7 Step Guide to Learn Jazz Piano

Want to learn how to play jazz piano?

Great news — it’s not as hard as you may think.

In fact, if you follow this simple and organic approach, you’ll be swingin’ on a simple blues tune in no time.

1) Listen

You’re learning a language, so the more you listen, the easier it is to start “speaking” the language.

I recommend focusing on a few great tracks at first, listening repeatedly to the point that you can sing along with the action. (Don’t worry about the quality of your voice, this is just for you to start ‘hearing’ the music.)

The important thing is to find tracks you love ’cause you’ll be listening to them over and over. Here’s a few recommendations:

“Freedie Freeloader” from Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue — This is a classic trackfrom a classic album. Pay close attention to Wynton Kelly’s fantastic solo — this will give you a great reference for the “swing” feel at a nice, medium tempo.

“Autumn Leaves” from Oscar Peterson’s Eloquence — O.P. played and recorded this essential jazz standard many times, but this version is one of my favorites. It captures the trio live in concert, outdoors, and swinging hard.

There’s lots of great lists out there if you need ideas for great jazz piano albums to check out, like this one: 7 Essential Jazz Piano Albums.

2) Learn a Blues with Shell Voicings

We’ll start with a C blues.

A basic blues is 12 bars (measures), with 3 chords — the 1, 4 & 5 (C, F and G):

Blues Math

Root + Shell

They’re all dominant 7 chords, and you can cover them with 1 note in the left hand (the “root”, so either C, F or G) and 2 notes in the right hand (the “shell” which is the 3rd and dominant 7th).

gettin’ the blues goin’ with root + shell

Now you can start playing the blues by putting the root + shell’s into the blues form:

Blues Chord Roadmap

  • 4 bars of C7
  • 2 bars of F7
  • 2 bars of C7
  • 1 bar of G7
  • 1 bar of F7
  • 2 bars of C7

Here’s some high-level C blues playing, but you’re actually ready to play along with Oscar Peterson with your 3 root + shell’s — just start with the trio in this video from 2:37 up until 3:04. That’s 2 choruses of the blues, 12 bars (measures) each chorus for a total of 24 bars.

Play your shell chord for a whole note in each bar according to the above chord roadmap (you’ll start with 4 C7 chords, one every 4 beats.)

Once you get a hang of that, see if you can add some other rhythms to your chords. Here’s a rhythmic idea yo can use over any of the chords at anytime that sounds good to you:

basic, but if you play it in time with confidence, it will sound slick

3) Learn the Blues Scale

There are lots of scales to learn to play advanced jazz piano, but no need to be overwhelmed as you begin your journey. You can actually sound pretty darn good with just this 1 blues scale, AND you only need learn it in C:

basic Bob blues scale

That’s a great one to start with, but add just 1 note (the major 3rd) and you’ve got a better option, the “secret edition” Blues scale:

ahhh yeah, now we doin’ it

The most important thing about the blues scale is that you only use 1 scale for the entire form of the blues (the C blues scale in this instance). Lot’s of folks use a different blues scale for every chord, but that sounds whack, so please avoid that:

4) Learn “C Jam Blues”

This is a great Duke Ellington jazz standard, and it’s a 12 bar blues, with an additional 4 bar solo break. The melody is simple, swinging, and fun to play, so learn it with that in mind.

Here’s a great Louis Armstrong version. See if you can learn the melody by listening and imitating (hint: the melody consists of just 2 notes: G and C).

If you can learn that melody without looking at the sheet music, you’ll be doing the exact kind of ear trianing that is needed to develop as a jazz player. It may take a little longer than reading the music, but you’ll be developing that all important skill for jazz: great ears.

Other methods may push you to read charts and music, I want you to instead concentrate on playing and imitating — it will be easier for you to learn the phrasing and articulations needed to “swing” right from the start as that stuff is impossible to notate on paper. PLUS, as an added bonus, you’ll already have the tune memorized once you finish learning it!


5) Learn the “Jazz Arpeggio”

Arepggios are different in jazz than what you may have learned.

A traditional C arpeggio looks like this:

old school ‘peggio

But in jazz, we use this:

dominant 7th arpeggio

Or even this, going up to the 9th:
don’t be afraid of the 9th!

You can play around with breaking up these “jazz arpeggios” to give you the beginnings of the melodic nuggets you’ll use for improvising.

Here’s an example you can try, incorporating the Jazz Arpeggio over C dominant 7th (C7):

And here’s an example improv along the same lines over the whole C blues:

6) Combine The Jazz Arpeggio & The Blues Scale

Now you’re gonna start to put the blues scale and the jazz apreggio together for the foundation of your melodic ideas for improvisation. How you do this is up to you, and that’s where the fun comes in.

Here’s an example to get you started:

example improv w/blues scale & arpeggios

Remember, you only use the C blues scale, no matter what chord you’re on in the blues. But for the arpeggios, use the one that fits the chord at that time:

7) Put It All Together

Now try a whole version of C Jam Blues:

  1. Melody 2 times (12 bars each chorus)
  2. Solo a few choruses (1 chorus = 12 bars of blues form)
  3. Melody out 1 time

Optional: you can insert the 4 bar solo break over C7 at the beginning of your solo as in the Oscar Peterson version above (like at 3:04→3:09, 3:22→3:26 and others).

Here’s an example of what you can play for the melody choruses. There are many variations, so just use this as a point of departure to start your own style on the blues:

You’ll notice that I’ve put the root+shell together in the left hand in the above example, with a few different ideas for implementing them. There’s many more you’ll discover, and if you can reach a 10th you’ll have some interesting options with root-7th-3rd together (you can also roll those, no problem!)

These 7 steps will get you going on your jazz piano journey. With some focused practice, you’ll be able to swing your way through a few choruses of C blues in no time.

And don’t forget step #1- LISTEN — that’s the most important one, and it’s also the most enjoyable. There’s so much great recorded jazz, and more of it’s easily accessible than ever before.

As you get comfortable playing over the blues, continue to play along with the above tracks, in addition to other ones you discover. That’s you best resource for refining your jazz feel.

Have fun, and congrats on your newly crowned Jazz Pianist status!

Peter Martin


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