How to play Jazz Piano in 20 Minutes

Lesson Resources

The Ultimate Jazz Chords Guide
10 Exotic Sounds for Jazz Piano

Lesson Timestamps

0:32 Jazz Chords
2:06 Types of 7th Chord
3:31 Chord Extensions (9 11 13)
5:35 Altered Extensions (b9 #9 #11 b13)
7:16 Chord Voicings
8:23 The ii-V-I Progression
11:06 Partial ii-V-Is
12:55 The Minor ii-V-I
16:03 Jazz Scales

Lesson Transcript

So first of all, let's talk about jazz chords. Now chords in jazz go a lot higher than in other styles of music. So in most styles of music, you'll only encounter three note chords. These are known as triads. So you'll play the root, the third, and the fifth, and you can get different types of chord within just these three notes. You can get a major chord, a minor chord, an augmented chord, and a diminished chord.

However, in jazz, we built this stack of thirds higher. So instead of just stopping at the fifth, we'll go up and add another third above the fifth which gives us the seventh and all of these numbers are numbered from the root of the chords. So if this is a C chord then this is one, we call this the root. So, one, three, five, seven. And that's why all chord extensions are generally odd numbers 'cause they're built in thirds, which means we're skipping every other note. So one, three, five, seven.

Then we can go up to the ninth. We can even go up to the 11th. And we can even go up to the 13th. And 13 is pretty much the biggest number you'll see in a cord because if you go up a third from 13 then you come back to the root. So there's never a 15 in jazz. It's always seventh chords, ninth chords, and 11th Chords, and 13th chords.

So now let's get specific and look at the actual types of seventh chord. There's different types of seventh chord. They all are based on the same idea. They have a root third, fifth, and seventh. But we can create different types of seventh chord by making different combinations of the major third and the minor third.

So we're going to go through the three main seventh chords to begin with. First of all, we have a major seven chord. This is C major seven. So if you just imagine the notes of C major scale and you just play the root third, fifth, and seventh then you get a major seven chord.

Next, let's look at the minor seven chord. This is C minor seven and if you just imagine a minor scale, C minor scale, and you just played the root third, fifth, and seventh of that scale. Well, you ended up playing a minor seven chord.

Next we have the dominant seven chord. Here is C dominant seven. So it's basically a major triad but with a minor seventh.

So those are the three most common types of seventh chord in jazz. I would say about 90% of jazz music is built of just these three seventh chords. Again, the major seven chord, the minor seven chord, and the dominant seven chord. And they all just different combinations of major thirds and minor thirds.

Now above any type of seventh chord you can add what's known as chord extensions. And these are the ninth, the 11th, and 13th, which we mentioned just a moment ago.

So for the chord below the root, third, fifth, and seventh are known as chordal tones, chord tones, the root third, fifth and seventh. Whatever type of chord it is, minor seven, dominant seven, et cetera. But above these you can add a chord extension like the ninth, the 11th, or the 13th, or all three. You get all sorts of big chords like this.

So how do you find the ninth, the 11th, and the 13th? Well, regardless of what type of chord it is, whether it's a major seven chord, minor seven chord, or a dominant seven chord, the chord extensions are always built from the major scale. So you imagine a major scale from the roots of the chord. So this is a C chord. Doesn't matter what chord type it is. We're just going to imagine a major scale starting from the root.

And you're going to find the chord extensions based on that major scale. So the ninth is really the same notes as the two of the scales. So, the one, two. The 11th is the same as the fourth. So three, four, that's our 11th. And the 13th is the same as the sixth. Which is five, six.

So even if it's a minor seven chord, let's take a C minor seven chord here. If it tells you to add a ninth, 11th, or 13th, you would still imagine C major scale to find those notes. It's going to be the same ninth, the same 11th, and the same 13th as if it was a major seven chord or the dominant seven chord. This is the natural ninth, the natural 11th, and the natural 13th and they're all built from the major scale.

Now the extended harmony notes can also be altered, which means they can be sharpened or flattened. So you won't always just see nine, 11, 13. Sometimes you'll see flat nine, sharp nine, you'll see sharp 11, and sometimes you'll see flat 13.

So how do you find an altered chord extension? Well, let's say the chord symbol says C dominant seven flat nine. Well, we're going to start by finding the natural extension first and we just imagine the major scale. So C major scale. It's going to be D natural. And then you flatten it. And that's your chord extension. That's the flat nine. Or if it said sharp knight, again, you find the natural nine first and then sharpen it.

