How to Play Jazz Piano – A Beginners Guide

jazz piano lessonsAlright, so how do you really learn jazz piano?

Since I started this site I’ve received numerous emails from readers asking me the best way to learn how to play jazz piano and how to get started learning jazz as a beginner. Let’s first start with my jazz piano journey to give you an example…

My Jazz Piano Journey

For jazz beginners this beautiful style of music can seem intimidating and hard to tackle.

Don’t worry though. You’re not alone! I remember feeling the same way myself as a young musician while listening to great jazz musicians. I would sit in my basement and just listen over and over again to people like Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, and others. How did they play jazz like that??

I was so amazed by how they sounded but I had no idea what they were doing to get that magnificent sound. I constantly wondered where I could I even begin to sound like these guys?

Now, many years later as a pro musician I look back on those uncertain times and wish I had discovered a clearer direction when I started.

So, in order to help the beginner jazz piano students out on their own path to growth, I’d like to discuss some core components of what you need to begin to play this wonderful style of music.

Hopefully this will give you guys a more focused start on your journey of finally playing jazz piano. This is the starter guide/advice I wish I would have had as a newbie. Let’s get to learning!

Step 1: Learning Jazz Piano Standards – The Start

Being a beginner jazz musician is very similar to being a student learning a new language.  Every time you learn a new “word”, or in our case a new chord, lick, or a new scale,  it becomes a piece of vocabulary you can then use in a sentence.

Now, of course learning new “words” is important to any language but if you don’t know how to construct and speak a full sentence it will always be hard to communicate.

To continue with our metaphor, learning jazz tunes is the equivalent of us truly being able to speaking in sentences. Once you know tunes then you can apply any new musical idea you learn to jazz songs.

So, the first step should be to spend some time actually learning some jazz music. A good starter point for any new tune is to just start by learning the melody and the chord changes.

Jazz Tune Suggestions To Start With

You can start and learn jazz standards like Satin Doll, Blue Bossa, Misty, Autumn Leaves, All The Things You Are, or Fly Me To The Moon, etc.  If you need more ideas of beginning jazz tunes I would recommend you read this beginning jazz standards to learn article.

You should also check out this discussion of jazz fake books where we discuss some of the best fake books to learn from.

jazz-piano-lessons-onlineWe’ve also created an exciting course that teaches you how to play pro level jazz piano no matter what level you play at. We’ve got the sheet music, video breakdowns, song analysis for beginners, intermediate, and advanced players, jazz theory, jazz chords, jazz scales, jazz chord progressions, hits from the greatest jazz pianists, and oh so much more!

You can explore that course right here.

Step 2: Aural Tradition and How To Learn Jazz Vocabulary

We’ve discussed this before in our switching to jazz from classical article. The approach you take to play jazz piano is very different than classical. All the notes are written out in classical music. In jazz some of the notes are written out but a lot of the style of jazz music needs to be learned by ear and listening.

The true essence of playing jazz piano is transferred by listening and by mentorship. It’s very important that you invest your time into figuring out what you’re hearing.

How To Figure Out What You Hear

Spend time figuring out the things you love on your favorite recordings.

You don’t have to figure out a whole album of material you like.  You can start very simple. Just figure out 2-4 bars of something you really enjoy. In a perfect world this would be on a song or chord progression you are already are familiar with.

To help me study things more closely I like to use a music loop and slow down program called Transcribe. I use it on a daily basis and I find it very helpful to study faster or more detailed music at a slower and more manageable tempo.

Listen closely for things like note choices, articulation placement of rhythms, syncopation etc. This kind of stuff can be very different than classical. Especially when it comes to beat placement and where accents are played.

Should You Write Everything Down?

It’s not required that you notate everything you hear to play jazz. But, it’s important that you can at minimum play along with the recording in time. If it’s too fast for you to play along with at full speed use Transcribe to slow the recording down for you.

On a final note, please keep in mind that when you play jazz, rhythm and articulation take on a much greater significance. Never forget that. It’s not just the notes, it’s how you rhythmically play them. As Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t go that swing!”

