Jazz Piano Basics

Basic jazz piano information to help you learn how to play jazz piano.

Have you ever put down a book on learning jazz because it was just too much too fast? A lot of books try to stuff you full of details and science and it's just not that hard. In this lesson we'll look at Chord Symbols, The Almighty 2-5-1, a good 2-5-1 exercise, and how to learn a tune.

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Have you ever gotten frustrated and put down a book on how to learn jazz in because of how complex it all seemed? The countless chord inversions, voicings, symbols, rules, theory, history, and that was just on the first couple pages? It doesn't have to be that difficult, and it shouldn't be that difficult. In this lesson we'll explore:

  1. Chord Symbols
  2. The Almighty 2-5-1
  3. 2-5-1 Exercise
  4. Learning a Tune

Now, some of you might say, "But, the BLUES is the root of jazz! Shouldn't that come first?"

You would be correct. However, before we get to the blues you need to know a few basic fundamentals that will be used throughout the journey to jazz.

Chord Symbols

It's important that we are eye to eye on chord symbols. Everyone has their favorite chord symbol style, and I'm no different. Here are the chords we'll be using for now. When you play them, play the chord letter in your left hand as a bass note.

LearnJazzPiano.com lesson 1: the basics, chord symbols

(midi link)

Now, those of you with some knowledge in music theory might say, "But, those chords have extra notes in them!" And you know what? You would be right. But here's something important about jazz:

Being right DOESN'T MATTER

What matters is how the chord sounds.

Professional jazz pianists see chords like cans of paint. When you want to paint a wall red, you can make it dark, light, somewhere in between, or mix other colors to give it the exact hue you want. It's dynamic, based on your mood, always changing.

Chords are no different. Sometimes a C7 might literally be a C7, and sometimes it might be a C7 with a 13 because that's what sounds better at the time, and sometimes it might be something altogether different. The choice of what to play at any given time depends on how experienced the player is, what is going on in the music, how the player feels that night, and any number of other reasons.

Basically, though, It boils down to, "Does this sound good, or does this sound bad?"

Note: When trying out the chords above, keep in mind that for the most part you shouldn't play the root (the letter of the chord symbol) in your right hand. In chords other than triads (C-E-G style) you are already either playing the root in your left hand or the bass player is taking care of that duty. It sounds better because you can create more interesting chords without wasting a finger on the root note.


Note about learning in 12 keys:

This is not the first time you'll see this because I'm a big believer in 12 keys. Most of what we work on here should be done in all 12 keys. That will mean practice on your part as you figure out how to play all the examples in 12 keys. Yes, that's right, you won't become a real player without heavy practice. Does an hour a day sound like too much? If you want to learn, be prepared to put in twice that or more if you really get serious.

The Almighty 2-5-1 Chord Progression

One of the most basic of all jazz chord progressions is the 2-5-1. It's based off the most used chord progression in western music history: the 5 - 1 (V - I)

In the example below, we're in the key of C so the Dm7 is the 2, the G7 is the 5, and the C major 7 is the 1.

(midi link)

Play the roots in your left hand, and the chords in your right until the sound you are hearing seems natural. This progression is used in 99% of all tunes that jazz musicians play, usually many times. Sometimes the 1 part of the progression will be left out. Tunes like Autumn Leaves, All The Things You Are, Giant Steps, and other are full of 2-5's without resolving to the 1.

Here are a few more examples in different keys. You should play them, learn them, and then learn them in all the keys.

The first one is in the key of C, the second in F, the third in D, and the last example in Bb. I can not stress how important these basic 2-5-1 progressions are. Please learn them in all keys before continuing on to any other lessons.

2-5-1 Exercise

Here is an exercise to help you learn to play the 2-5-1 chords. It is written with the scale in the right hand and the chords in the left. Once you learn it like that, play the scale in the left hand and the chords in the right. Do it in all 12 keys.

Learning Tunes

Now that you're on your way to mastering these new ideas, you might be wondering why this is important. To understand the importance of this, you need to apply this information to songs you are learning. We'll talk about some of these songs later, but what you should do now is go to YouTube and find the songs below and learn them. If you need charts, you can probably search for lead sheets and find something useful as well.

Want to learn these songs right? Do it from a recording or YouTube.

There's no better way to learn music than by listening and playing. It's actually quite easy to do this if you do it right. Basically, learn the song so you can sing along with it. Once you can do it, work out the melody on the piano and then the bass notes, and then fit in the chord color.

It's hard at first, but it gets exponentially easier each time you do it. If you learn the following tunes this way, i guarantee your playing will grow more than you thought possible in a very short period of time.

  • Autumn Leaves
  • All The Things You Are
  • Lullaby Of Birdland
  • On Green Dolphin Street
  • Speak Low

Basic steps to learning a tune and not using the sheetmusic:

  1. Learn the melody (singing, then on the piano)
  2. Learn the bass (sing first, then on piano)
  3. Learn to play the melody and bass together
  4. Memorize
  5. Expand your arrangement as you practice the tune by including more complex chords and improvisation to that eventually it's so good that you are hired to play in the Starlight Lobby Lounge at your local Holiday Inn.

We'll talk about how to good enough for the Starlight Lobby Lounge in more lessons.

If I'm not back in 24 hours, call the president.

Scot is available for skype jazz piano lessons (and google hangouts, phone call, etc...)
Use the contact link at the top of the page.

by Scot Ranney on 09/16/2014, 22:06
There are 3 comments, leave a comment.


It appears that the midi links are broken and that the links to the examples no longer exist. I love the info in this lesson and would love to see the examples


I see nothing has been done about broken links in  the past 3 years. It would be very helpful if those could be restored

I would love to get everything working here

But I'm a musician too and unforunately in perpetual financial misery. 

The issues are not just with this lesson, it's a deeper issue in the file management system and which is going to take some dedicated time to track down. It's on the list to get to when I have some more programming time to put into this system.

Sorry for the inconvenience! Hopefully this will be resolved soonish. I already researched a better way to handle downloads (and keep leechers at bay) so things will be much more slick when I can get to it.

If I'm not back in 24 hours, call the president.

Scot is available for skype jazz piano lessons (and google hangouts, phone call, etc...)
Use the contact link at the top of the page.

Please sign in to post new messages.

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Volume 1 of this educational jazz piano book contains 15 jazz piano exercises, tricks, and other interesting jazz piano techniques, voicings, grooves, and ideas Scot Ranney enjoys playing.

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