10 Essential Tips for Playing Jazz Piano: A Beginner's Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 11 min read


  1. Listen to jazz music
  2. Learn the blues scale
  3. Practice swing rhythm
  4. Study jazz chords
  5. Master the 2-5-1 progression
  6. Explore jazz improvisation
  7. Transpose your favorite jazz songs
  8. Learn jazz standards
  9. Practice with a metronome
  10. Play with other musicians

Playing jazz piano is a journey filled with rhythm, emotion, and unique sound combinations. It's not as daunting as it may seem. If you've been wondering how to play piano for jazz, here are ten simple and practical tips to get you started. These tips will give you a solid footing and help to enhance your jazz piano skills. So, let's dive right in, shall we?

Listen to Jazz Music

The first step in learning how to play piano for jazz is to immerse yourself in jazz music. By regularly listening to jazz, you get to understand its unique rhythm, its signature improvisation, and its rich harmonies. It's like learning a new language—the more you listen, the more fluent you become.

Here are a few practical ways you can immerse yourself in the world of jazz:

  • Listen to Jazz Radio Stations: There are numerous online jazz radio stations available for free. Tune in to these stations and let the sound of jazz fill your surroundings. Some popular jazz radio stations include WBGO, WWOZ, and Jazz24.
  • Explore Jazz Albums: Get your hands on some classic jazz albums. Listen to legendary jazz pianists like Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Peterson. Their music will give you insights into the diversity and depth of jazz piano.
  • Attend Jazz Concerts: If possible, go to jazz concerts. Live performances offer a different experience altogether—you can see the musicians, observe their techniques, and feel the energy of jazz music in its purest form.

Remember, the goal is not just to listen, but to absorb. Pay attention to the melodies, harmonies, the rhythm—how they intertwine to create the unique sound that is jazz. This will not only enrich your understanding of jazz music but also inspire you as you learn how to play piano for jazz.

Learn the Blues Scale

If there's one thing that gives jazz its distinct flavor, it's the blues scale. It's the heart and soul of jazz music. So, for anyone asking how to play piano for jazz, mastering the blues scale is a must.

The blues scale is a six-note scale. It's like your regular major scale, but with a few twists. The blues scale includes the 1st, flattened 3rd, 4th, flattened 5th, 5th, and flattened 7th degrees of a major scale. In the key of C, for instance, the blues scale would be C, Eb, F, Gb, G, and Bb. Sounds a bit complicated, right? But don't worry—with a bit of practice, you'll get the hang of it.

Here are some ways to master the blues scale:

  • Start Slow: When first starting out, play the scale slowly. This helps solidify the scale in your muscle memory. You can gradually increase the speed as you get comfortable.
  • Use Both Hands: Practice the blues scale with both your right and left hand. This will help you develop coordination and dexterity, which are vital for jazz piano.
  • Practice Regularly: Like anything worth doing, mastering the blues scale requires regular practice. Make it a part of your daily piano routine. The more you play, the more familiar you'll become with the scale.

Remember, the blues scale is not just for playing the blues—you can use it in a variety of jazz tunes. It provides a strong harmonic foundation and adds that unmistakable jazz flavor to your playing. So, if you're serious about learning how to play piano for jazz, give the blues scale the attention it deserves.

Practice Swing Rhythm

Once you've gotten the hang of the blues scale, the next step on your journey to learn how to play piano for jazz is mastering the swing rhythm. If blues scale is the soul of jazz, swing rhythm is its heartbeat. It's what makes your toes tap and your fingers snap when you hear a jazz tune.

Swing rhythm is all about the eighth notes. In a regular rhythm, eighth notes are evenly spaced. But in swing rhythm, the first note is longer and the second one is shorter. This irregular rhythm gives jazz its unique groove and feel.

Here are a few tips to help you master swing rhythm:

  • Listen to Jazz Music: The best way to understand swing rhythm is to listen to a lot of jazz music. Notice how the rhythm swings and bounces? That's what you're aiming for.
  • Use a Metronome: A metronome can be a great tool to help you get the swing rhythm right. Set the metronome to a slow tempo and practice playing eighth notes in a swing rhythm.
  • Count Out Loud: Counting out loud as you play can help you keep the swing rhythm. Say "one and two and three and four" and so on, and make sure the "and" falls on the shorter, swung note.

Swing rhythm might feel a bit strange when you first start out, especially if you're used to playing in a regular rhythm. But stick with it. With a bit of practice, you'll be swinging like a jazz pro in no time.

Study Jazz Chords

Now that you're getting a feel for the swing rhythm, let's turn our attention to another key aspect of learning how to play piano for jazz: jazz chords. Jazz is known for its rich and colorful chords, and mastering these can really give your playing that authentic jazz sound.