Step 3: Jazz Piano Theory Concepts

It is also very useful to spend time learning more about jazz theory. Learn some common chord progressions. Even if you’re not a piano player knowledge of common chords will be very helpful. This is definitely part of core jazz piano basics and learning jazz theory.

Learn some fundamental jazz piano chords and some chord voicings. A good place to start with music theory would be these chord lessons on shell voicings, rootless minor voicings, rootless dominant voicings, or even a I-VI-II-V-I chord progression. You can even start by learning some solo piano chords.

By the way, one of the biggest mistakes that newbies make is to try to play jazz piano from a beginner book. This is a classic mistake and one that will cause a lot of pain and bad habits later.

You never hear of any great jazz pianists who learned how to play from a book.  It’s just not how the style is best learned. 

how to play jazz pianoIn my Zero To Jazz Piano Hero course we do have lots of sheet music to aid in the learning process. But, the real magic doesn’t come from sheet music, it happens from watching and listening through videos and fun exercises. When you’re having fun with a beginner jazz lesson, you’ll be that much more likely to continue studying with exciting motivation. After teaching hundreds of students privately in the Jazz Inner Circle Program, we know that motivation is huge for beginner jazz players and we want you to succeed as easily as possible. Many students think it takes years and years to learn jazz piano, but the truth is you can learn a lot in 60 days with the right teacher and the right methods.

Step 4: Start To Acquire Some Jazz Vocabulary

One of the best ways to really play jazz piano is to study the licks of master jazz musicians. Jazz is an improvisational art form. So, it’s essential that you learn to improvise over common chord progressions and famous jazz standards.

A good place to start is to learn a few II-V-I (2-5-1) licks. It’s the most common chord progression in jazz.

There are tons of licks from the jazz masters to learn as well. You could start with this Barry Harris lick, or this Bud Powell Lick, a Charlie Parker lick, a Red Garland lick, or even a Bill Evans lick.

Or maybe you want someone to show you step by step how to become better at improvising jazz piano?

We have a step by step course that shows you mind blowing jazz improv techniques. We feature great artists like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner and more. You can check out the jazz improvisation course here.

Here’s a sample video from the program.

Step 5: Building Your Own Jazz Improvisation

What do you once you learn some licks and chords? Make sure you spend time figuring out what makes each piece of vocabulary work. How are they built? What are the building blocks? What are the core components?

Get to the essence of each piece of vocabulary. Then, use them as a springboard for coming up with your own licks.

By coming up with your own vocabulary you’re essentially finding your own voice within the jazz tradition.

At its highest level jazz really is about personal expression.  So, analyze, understand, imitate, and then reinvent.

I always recommend you start to learn jazz improvisation by listening to the jazz piano legends like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson etc. etc.

If your musical ear isn’t great yet but want to learn how to play like them and up your jazz playing we have you covered. You can check out our step by step courses right here. We’ve got a great beginner jazz course and our Premium course which includes tons of video breakdowns of the best jazz chords, jazz theory, jazz music, ear training tips, jazz foundations, and so much more! It’s safe to say, you’re in for a treat. Welcome to jazz piano and enjoy the ride!


Now that you’ve made the great decision to learn jazz, what will you jump into 1st? If you’re already have some experience what will you learn next? Did you enjoy this intro to jazz piano? Please leave a comment below and let us know!

If you are new here please remember to subscribe to the free jazz lessons email list right below this article.  You’ll be receive all the latest and greatest jazz piano lessons right in your inbox. We look forward to helping you study and perform for many decades to come. Thanks for reading!


How To Learn Jazz Songs The Right Way

Today we’re going to talk about one of the biggest mistakes that beginner jazz piano players make when they learn jazz standards.

By the end of this short lesson you’ll know how to learn jazz songs on a much deeper level.

Let’s get started learning (video, notation, and tips below).

The Fake Book Dilemma

If you’ve recently sat down to learn a jazz standard you’ve most likely used a fakebook.

Fakebooks can be a useful tool in certain ways.

But, if you’re using a fake book as your ONLY tool for learning a tune you’re making a classic beginner mistake.