Or if it said C seven sharp 11. Well, you find the natural 11 first. So run up the major scale to the fourth, which is the 11th, and then sharpen it. And the same if it was the 13th. C Dominant seven flat 13 let's say, find the natural 13 first by running up the major scale and then flatten it.

That's where you get these nice chords with altered extensions. Things like the flat nine, sharp nine, sharp 11, and flat 13. Now before we move onto the next topic, I've actually notated a chord symbol reference guide for you. You can download that for free at the link below and you'll get my one page sheet where I've just notated all of the common types of seventh chord, ninth chord, 11th chord, and 13th chord.

So now a quick word on chord voicings. So there's many different ways that you can play any chord in jazz. So if we just take a look at the seventh chords. The C major seventh chord, which we've looked at. So if you imagine a group of singers were singing this. Each note is a voice, a separate voice, and we can redistribute these voices and turn them upside down and add a few notes in and do all sorts of things to create different voicings. These are called chord voicings. So just to demonstrate we can play this, which is a literal voicing, you're playing literally what the chord symbol says.

Then there's more sophisticated voicings like fourth voicings. It's just a stack of fourths. Using notes from C major scale. We also have fifth voicings Where we using mostly fifths. And this is still considered a voicing for C major seven and really the list goes on. There's all sorts of possibilities.

So now let's talk about chord progressions in jazz. So every style of music has its own characteristic chord progressions. So classical music has its one, four, five, one type progressions. We have pop music, which has those four pop chords you might've heard of. Well, jazz is the same. We have what's known as the two, five, one chord progression. Now there's two types of two, five, one. There's a major two, five, one and a minor two, five, one.

Let's start by looking at the major two, five, one because this is far more common. So let's demonstrate a major two, five, one in the scale of C major. So this is going to be a set of three chords that are going to be built from the notes of C major scale and the two, five, and one refers to which scale degree we're building the chord from.

So the two chord is going to be built from the second note of the scale. That's going to be D and we're just going to build a stack of thirds up to the seventh using notes from C major scale, which is all the white notes. And this gives us what type of cord? This is a D chord. This is D minor seven.

Next we're going to find the five chord. So we're gonna find the fifth scale degree. One, two, three, four, five. That's going to be G and we're going to do the same thing. Let's build a stack of thirds up from G using notes of C major scale. And this is a dominant seven chord, G dominant seven, and then let's find the one chord. That's going to be built from the root. And we're going to build a stack of thirds using notes of C major scales. So every other note. Gives us this and what type of cord is this? That's right. That's a major seven chord.

So three different types of chord. Minor seven chord, dominant seven chord, and a major seven chord, and they're built from the two, the five, and the one of the scale. So that's why it's called a two, five, one. Now a very distinctive part of this two, five, one is the baseline, which sounds like this. You hear this pattern all of the time in jazz. It's the two going up a fourth to the five which goes down a fifth to the root.

Hear this all the time. So most of jazz is built of this major two, five, one chord progression and that's why most of the chord types that you see in a Real Book or on a lead sheet are going to be these three chord types. It's the minor seven chord, the dominant seven chord, and a major seven chord.

Now in Jazz, you don't always get the complete two, five, one. Sometimes you do, which is nice. You get all three chords. But sometimes the composer cuts the two, five, one short. So a good example would be Satin Doll.

Here we have a D minor seven going to the G dominant seven but you don't get the one chord, which would be C major seven. You just get two, five, two, five and then he modulates to a different key. We have a E minor seven chord going to an A dominant seven. What's well? Well, that's another two, five in which key? If E minor seven is the two chord, and A dominant seven is the five chord, then we're going to be in the key of D major. So this is another two, five.

And sometimes you get a five, one. So you don't always get the two chords. Sometimes you just get the five, one. An example would be Stomping at the Savoy.

We have a C dominant seven chord going down a fifth to an F major seven chord. Well, what's that? That's a five one progression in F major. But we don't have the two chord here which would be G minor seven because that's the two chord. We don't get the two chord. We just have the five, one.

And to end this section, let's talk about the minor two, five, one which is much less common than the major two, five, one. I would say that only about 10% of two, five, ones are the minor two, five, one. But let's demonstrate in C minor.