Jazz chords are often more complex than the basic major and minor chords you might be used to. They often include added notes like sevenths, ninths, and elevenths, and can be altered in various ways to create different sounds and moods. But don't let that intimidate you. Here's how you can approach them:

  • Start with 7th Chords: Seventh chords are the backbone of jazz harmony. They are made up of a root, third, fifth, and seventh. They come in different flavors, like major, minor, and dominant, each with a different sound and function in a chord progression.
  • Learn Jazz Chord Voicings: In jazz, you don't always play chords with the notes in root position. Jazz pianists often rearrange the notes, or even leave some out, to create different voicings. These can help your chords sound more jazzy and less blocky.
  • Practice Chord Progressions: Jazz music often uses specific chord progressions, like the 2-5-1 progression, which we'll talk about later. Practice these progressions in different keys to get a feel for how jazz chords move and flow.

Studying jazz chords might sound like a big task, but remember, even the greatest jazz pianists started where you are now. Take it one chord at a time, and before you know it, you'll be playing those rich, colorful jazz chords like a pro.

Master the 2-5-1 Progression

After getting a grip on jazz chords, it's time to level up your skills on how to play piano for jazz by mastering the 2-5-1 progression. This progression is the most common chord sequence in jazz, and you'll find it in countless jazz standards.

But what does 2-5-1 mean? It's actually quite simple. If you take any major scale, the 2nd, 5th, and 1st notes of that scale form the 2-5-1 progression. In the key of C Major, for example, the 2nd note is D, the 5th note is G, and the 1st note is C. So, a 2-5-1 progression in C Major would be Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7.

Why is this progression so popular? It's all about tension and resolution. The 2-5 part creates a feeling of tension, and the 1 chord resolves that tension, creating a satisfying sense of homecoming. Here are some tips to master it:

  • Practice in All 12 Keys: To really get this progression under your fingers, practice it in all 12 major keys. This will not only help you understand the progression better but also improve your general keyboard skills.
  • Use Different Voicings: Just like with jazz chords, try using different voicings for the chords in the 2-5-1 progression. This will make your playing sound more sophisticated and jazzy.
  • Play Along with Jazz Standards: Many jazz standards feature the 2-5-1 progression. Playing along with these songs can help you hear how the progression sounds in context and improve your ability to play it smoothly.

If you want to know how to play piano for jazz, mastering the 2-5-1 progression is a must. It's a simple sequence, but it's also incredibly versatile and forms the foundation for much of jazz harmony. So, get to practice, and soon you'll be swinging with the best of them.

Explore Jazz Improvisation

When it comes to jazz, it's all about improvisation. If you've ever wondered how to play piano for jazz, you've probably thought about how jazz musicians seem to pull beautiful melodies out of thin air. Well, it's not magic—it's improvisation, and it's a skill you can learn too!

Improvisation is all about spontaneous creation. It's about taking the musical structures you know, like scales, chords, and progressions, and using them to create your own melodies on the spot. Here are a few tips to get you started with jazz improvisation:

  • Start with the Blues: The blues is a great place to start with improvisation. Its simple structure and emotional depth make it a perfect playground for new improvisers. Try playing a 12-bar blues progression and improvising melodies over it using the blues scale.
  • Learn Licks: Licks are short, reusable musical phrases that you can use in your solos. You can learn licks from your favorite jazz recordings, or you can make up your own. Try to build a library of licks that you can pull out whenever you need them.
  • Practice Improvising Over Chord Changes: One of the challenges of jazz improvisation is creating melodies that fit over changing chord progressions. Practice improvising over the 2-5-1 progression you've just learned, making sure your melodies outline the chords.

Remember, improvisation is a skill that takes time to develop, so be patient with yourself. It's not about playing perfectly—it's about expressing yourself and having fun. So, go ahead, explore jazz improvisation, and see where your creativity takes you. Who knows? You might just create the next great jazz melody!

Transpose Your Favorite Jazz Songs

If you're wondering how to play piano for jazz, one of the best ways to learn is by transposing your favorite jazz songs. Transposing is the process of changing the key of a song. It might sound like a tough task, but it's an excellent way to deepen your understanding of music theory and get a feel for how jazz songs are structured.

So, where do you start? Here's a simple guide:

  1. Pick a Song: Start by picking one of your favorite jazz songs. It could be anything from a classic standard like "Autumn Leaves" to a modern hit like Norah Jones's "Don't Know Why".
  2. Learn the Original Key: Learn to play the song in its original key first. This will give you a solid foundation and help you understand the song's structure.
  3. Choose a New Key: Now, choose a new key for the song. If the original key is C major, you might try transposing it to G major or F major. The goal is to challenge yourself, but not to the point of frustration.
  4. Transpose the Chords: Next, transpose all the chords in the song to the new key. This might take some time, especially if you're new to music theory, but stick with it—it's worth it.
  5. Practice the Transposed Song: Once you've transposed all the chords, practice playing the song in the new key. At first, it might feel strange, but with time, it will become second nature.