The problem is that most fake books are missing an incredible amount of information.

You’ll rarely see all the hip voicings, chord changes, reharms, and rhythms that you’ll hear pro level jazz musicians playing.

The stylistic stuff that actually makes a tune sound interesting just isn’t written in there!

Ugh. Who wants to play a boring version of a tune? Not I said the fly. 🙂

  • So, how can you start filling in the gaps that jazz fake books leave?
  • How can you actually start playing jazz songs the way they’re really meant to be played?
  • How can you really unlock some of the incredible sounds you hear your favorite jazz piano musicians play?

There is a solution…

Hearing Changes Everything

Jazz is ultimately an aural art form. Most of the jazz style is learned by listening to other great musicians and also watching what they do.

Since fake books really only tell a tiny portion of the story you want to make sure you’re not turning to them as your first step for learning.

autumn leaves piano tutorialYour real first step should be listening to a great example recording of a tune and studying what you hear.

Now, I’m not talking about having music on in the background while you do dishes or read the news on the internet.

No, I’m talking about a special type of listening.

The unique type of listening that pros do when they learn from recordings. 

Whether it be through listening to classic recordings, watching my jazz piano tutorials (Autumn Leaves), or studying with a teacher, you’ve got to get your ears involved in the process right from the beginning.

So much of the true richness of the jazz style will not be found in your fake book!

If you’re not confident in your ear yet. Don’t worry. I’m going to help you through the process of learning through your ear right now.

An Example Video Using Autumn Leaves

So, to help you understand this process of learning through listening lets look at an example chord chart and then a video demo.

Below I’ve included a typical bland and boring chart for the jazz tune “Autumn Leaves”. This is how it’s notated in the vast majority of fake books.

Check out how:

  • The melody is written with every note on the downbeat (no swing and groove).
  • The chords don’t have any sophistication written in there (no 9’s, 11’s, 13ths, etc).
  • There aren’t any comping rhythms written in.
  • There aren’t any arrangement tips.
  • No cool voicings suggestions in there either. Just basic chord symbols.

All you have is just a plain and vanilla reduction of the tune.

Then, compare it to the video below. (Feel free to grab some of the chords I teach in the tutorial too!)

autumn leaves chord chart jazz piano

Now, this time watch this video of me playing an arrangement of Autumn Leaves. 

(This video is a small excerpt from my Premium Jazz Lessons Membership Course.)

Notice how just by simply exercising your listening skill you start hearing all kinds of new possibilities on Autumn Leaves that you didn’t really hear before by just staring at the sheet music.

  • Can you hear what happened when I added syncopation to the melody? The swing feel increased significantly.
  • None of that rhythmic stuff is in the fake book.
  • Can you hear how adding 9’s, 11, 13ths, and other alterations made the chords sweeter and richer sounding? 
  • Unfortunately, none of that is written in the fakebook.
  • Can you hear how adding reharms and additional chord changes in there gave the tune more of a fuller sound?
  • Sadly, none of that is in the fakebook either.

All you did was watch a video 1x and the black and white ink on the fakebook chart came to life. 🙂

Just imagine what would happen if you took this listening/watching approach for now on all your tunes.

How much time would it save you? How much cooler would your arrangements of tunes sound?

14 Things To Listen For

So, how do you learn by listening to recordings or by watching videos? How can you extract important details you can add into your own playing?

Here’s a basic list of things I’m listening for when I check out a recording of a tune.

  1. How does the artist phrase the melody?
  2. Are they adding a lot of syncopation?
  3. Are they changing the rhythm of the melody?
  4. Do they play the melody legato, staccato, laid back, aggressive?
  5. Do they decorate the melody? If so, how (chromatic notes, change certain pitches, grace notes etc.)
  6. Are there any cool chord substitutions they’re using?
  7. What piano voicings are they playing?
  8. Are they staying true to the original chord changes?
  9. Are they adding any extensions to their chords?
  10. Are they playing small chord voicings or large chord voicings?
  11. How is the piano player or guitar player comping behind the melody?
  12. What kind of rhythmic feel are they using on the A section?
  13. Do they change the rhythmic feel on the B section?
  14. What range on their instrument are they playing the melody?

