If you’ve always wanted to know how to play jazz piano, you’re about to get started. Jazz may be a complex musical genre, but you can play it if you master the basics first. Before you know it, you’ll have developed the skills you need to emulate jazz greats or compose your own music.
Jazz’s distinctive sound originated in the South. It’s important to understand its roots to get a feeling for how to play jazz piano. Born out of the songs of African American laborers, notably in New Orleans, Jazz owes its popularity to its unconventional rhythms, trademark chords, and its soulful style.
While jazz music is recognizable, it is improvisational, which means changing certain aspects of a performance is encouraged. Depending on a musician’s emotions, skill level, playing style, etc., one version of a song can vary greatly from another. This allows for a good deal of creativity on your part.
How To Play Jazz Piano – The Chords
To get started, it’s a good idea for you to understand the chords used to play jazz. These particular chords go beyond the basic three note chords most budding musicians learn. The following lessons will be set in the key of C since that is an easier key to learn in than the others.
Let’s start with the sixth chord. You might see this chord
represented as C6 or Cadd6 on a chord chart. To play a C6 chord, starting with your right thumb, play the notes C-E-G-A. The A is your 6th because it is one step above the 5th note, G. Notice that we are keeping the G in the chord. In a Cadd6 chord, you would replace the G with the A. Try playing them both and listen to their subtle differences.
The next logical step is a seventh chord. When you play a C7 chord, you play the three notes C-E-G and add the C scale’s seventh note, lowered one half step. The seventh note is B, so you will add a B flat. Play the C-E-G-B flat combination and you will instantly recognize the sound.
A close relative of the seventh is the major seventh. This chord, indicated as Cmaj7 on a chord chart, has the seventh note of the scale added on to the end. In this case, it’s B. Play the C-E-G-B combination as a chord and compare it to the C7 chord.
After you have practiced playing the different chords, put them together in a progression. A progression is a series of chords. A common chord progression in jazz music is the 1-4-2-5. The numbers represent the first note of each chord as they relate to the key you are in. In the key of C, the first note of the scale (number 1) is the C. The fourth note is F, the second note is D, and the fifth note is G. So this chord progression would have the following chords, in order: C, F, D, G.
It’s not uncommon to play one or more of the chords in a minor key. For example, try playing the D as D minor, or a D minor 6th. Jazz is all about experimentation and expression, so have fun as you explore your chord options.
How To Play Jazz Piano – Adding the Bass
Now it’s time to add the bass. While you naturally have a few options, a common bass style is known as a walking bass. To perform this style, you basically play one note per beat of the measure, each note being one note from your chord. You “walk up” on the first chord and “walk down” on the second chord. Here’s a example: If your first chord is a C7, your bass could be the notes C-E-G-B flat. On the second chord, F, your bass notes might be A-F-C-A. You don’t have to play every note from the scale. The fourth note, played on the fourth beat, could be a note that transitions well into the next chord. For instance, if your third chord is D minor, your fourth note could be a C sharp.
You’ve only scratched the surface on learning how to play jazz piano, but what you’ve learned so far is enough to sound like you know what you’re doing! Practice and learn to improvise what you’ve learned. Then look for more lessons to take your skills further!