So the concept is the same. We're going to have three chords built from the two, the five, and the one. But instead of building from the major scale, we're going to build from the harmonic minor scale.

Normal minor scale up to the fifth. You have a minor sixth but then we have a major seventh. So really this is just a normal minor scale except it has a major seventh. And let's see what three chords we get. So let's find the two chord and build a stack of thirds upwards using the notes of C harmonic minor scale here. Going to do F, going to do A flat and C. And this introduces a new type of seventh chord, which we haven't looked at yet. And this is called the half diminished chord, although sometimes also called a minor seven chord flat five.

Now let's find the five chord This is the fifth, G. Let's build a stack of thirds using notes from C harmonic minor and we have that major seventh of the scale. Have a D natural and an F. And what type of chord is this? Well, this is the same dominant seventh chord that you get in the major two, five, ones. So nothings new new here. And finally, let's find the one chord. We going to get the minor third, natural fifth and then we're going to get that major seventh, B natural. And here we get another type of seventh chord, which we haven't looked at yet. This is called C minor major seven. C minor major seven.

Now you've heard the minor two, five, one in songs like Blue Basa.

That was a minor two, five, one in our key that we were already in of C Minor. D half diminished, G dominant seven, into C minor major seven.

And sometimes with the minor two, five, one, the one chord gets tweaked. It's not always played as a minor major seven chord. Sometimes the composer will write it as a minor seven chord. So we might do D half diminished, going to G dominant seven, going to C minor seven and this is done because it's just more of a casual sound. As a composer, you don't always want this sort of intense sound of this minor major seven chord. It's quite an intense chord. And sometimes composers will tweak it and make it a minor seven chord.

And finally for today, let's talk about scales. So as a jazz musician, it's essential that you know what scale to play from over any chord type. This is going to be useful if you're ever improvising or if you're composing a melody. Well, you need to know what scale to play from when you're playing any chord. So the first key principle is to make sure that the scale you use agrees on the chordal tones of the chord.

So if you have a C major seven chord, that means that your scale has to have a C an, an E, a G, and a B natural. And it's not going to work if you play E flat or any notes that disagree with these four chordal tones. So, if it's a major seven chord, root, third, fifth, and seventh. If it's a minor seven chord, same thing, but tweak them to this type of chord. And if it's a dominant seven chord, make sure you have your chordal tones.

Now, when it comes to the remaining notes. The two, four, and six, you actually have some freedom here. You can tweak them different ways and it will generally sound consonant over the chord as long as there's no clash with the chordal tones.

However, I'm going to share with you a good principle that you can follow, certainly as a beginner or an intermediate jazz pianist, and that says the chordal tone plus whole step principle.

This is just one method that you can use to choose which scale to play over any chord type. So let's say we have C major seven. You're going to start with the chordal tones. The root, the major third, the fifth and the major seventh. And then we're going to add a whole step to the root, third, and fifth. So C up a whole step gives us D. E up a whole step gives us F sharp, F sharp four, that's nice. And G up a whole step gives us A natural, a major sixth.

And we end up playing what's called C Lydian scale. So over the major seven chords we can use this principle. Whatever the chord is, this will always work well. If it's a minor seven chord, C minor seven, same thing. Chordal tones first and then we'll add a whole step to the root, third, and fifth. Gives us D natural, E flat up a whole step gives us F natural and G up a whole step gives us A. And that gives us C Dorian scale.

So, we can play the Dorian scale over minor seven chords. And last of all, let's look at the dominant seven chord. Chordal tones first. We have to have these in place to sound consonant. And then let's add a whole step to the root, third and fifth. Gives us D natural. E up a whole step gives us F sharp. The sharp four. And G up a whole step gives us A. We end up playing this very nice sophisticated scale that's cooled the Lydian dominant scale. This is C Lydian dominant scale. And that's a great scale to play over dominant seven chords.

So very briefly, that is a great principle which you can use. It generates complex scales, but it's very easy to understand and it works for just about any cord you'll ever encounter.

Free Resources

Get clarity on jazz piano chord symbols - V7sus4, Cm6, C/Db...

The Ultimate Chord Symbol Guide

7 Chord Progressions

7 Sweet Chord Progressions sheet music

5 Jazz Piano Endings

5 Jazz Piano Endings sheet music

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