In today's beginner jazz piano lesson, I'll show you what you need to know to start playing jazz piano.
To start playing jazz piano, you’ll need the following skills:
1. Must read music to an intermediate level
To play jazz, you must be able to read treble clef, because every real book will notate its melodies using traditional notation (reading bass clef isn’t essential for jazz).
The good news is that jazz relies much less on reading music than other styles of music (where you must read both hands in two clefs). Most jazz melodies are straightforward to read and play.
If you don’t read music, get my ‘How to Read Music in 15 Minutes’ free guide.
2. Know Your Chord Symbols
To play a jazz song from a lead sheet, you’ll need to understand the chord symbols displayed above the melody line.
Most of jazz is made up of three types of 7th chord - the 'major 7' chord, 'minor 7' chord, and 'dominant 7' chord.
Here's how these three chords look built from C:
C major 7 = C E G B - a 7th chord built from C major scale.
C minor 7 = C Eb G Bb - a 7th chord built from C minor scale.
C dominant 7 = C E G Bb - a major chord with a minor 7th.
Roughly 80% of jazz is made up of the three chords above - so you need to learn these from all 12 notes first.
TIP: Do not try to memorize the note names of each chord ('C E G B' for example). Instead, you must carefully count the interval pattern of each chord every time (major 3rd + minor 3rd + major 3rd for example).
Here are the unique interval patterns of each 7th chord:
The major 7 chord is a major triad (major 3rd + minor 3rd = C E G) with a major 3rd on top (B).
The minor 7 chord is a minor triad (minor 3rd + major 3rd = C Eb G) with a minor 3rd on top (Bb).
The dominant 7 chord (written 'C7', or 'Bb7', 'or 'D7', etc.) is a major triad (C E G) with a minor 3rd on top (Bb).
PRACTICE TIP: Practice playing these three chords in your left hand, from all 12 notes. Here's how they would look built from F:
Here's how they would look built from Bb:
And you can continue playing them from all 12 notes (see if you can them note-perfectly from all 12 notes: C - F - Bb - Eb - Ab - and so on).
In this beginner lesson, I’m not going to cover all types of jazz chord - but you can download my free ‘Chord Symbol Reference Guide’ which shows you all types of jazz chord - including 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths. Click here to download.
3. Chord Inversion
As a beginner, I suggest that you play each chord exactly as it’s written - so for a C major 7 chord you would play C E G B, and so on (no fancy chord voicings needed for now).
However, it’s sometimes useful to use ‘chord inversion’ - which means to play the notes of the chord in a different order.
So instead of playing C major 7 as C E G B (this is called 'root position') - you could play C major 7 as G B C E instead (this is called 'second inversion').
To play any chord in second inversion - just take its top two notes and move them down an octave.
Here's how you could play a ii-V-I (the most common chord progression in jazz) using chord inversion on the V7 chord (G7):
Chord inversion can help you minimize your hand movement, while also creating a smoother sound (rather than jumping around by big leaps).
Go to your real book (or purchase a lead sheet of a jazz song you like).
- First, learn the song's melody in your right hand.
- Next, add chords in your left hand. Count each chord’s interval pattern carefully, and use chord inversion when needed (especially for V7 chords in the middle of a 2-5-1).
This way you can play an authentic jazz piano arrangement of any song.
More Chord Symbols
In this beginner lesson, we covered the three most common types of jazz chord. If you'd like to learn the remaining types of 7th chord, as well as 9th chords, 11th chords, and 13th chords, you can download my free ‘Chord Symbol Reference Guide’ which shows you all types of jazz chord - including 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths. Click here to download.
Get Julian Bradley's FREE BEGINNER SHEET MUSIC COLLECTIONsent straight to your email...
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About the Author
Julian Bradley is a jazz pianist and music educator from the U.K. He has a masters degree in music from Bristol University, and has played with and composed for a variety of big bands.
Julian runs the popular Jazz Tutorial YouTube channel and writes educational jazz lessons at JazzTutorial.com