues Scale Grip 2

The first scale cluster uses scale tones 6–1–2–♯2–3, which are the notes A–C–D–D♯–E. Since this grip begins on the note A, we’ll call this our “A Grip.”

The second scale cluster contains scale tones 3–5–6–1, which are the notes E–G–A-C. We’ll call this our “E Grip” since it begins on the note E. (The note D♯ can also be included with this scale cluster by crossing the index finger over the thumb.)

A Grip Techniques

Today’s lesson sheet contains 3 improv techniques that beginner students can use to create sweet solo lines with the A Grip: (1) sixteenth notes, (2) slides, and (3) turns.

A Grip R&B Piano Improv Techniques

Now, let’s play these techniques one at a time over our beginner R&B piano chords.

16th Notes with A Grip

A Grip R&B Piano 16th Notes

As this example demonstrates, it isn’t necessary to leave a fixed hand position in order to create an interesting solo line. In fact, such a hip phrase can only be discovered by deliberately focusing on the melodic potential within a small scale cluster. That’s the power of improvising with grips!

Next, we’ll use an ornamentation technique called finger slides, or “slides” for short. When using this technique, a pianist literally slides their finger from a black key to a white key. Slides can be upward or downward. In fact, the following example incorporates up slides from D♯ to E and down slides from E♭ to D.

Slides with A Grip

A Grip R&B Piano Slides

As you can hear, slides have a bluesy sound.

Next, we’ll examine another ornamentation technique that we call a turn. To play a turn, use the following four steps: (1) begin on a target note, (2) move to the upper neighbor note, (3) return to the target note, and (4) move to the lower neighbor note. In the following example, the target note is D.

Turns with A Grip

A Grip R&B Piano Turn Ornaments

So far, we’ve covered 3 exciting R&B piano improv techniques that all use the A grip. The next step is for you to try improvising with these techniques along with the included backing track. Afterward, proceed to the next section in which we’ll apply the same 3 techniques to solo with the E grip.

E Grip Techniques

The follow excerpt from today’s lesson sheet illustrates three improv ideas that can be played from the E grip, including (1) sixteenth notes, (2) slides, and (3) turns.

E Grip R&B Piano Improv Techniques

Let’s listen to how these ideas sound when played over our beginner R&B piano chords. First, we’ll play a sixteenth note figure.

16th Notes with E Grip

E Grip R&B Piano 16th Notes

Nice job! Now, let’s play some slides with our E grip. In this case, we’ll use an up slide from G♯ to A. This works great, even though the note G♯ technically isn’t part of the C Major Blues Scale. Check it out below.

Slides with E Grip

E Grip R&B Piano Slides

Next, we’ll play some turns with the E grip. The following example uses the note G as the target note. Notice that the lower neighbor note in this case is E, as opposed to F. Even though F is in the key of C, it is not a part of the C Major Blues Scale. Furthermore, the note F would clash with the note E in our C6/9 chord. Therefore, this example demonstrates that when playing turns, the neighbor notes don’t necessarily have to be adjacent keys on the piano.

Turns with E Grip

E Grip R&B Piano Turns

Great job! Now you’re ready to combine sixteenth notes, slides and turns with the E grip while playing along with the backing track. Once you are comfortable, you can even try incorporating both grips into your solo. Then, proceed to the next section.

Double Note Techniques

The previous examples in today’s lesson could all be classified as single note lines. Of course, we can also incorporate some harmony when soloing. In this final section, we’ll explore double note solo lines using a technique called pedal harmony. This technique layers a touch of harmony with the pinkie finger above a melody that is played with the other fingers. Additional names for this approach include top harmony, upper harmony, pinkie grips or drone notes.

The following excerpt from today’s lesson sheet uses the note A as an upper pedal tone to create (1) harmonized sixteenth notes, (2) harmonized slides, and (3) harmonized turns.

Double Note R&B Piano Improv Techniques

Now, let’s try playing these figures along with our beginner R&B piano chords. Here is an example that uses harmonized sixteenth notes.

Harmonized 16th Notes

Harmonized 16th Notes - R&B Piano

As you can hear, the pedal tone sounds great and adds a bit more energy to the solo.

Next, let’s listen to some harmonized slides.

Harmonized Slides

Harmonized Slides - R&B Piano

Wow, that’s another nice touch.

In our final example, we’ll play some harmonized turns.

Harmonized Turns

Harmonized Turns - R&B Piano

Great job! Now you’re ready to play some double note solo lines along with the backing track. Then, be sure to try mixing single note lines and double note lines in your solo.


Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on The R&B Chord Progression for Beginners. You’re on your way to playing piano in the R&B style with authentic chords and improv licks.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll love the following PWJ resources:

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¹ “What Is Rote Learning—and Is It Effective? A Battle Between Memory and Intelligence.”, 6 Nov. 2012.

² Haerle, Dan. Jazz Piano Voicing Skills: A Method for Individual or Class Study. United States, Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 1994, p 5.

Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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