Transposing is a powerful tool for any musician, but it's especially useful when learning how to play piano for jazz. It encourages you to think deeply about music theory, trains your ear, and helps you become a more versatile musician. Plus, it’s a great way to impress your friends at your next jam session!

Learn Jazz Standards

Another key step in understanding how to play piano for jazz is getting familiar with jazz standards. These are the songs that have defined the genre over the years. They're the ones you'll hear in jazz clubs around the world and the ones other musicians will expect you to know.

But what exactly is a jazz standard? It's a musical composition that is an important part of the jazz musician's repertoire. Jazz standards are musical compositions that are widely known, performed, and recorded by jazz artists as part of the genre's musical repertoire. So, how do you go about learning them?

  1. Listen: Start by listening to a lot of jazz standards. This will give you a sense of their common rhythms, chord progressions, and melodies. Some popular options include "Take the 'A' Train", "Blue in Green", and "Summertime".
  2. Choose a Standard: Next, choose one standard to focus on. It's better to fully understand one song than to vaguely know a dozen.
  3. Study the Sheet Music: Get a copy of the sheet music and spend time studying it. Look at the chord progressions, the melody, and the structure of the song.
  4. Learn to Play It: Now it's time to start playing. Start slow, focusing on getting the chords and melody right.
  5. Play Along With a Recording: Once you're comfortable with the song, try playing along with a recording. This will help you get a feel for how it should sound and will improve your timing.

Learning jazz standards is a journey, but it's a rewarding one. You'll gain a deeper understanding of jazz music, improve your playing skills, and expand your musical repertoire. Plus, you'll be able to join in at jam sessions and impress your fellow jazz enthusiasts with your knowledge! So, what are you waiting for? Dive into the rich world of jazz standards and start exploring!

Practice with a Metronome

Do you want to know a secret about how to play piano for jazz with impeccable timing? It's simple—practice with a metronome! A metronome is a device that helps keep a steady tempo while you're playing. It might seem somewhat mechanical, but it's a fantastic tool to help you keep time, especially when you're just starting out.

So why is practicing with a metronome so important in jazz piano? Let's break it down:

  • Consistent Tempo: Jazz is all about rhythm and timing. A metronome helps you maintain a consistent tempo, which is vital when you're playing jazz piano. Without it, you might unknowingly speed up or slow down, disrupting the flow of the music.
  • Improves Timing: Practicing with a metronome can help you develop a strong sense of timing. This is important not just for solo playing, but also when you're playing with other musicians. It helps you all stay in sync.
  • Develops Discipline: It takes discipline to stick with the metronome's tempo, especially when you're itching to speed up. This discipline can help improve your overall piano playing skills.

When you first start practicing with a metronome, set it to a slow tempo. This allows you to focus on playing the notes accurately. As you get more comfortable, gradually increase the tempo. Remember, the goal isn't to play fast—it's to play well.

And don't worry, practicing with a metronome won't make your playing sound robotic. Instead, it will give you a solid rhythmic foundation that you can then use to inject your own personality and style into your playing. So, if you want to know how to play piano for jazz with rock-solid timing, get a metronome, and start practicing!

Play with Other Musicians

Now that you've got some jazz piano basics under your belt, it's time to take your skills to the next level. And there's no better way to do that than by playing with other musicians. After all, jazz is a collaborative art form, and playing with others can give you a fresh perspective on how to play piano for jazz.

So why should you start jamming with other musicians? Here are three good reasons:

  • Improves Listening Skills: Playing with others isn't just about showcasing your own skills. It's also about listening and responding to what the other musicians are doing. This can help you develop your ear and improve your ability to improvise.
  • Provides Feedback: When you play with other musicians, they can give you valuable feedback on your playing. They might notice things that you've overlooked, like a certain chord that's not quite right, or a rhythm pattern that could use a little tweaking.
  • Boosts Confidence: Playing in a group can be a real confidence booster. It can be nerve-wracking at first, but once you get the hang of it, you'll find that playing with others can be a lot of fun and very rewarding.

Start by finding local musicians who are also into jazz. You can look for jam sessions in your area or even start your own. Don't worry if you're not a jazz virtuoso yet—most musicians are happy to play with beginners and can often provide helpful tips and advice.

So go ahead, grab your sheet music, sit down at the piano, and start making music with others. It's one of the best ways to learn how to play piano for jazz, and it's a whole lot of fun too!

If you're eager to improve your jazz piano skills and want to take your playing to the next level, check out the workshop 'How to Get Better at What You Do - Go from Good to Great!' by Debbie Knox-Hewson. This workshop will provide you with valuable insights and techniques to enhance your overall musicianship, helping you become a more confident and skilled jazz pianist.