Beginner Jazz Piano – The Ultimate Getting Started Guide

beginner jazz pianoAre you a  beginner jazz piano player who needs advice on where to start?

You’re in the right place.

In this lesson today, we’re going to teach you the basics of what every aspiring jazz pianist must know to sound great playing jazz.

You’re going to explore 2 great songs to start your beginner jazz piano training.

Let’s go!

How Herbie Kickstarts Beginner Jazz Piano

learn jazz pianoIf you’re like me who started out with classical and rock, this is the first song you should learn.

It’s a tune called “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock.

Why start with Herbie Hancock?

Herbie wonderful playing style features elements of jazz, blues, gospel, rock, gospel, and classical music. ‘So, not matter your musical background you’ll find something delightful about Herbie’s style.

And his tune “Watermelon Man” is a perfect example of a tune that merges different styles.

Plus, it has a super fun melody, great rhythm, and great chords. So, lets dig into the tune now.

1. Why Listening Is The 1st Step

The 1st thing we want to do is listen to at least 2 versions of Watermelon Man here:

Now, why do you have to listen a song first?

This is because jazz is what we call and aural artform. Before you can play it, you need to have a mental picture of the song inside your mind.

Later, if you decide to look at a chord chart or a lead sheet you’ll be able to play the song with a lot more emotion and personality.

Remember, it’s always best to play what you can hear inside your mind.

Now that you’ve listened to Watermelon Man, learn its melody.

2. Beginner Jazz Piano Step 2: Learn The Melody

Here’s a lead sheet for “Watermelon Man”:

learn jazz piano

beginner jazz pianoLead sheets are often straightforward and simple transcriptions of a tune’s melody plus its chords.

Now, do you remember how those various versions of “Watermelon Man” sounded?

Interestingly, recorded performances never sound as square as what’s written on a lead sheet.

As a beginner jazz piano player, know that jazz is mostly an aural rather than a written musical tradition.

In many cases, rhythmic treatment of melody can vary a lot. However, it should still be:

  • “Tight” i.e. keeps up with the time of the tune with good subdivisions.
  • Recognizable. For example, it should still sound like “Watermelon Man”. Otherwise, there’s no song.
  • Expressive.

And so, here are the steps how to learn jazz piano melodies:

  • Listen to various recorded versions. Remember to listen well for accents.
  • Sing or hum the melody. This is one of the most traditional methods in beginner jazz piano training.
  • Learn how to play the melody with your right hand.

Now that you know how to figure out melodies, let’s talk about chords.

3. Learn Chord Voicings For Watermelon Man

beginner jazz pianoOne of the biggest aspects of jazz is harmony.

Therefore, beginner jazz piano training involves learning rich jazz chord voicings.

To start learning jazz chords, learn these important left hand chord voicings:

  1. Seventh chords – Examples of these are major 7ths, minor 7ths, and dominant 7ths.
  2. Shell voicings – Popularized by Bud Powell, shell voicings are just either a root and a 7th or a root and 3rd.
  3. Rootless voicings – Rootless voicings help you play richer voicings without getting in the way of a bass player. They are your usual chords with 7ths and extensions but without the root.
  4. Spread voicings – If you have a big enough hand span, these kind of voicings will sound awesome as block chords. If you have a small hand span, you can use spread voicings in arpeggios.
  5. Quartal harmony – chords built in 4ths. McCoy Tyner used quartal harmony a lot.
  6. Power chords – Simply the root and 5th of any chord. Another technique that McCoy Tyner used. He tends to switch between power chords and quartal chords with his left hand during solos and comping.

If you’re brand new to jazz chords we have a step by step course that will teach you every chord you need to know. Better yet, the course will teach you how to play songs you love in as little as 30-60 days. You can grab a copy of the program right here

After learning some of these chords voicings, learn the chord progression of Watermelon Man and add the melody.

Now, let’s look into playing the tune with both hands.

4. How To Put The Melody And Chords Together

beginner jazz piano

Now that you know the chords and the melody, here’s how you put it all together:

  1. Play the melody while playing block chords with the left hand. Simply play the chord once and hold it throughout its entire duration as indicated in the lead sheet.
  2. Learn the song this way bar by bar or phrase by phrase.
  3. Once you are able to play the entire song, explore various comping patterns using jazz rhythm. Learn specific patterns such as the Charleston rhythm, boogie woogie, and stride piano.

Play the tune along with a backing track that has great groove at a reasonable tempo

By doing this, you’re halfway towards learning jazz piano.

However, there’s more to it than just putting melody and comping patterns together.

5. How To Improvise Over The Chord Changes

beginner jazz piano

Another very important jazz component is improvisation.

In fact, it’s so important that there’s a Grammy award for the best recorded improvised jazz solo every year.

