Ready to spice up your piano practice? Learning jazz piano chords is a great way to explore new genres and styles on the keys. Here, Stillwater, OK teacher Chris F. shares a few tips to get started…
Jazz piano can be a fun but difficult thing to learn. The trick to becoming a great jazz pianist is mastering jazz piano chords. Here are four tips to get you playing jazz chords with ease:
1. Know your theory: In order to even think about jazz piano, your music theory has to be strong:
- Practice playing major seventh, dominant seventh, minor seventh, half and fully diminished seventh chords in root position across the keyboard.
- Practice major ii V I chord progressions (ii minor 7th, V dominant 7th, and I major 7th) and minor ii V i chord progressions (ii half diminished, V dominant 7th, and i minor 7th) in all 12 keys.
- Be aware of all the possible chord symbols: Major 7ths (Cmaj7, C△, CM7), Minor 7ths (Cmin7, C-7, Cm7), and half-diminished 7ths (Cmin7♭5, C∅). Luckily, dominant 7ths and fully diminished 7ths only are notated one way (G7 and G° respectively).
2. Know your voicings: The root position chords above are great to familiarize yourself with the notes, but don’t smoothly connect the harmonies.
To make these chord progressions smoother, move the least distance to the next chord.
Often with smooth voice leading, 7ths in one chord resolve to the 3rd of the next chord. There are many unique sounding jazz voicings to experiment with. Use your ear to be the judge. To experiment, here are some possible voicings to try out with both major and minor ii-V-I progressions.
3. Know your extensions: Chordal extensions are harmonies added to 7th chords that add texture, color, and a characteristic jazz sound. In fact, 7th chords are rarely played plain, but with one or more of these added notes.
As a general rule:
- Major 7ths, minor 7ths, and dominant 7ths often come with added 6ths and/or 9ths. A 9th is just a 2nd an octave up. The 7th is almost always included in any chord, regardless of what extension is being added. When a 6th is added to a dominant chord, it’s always added above the 7th, creating a “13th” interval. Thus, a 13 chord is a dominant 7th with a sixth added above the 7th (see below). Also note that a plain 9 chord indicates a dominant 7th with a 9th added.
- Dominant chords (plain 7th chords that often function as the V in a ii V I chord progression) sound great with many different extensions. In fact, the 5ths and 9ths of dominant chords can be raised or lowered, leading to many unique harmonic possibilities, including 7♭9, 7#9, 7♭5, 7#5, 7♭9#5, 7♭9♭5, 7#9♭5, and 7#9#5.
- Often, in jazz lead sheets and chord progressions, the dominant extensions above aren’t specified, but can be added to taste. This goes for the 6ths and 9ths in major and minor 7th chords. There are almost always extensions added to 7th chords. Many times the 5th is excluded from the voicing, especially if extensions are added. If it sounds appropriate in the progression and leads smoothly to the next chord, it’s probably a great choice.
4. Know how to practice: The easiest way to become familiar with these jazz piano chords is to practice ii-V-I progressions in every key. Another great resource is playing pre-written arrangements found in books such as Piano Stylings of the Great Standards (Vol. 1-6) by Edward Shanaphy or The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine. These books provide you with many great voicings that are clearly labeled. And of course, having a quality hard copy or digital “fake book” full of jazz standards, such as The Real Book by Hal Leonard, is a must for practicing your jazz voicings. Happy practicing!
Chris F. teaches guitar, piano, music theory, and more in Stillwater, OK. He has been active in collegiate percussion ensembles, marching and concert bands, various choirs, chamber music groups, jazz combos, an award winning jazz big band, bluegrass combos, drum and bugle corps, and private lessons on several instruments, as both a section leader and as a teacher. Learn more about Chris here!
Photo by Tom Marcello