Most importantly, how does the performance differ from the fakebook?

When you can start answering these questions you can start unraveling the ‘mystery’ of what makes a beautiful jazz performance. 

You can then take those discoveries and add them into your own playing!

Your Next Steps Going Forward

Learning jazz piano through listening is a skill just like everything else. You can absolutely make a huge impact on your playing if you listen the right way though.

As a fun assignment I highly recommend you take a new tune and find an audio recording or  video recording you really enjoy. Take the list from above and really get into the recording.

Listen to the tune several times and take some notes on what you hear using the list as your guide.

Then, go ahead and sit down at the piano and try out some of the discoveries you make. I highly encourage you to copy the “listening list” from above and print it out. 

Always remember the more you put into this great art form the more it will give you in return. Enjoy your practice!

If you have any questions or have some more ideas you’d like to add to the listening list please feel free to leave a comment below. It’s always nice to hear from you!



P.S. If you need more help learning tunes and chords I encourage you to check out the over 16 hours of videos in my Premium Jazz Membership Course.

 photo above courtesy of fever blue on flickr


7 Tips For Playing Better Jazz Piano


World touring jazz pianist Steve Nixon’s tips for playing great jazz piano.

1) Your chords have to be 100% authentic in the jazz style

That means using chords that contain the prettiest notes. If you only play triads and basic chords you’re missing 99% of the style.

As far as jazz piano tips go this is a huge one!

You don’t want your playing to sound cheesy right? Great jazz chords must contain notes like the 7th, 9th, 11, and 13th. They should be balanced properly with the right note order too.

2) Learn the 7 most common chord progressions in jazz

learn jazzJazz is a style of music that features many of the same chord progressions over and over again.

Instead of looking at every chord individually it’s critical that you start seeing chords as patterns. This will set your playing free. That’s because these 7 jazz patterns are in 99% of jazz tunes. Learn them and watch your playing skyrocket.

In fact, the reason I can play piano jazz arrangements quickly and instantaneously is because I see everything as patterns.

3) You must learn how to take a great solo on every song you play

fly-me-to-the-moon-pianoJazz is a style that’s filled with improvisation. It’s at the very core of the genre of music. So, it’s expected that you know how to take a great solo on every tune.

4) You must use authentic swing rhythms in your playing

Jazz is a very rhythmic style of music. There are classic rhythms that every great jazz pianist uses in their playing. They’re syncopated and groove like crazy! If you play everything on the downbeat you’re missing a big part of this style.

5) You must substitute your own unique chords into every piano jazz song you play

If you want to avoid the pain of sounding like a total newbie you should absolutely be changing some of the chords in your songs.

Don’t sound like a million other wannabes. Be you! Audiences love it when you can insert unexpected and hip chords into your songs.

jazz exercises6) Memorize the patterns, chords and melody for every song

If you’re just playing off sheet music you’re missing 99% of this style of music. Playing stock arrangements off sheet music is not really playing jazz.

It’s the same thing as you reading someone else’s words and saying that they’re you’re own. Now, I understand that it’s not always easy for people to come up with their own piano jazz arrangements.

Fortunately, there is a fun course that teaches you how to build your own jazz arrangements. They sound fantastic and after going through the course you’ll be able to play piano jazz arrangements and songs like the pros.

7) Model the playing of proven jazz masters

fly me to the moon pianoI’m talking about people like Herbie Hancock,Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, Ray Charles, etc. There’s a reason why millions of people LOVE their playing. Success leaves clues.

People who succeed consistently are not lucky; they’re doing something different than anyone else. These legends have a playing strategy that works and if you follow the same proven strategy then you’ll reap the same rewards.

That’s why I always recommend people follow a system that teaches how to play the same classic chords, licks, songs, and rhythms that the legends use. If you want a big collection of thousands of my best piano tips and tricks, amazing insider tutorials, MIDI files, and more this is for you.

jazz piano lessons

Steve Nixon