Improvisation is a serious deal.

To improvise for real over Watermelon Man, there are two approaches:

  1. Use chord tone soloing.
  2. The jazz scales approach.

In a nutshell, how do you do it?

How To Improvise With Chord Tones

Let’s say you are about to play over the C7 chord on bar 9. Here’s what you can do:

  • Use only the chord tones (C, E, G, and Bb) to come up with a melodic idea on the spot.
  • Create musical, nonlinear patterns out of the chord tones. For example, you can play | EC GE  BbG CG | in 8th notes.
  • From the last note your chord, target the nearest chord tone of the next chord. In this case, you have Bb7. Since your last note is G, you can easily target Ab (the b7 of the Bb7 chord).
  • Rinse and repeat for the other chords of the tune.

Check out this video of Steve teaching how to improvise using chord tones:

Before going to the use of scales, let’s look into the pro improviser’s aesthetic.

How Do Pros Approach Improvisation?

beginner jazz pianoHere are 5 things that pros do during improv:

  1. String musical ideas together to form a solo.
  2. Start with a simple idea and then gradually increase in complexity.
  3. Using pauses and rests are equally important (good phrasing).
  4. Only play ideas that you can hear in your head.
  5. Play ideas that are easy for you to execute instantly.

Keep this in mind and you’ll be able to improvise solos seemingly without effort.

Now let’s get into beginner jazz piano improvisation with scales.

How To Use Jazz Scales In Improvisation

Practically speaking, jazz scales are used as devices to connect one chord tone or one musical idea to the next.

Jazz scales can also provide some more musical ideas.

To get started with using scales in improv, learn the blues scale in this video by Steve:

There are tons of other jazz scales you can learn. Here are some important ones to learn:

Since we’ve explored scales at this point, this has to be said:

Scales sound great and all. However, they can easily sound stale.

Simply running scales up and down can easily sound just like an exercise if overdone.

Given that is the case, focus on targeting chord tones and using scales occasionally to connect ideas together.

Now it’s time for you to figure out how to go deeper.

How To Dig Even Deeper Into Jazz Improvisation

Start learning how to do these by listening to great improvisers like Oscar Peterson and Barry Harris.

learn jazz pianoIf you want a step by step proven formula to become a great improviser check out the Jazz Improvisation Super System.

Inside the Jazz Improvisation Super System, you’ll discover how the best players really use scales to create beautiful melodies & improvisation.

Get instant access to the Jazz Improvisation Super System here.

Now that you’ve gone through Watermelon Man, let’s check out another song.

How Fly Me To The Moon Helps You Learn Jazz Piano

Here’s a video of Steve teaching how to play “Fly Me To The Moon”:

“Fly Me To The Moon” is one of the best jazz standards to start out with because:

  • First, you’ll learn the most important chord progression in jazz (other than the blues chord progression): the 2-5-1.
  • Second, you’ll go through a circle chord progression i.e. you get to encounter all of the chords in a given key.
  • Third, the song does not change keys halfway through so it’s easy to learn.
  • Subsequently, the melody is really memorable.
  • Lastly, it’s one of the most recognizable tunes in the jazz canon. It something that most of your listeners will dig into.

How To Learn Fly Me To The Moon

When tackling how to learn “Fly Me To The Moon”, you’ll follow the same 5 steps earlier:

  1. Listen to various versions of the tune repeatedly.
  2. Learn the melody.
  3. Learn the chords.
  4. Put the melody and chords together.
  5. Improvise over the chord changes.

Now that you know how to learn jazz piano tunes, it’s time for you to move a level higher.

The Best Way To Transition Into Jazz

It’s not a stretch of the imagination that you find jazz piano to be one tough cookie.

Otherwise, you would not have stumbled on this article.

Perhaps you tried some tutorials on Instagram and YouTube, only to find yourself more frustrated than ever before.

It’s a good thing that you’re here though.

If you’ve read all this way through, you’ve done your first step and you’re ready for more

To take your beginner jazz piano training to the next level, check out Zero To Jazz Piano Hero.

Inside Zero To Jazz Piano Hero, you’ll discover:

  • A step-by-step method to go from zero to playing the songs you love in 30 to 60 days.
  • How to unlock amazing chord progression formulas that you’ll find in hundreds of classic jazz songs.
  • Piano Technique Secrets To Get Your Fingers Flying Across The Keyboard With Ease
  • And more.

Get instant access to Zero To Jazz Piano Hero here.

I hope you all enjoyed that lesson enough to get you started on your jazz journey.

Feel free to ask a question or leave a comment below.

Happy practicing.

Posted in

Mark A. Galang, OTRP, MAM-MT(c)

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music. Mark is also a licensed occupational therapist in the Philippines that combines music therapy intervention with occupational therapy.