Jazz Piano Lesson: Chords, Inversions and Voice Leading

Jazz piano can seem kind of “mysterious” or “magical” to the uninitiated or untrained, but once you know a few basic tricks, it’s easy to see how to create your own jazz piano arrangement using just a few standard techniques.

In this post, I’ll show you – in both video and text/picture form – how to get started making your own piano playing sound more… well… “jazzy.”

This is kind of a bonus lesson for my Jazz Piano… FAST! online/DVD video piano course (special Introductory Sale until 9/9/17 at Midnight), which you can learn more about here.

First, the video:

Roman Numeral Chord Progressions

In the video, I’m working with the I-vi-ii-V7 chord progression, which refers to a series of chords independent of any key. In this case, we’re working in the key of C, so we just need to translate those symbols to that key.

But what do they MEAN?

In the key of C, the C major scale is simply made up of all the white keys on the piano:

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

Let’s number those notes as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8

Now, if we play a C major chord in root position, we would play C-E-G, or 1-3-5. Since the root of this chord is the “1” note, and it’s a major chord, we’ll label this with a capital Roman numeral I.

If we then move each of those 3 notes up the C major scale one note, the next chord we get is D minor, or D-F-A. Since this chord’s root is the “2” note, and since it’s a minor chord, we’ll label this with a LOWERCASE Roman numeral ii.

Similarly, we get the following chords, moving up the C major scale:

I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii(dim)

There is no VIII chord – it’s the same as the I chord. Also notice that the vii(dim) chord is diminished, since the notes are B-D-F.

A very popular chord progression that’s been around forever is ii – V7 – I. The “V” (5) chord is normally played as a dominant 7th chord, FYI.

So, in the video, I’m working with the famous I – vi – ii – V7 progression, which you may know from “Heart and Soul,” that famous duet played by aspiring pianists of all ages. 🙂

It’s simply C – Am – Dm – G7.

In order to talk about our first technique for sounding better on the piano, we need to talk about…

Chord Inversions

A chord inversion is simply a chord that is played in something other than “root position.” Root position means the root of the chord is on the bottom (left-most on the piano keyboard).

So, a C major chord in root position is C-E-G.

If we move the C to the top of the chord as E-G-C, that’s called 1st inversion.

If we then move the E to the top, that’s called… you guessed… 2nd inversion. That would be G-C-E.

If we move G to the top, we’re back again to C-E-G, or root position.

Got it? Piece of cake, right?

Good “Voice Leading”

Next up, we need to talk about creating good “voice leading” – meaning that we don’t want the chords we play to jump around too much on the keyboard.

And we use chord inversions to accomplish that.

Ideally, we’d like the individual chord notes to move as little as possible from one chord to the next.

So, instead of playing this:

Good voice leading might have us play this instead:

Or maybe this:

Play those for yourself and notice the difference in sound. They should sound a bit smoother and less “disjoint” than the first version.

Adding 7ths to the Chords

Finally, we can begin to move towards that “jazzy” sound by changing major chords to major 7th chords and minor chords to minor 7th chords.

To create a major 7th chord, we simply add the note that is one half step below the root of the chord. So, C major – C-E-G – becomes C major 7th, written CM7, and played C-E-G-B.

To create a minor 7th chord, we add the note one WHOLE STEP below the root of the chord. So, A minor, written Am – A-C-E – becomes A minor 7th, written Am7, and played A-C-E-G.

For now, we’ll leave G7 alone, althought there are a few other things we can do with that one, too!

So, finally, our I-vi-ii-V7 progressions becomes IM7 – vi7 – ii7 – V7 and might be played like this:

And if we’re playing the chord roots in the left hand, we could even omit the root in the right-hand chords shown above.

Notice how beautifully the individual chord voices move on the keyboard, which I just noticed myself after creating this picture. I love it when artistic beauty expresses itself in multiple forms!

So, there are just a couple of steps you can use to start creating your own jazz piano arrangements.

For a lot more ideas and a more in-depth look at 3 classic jazz standards – “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Satin Doll” and “The Girl From Ipanema” – check out my Jazz Piano… FAST! online/DVD video piano course, which is on sale for a very special introductory price until Saturday, September 9th at Midnight!

Thanks for reading, watching and (hopefully) playing along!

How To Play Piano Chords That Sound Good

You may have learned how to play piano chords from a piano teacher, a music book you picked up, or even a YouTube video, but you probably learned the simple mechanics of playing chords – basic fingering, which notes go to which chords, and so on.

how to play piano chords

Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones, but I’m guessing that no one ever took the time to show you exactly how to play piano chords in a way that makes them sound REALLY GOOD.

If that’s the case, keep reading, because I’ve got some simple rules that will help you, along with a brand new chord resource I just finished putting together.

So, how to play piano chords so they sound “good”…

Although “beauty” in music – as in other art forms – is highly subjective, I believe there are some things you can do to make the piano chord you play sound really good, meaning better than the way most people usually play them.

Feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments – I think there’s no right or wrong answer, but check out these suggestions and see if they don’t help your piano chord playing, at least a little bit.

1. Whenever possible, when playing “close position” chords – meaning the chord tones are consecutive and not spread widely apart, like they are in open chord voicings – try to play the chords as close to middle C as possible. Once you start getting too much higher, the chords start to “thin out” in their sound. They still work for certain songs, but they just don’t have the depth that most often sounds good. If you got too much lower than middle C, the chords really start to sound muddy and thick. Which brings us to suggestion #2…

2. As you play chords lower and lower on the piano, it’s best to move one or more of the chord tones apart from the others. For example, if you play a C major tried one – or even two – octaves below middle C, it really sounds kind of awful. But, if you play a very low C in the bass, and play just the C and E an octave or two above that, it sounds pretty good. You can also play an open C major voicing on the C (root), then G (fifth), then the E above the G (the 10th, technically). This open voicing sounds really good in the left hand, and helps to “un-muddy” a plain old major triad.

3. Create open voicings for chords, where you move the chord tones apart from each other – maybe an octave or less. You might even use two hands to help pull the chord tones apart from each other and allow the chord overtones to react in such a way as to create “virtual” sounds between the notes. Wow, that’s kind of heavy stuff.

4. Here’s a chord rhythm suggestion for you – DON’T OVERDO THE CHORD RHYTHMS! Sometimes just a simple bass pattern with the occasional chord interjected is just fine – less is more. Don’t feel like you need to play the entire chord on every beat of the song, or even every time the chords change. Take it easy. Leave some space. Enjoy the silence between the notes.

5. Try a different inversion, even for basic piano chord triads. Sometimes the 1st or 2nd inversion sounds much better than the other inversions, and darned if I could tell you why. Remember, an inversion is when you play the chord with something other than the chord root on the bottom.

These are just a few quick pointers to help you improve the sound of your piano chords – try them out and let me know what you thing.

And, if you REALLY want to get your hands on what might be the last chord guide you’ll ever need, be sure to check out my super chord reference, Piano Chord Voicings… FAST!

I’m having a very special sale, but only until this Sunday, April 9th, 2017 at Midnight.

Click Here For All The Details About My 2-DVD/1-CD, PDF + Video piano course, Piano Chord Voicings… FAST!

Keep making beautiful music – preferably on the piano!