How to practice chords to a jazz tune (for beginning jazz pianists)

When you learn a jazz tune on piano, how do you practice the chords? Do you learn them well enough to play the harmonic progression easily, without hesitation?

With most rock and pop music it’s a little easier. The chords are mostly triads and there are usually only a few chords per song (with some notable exceptions!). But the jazz harmonic progressions are usually fairly complex and to make matters more confusing, there are an infinite number of possibilities regarding extensions, alterations and voicings to take into consideration.

In short, there is a big learning curve at first. The good news is that even with jazz, a lot of tunes use the same underlying chordal patterns which you will learn to apply where needed. Also, we all have our own favorite chord voicings and note preferences which we can use again and again. So we don’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” either in jazz or in rock/pop music.

So how to begin?

Let’s say you’re learning Blue Bossa. The first thing to do is to simply play the chords with one hand. Cm, Fm, etc. Slowly and without hurry. No tempo yet. Just get used to the sounds and the shape of each chord as it lies under your fingers. When this becomes easy, play the chords while keeping a steady tempo in your mind, or while using a metronome or drum beat. (You can still just hold down the chords while keeping the beat mentally.)

Once this gets comfortable, start playing different rhythms against this underlying beat. If you’re new to jazz piano, this process may take a week or longer. But don’t worry, it will get easier and you’ll eventually see many of these same chords and patterns in other songs so you won’t need to spend this amount of time on each new tune. (Yes, jazz piano DOES get easier!)

It’s important that you go slowly and let each chord progression settle in. You may find it helpful to use a metronome and steadily increase the tempo, but don’t be too rigid about this. (It’s not like with technical exercises.) If you play Blue Bossa at a medium-slow tempo and really enjoy the process, I guarantee that after a while you’ll be able to play it faster, without even trying. Remember; music is fun! Experiment. Try it fast, Try it slow. Don’t get frustrated if you make mistakes. Everybody does. If a tempo is a little fast for you, just start over a little slower and speed it up again tomorrow or in a few days.

Once you know the chords in either hand separately, play the same voicings with both hands. I know…. all the jazz piano books say you have to learn complex 2-handed voicings right away, but I want you to ignore all that for a while. Just dive in! Play with 2 hands. Get the experience of playing chords with both hands and having fun with the rhythms of the music. This will help you learn the basic chords better. Then, when this becomes a little “too easy” for you, start learning how to distribute the notes over both of your hands. (I’ve seen far too many beginning jazz pianists get frustrated by dealing with complex voicings and theory too soon. Don’t worry; you’ll get to that when you’re ready. Like I said before, just “dive in,” and doing so will also give you the experience you’ll need to learn more theory when you’re able to process it.)

Chords do get easier, so don’t be in a hurry to play anything complex or fast at first. Remember, the more fun you have at the beginning, the farther you’ll eventually go!

If you want real, step-by-step help with learning jazz piano in a fun way, check out my video course. I’ll also give you personal guidance and instruction along the way!

2 thoughts on “How to practice chords to a jazz tune (for beginning jazz pianists)”

  1. This posting is a godsend because it addresses a specific problem that I am having and I believe that the problem is universal. To put it bluntly it is the realization of the extreme difficulty of learning to play piano but especially jazz piano.
    As I was practicing Blue Bossa coincidentally, I began to experience anxiety and frustration from the sheer magnitude of information one must have at his disposal. And furthermore, it has to be intuitive, you don’t have time to think.
    Please don’t tell me to practice more. Believe me when I tell you that I practice. I practice a lot! But no matter how much I practice after learning a song and proceeding to the next one the process begins again.
    I woodshedded triads for several months, first learning them by intervals. Maj min augmented diminished. Root position first inversion 2nd inversion.
    I learned them in the context of keys. Root position, First inversion, 2nd inversion.
    In chord progressions, I to IV I to V I IV V, I V IV, I vi IV V, etc etc ad infinitum ad nauseam.
    And the songs are never constructed of the things that you just spent months learning. I never feel like I know what I am doing even when someone says that I sound good.
    But this might be the most frustrating of all. You hear Joey Alexander an 11 y/o phenomenon who can seemingly play anything by anybody effortlessly. Chick Herbie McCoy and any and everyone in between.
    I guess that you just have to love it. And fortunately or unfortunately I do!

    • Yeah, you’ve really pinpointed the initial challenge with learning jazz, Will! It also helps a lot to use these chords in simpler, non-jazz music. That’s really what all the old-time greats did, too. They also played R & B and church music, at least when they were first starting out for a few years. Thelonious Monk, for instance, played for a traveling preacher, so he had a lot of practical improv and chording experience early on. It provided a foundation for the jazz to build upon.


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