What is Smooth Jazz Piano? Answered

If you’re wondering “what is smooth jazz piano?”, you’ve come to the right place. This guide will demystify the genre and provide a step-by-step approach to mastering it. Whether you’re a novice or have some experience, we’ve got you covered.

What is Smooth Jazz Piano
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Overview of Smooth Jazz Piano

Smooth jazz piano is a subgenre of jazz that has its roots in traditional jazz but incorporates elements from R&B and pop music. Known for its relaxing tones and easy-listening appeal, smooth jazz piano focuses on melodic improvisation over complex chord changes. This genre became popular in the late 20th century and is often characterized by the use of electronic keyboards, drum machines, and an emphasis on melody and mood over intricate arrangements.

Here is an example of a smooth jazz piano performance…


The genre can be traced back to the fusion movement of the 1970s, where jazz musicians began incorporating elements from other genres like rock and soul. Smooth jazz piano evolved as a more listener-friendly version, appealing to a broader audience without compromising on the foundational elements of jazz.

Key Characteristics

Melody-Centric: Unlike more traditional jazz subgenres, smooth jazz places a stronger emphasis on melody.

Instrumentation: While the piano is central, you’ll often hear supporting instruments like saxophones or guitars.

Harmonic Simplicity: Generally, smooth jazz piano avoids extremely complex harmonies, aiming for a more accessible sound.

Getting Started

Embarking on your smooth jazz piano journey necessitates foundational knowledge and the right set of tools. Let’s elaborate on what you need:

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Get a Piano

A crucial first step is obtaining a quality piano or keyboard. Here’s a more nuanced look at your options:

Acoustic Pianos: These offer an unparalleled rich and organic sound, making them a preferred choice for many professionals. If you can afford it and have the space, an upright or grand piano is an excellent investment.

Digital Keyboards: These are more affordable and portable. Many come with pre-loaded jazz tones, and higher-end models can closely mimic the sound and feel of acoustic pianos.

Make sure to play a few models before making a decision. Each instrument has its unique touch and timbre.

Learn Basic Scales

Scales are the building blocks of all music genres, including jazz. In smooth jazz piano, you’ll commonly encounter the following scales:

Major Scales: Practice these scales in all 12 keys to gain a robust foundational understanding.

Minor Scales: Natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales also play a role in jazz. Again, practice them in various keys.

You can use apps or metronomes to keep time as you practice scales, gradually increasing the speed as you become more comfortable.


Gaining an auditory understanding of the genre is essential. The music of established smooth jazz pianists can serve as both inspiration and instruction. Create a playlist that includes legends like George Duke, Bob James, and Dave Grusin.

Active Listening: Don’t just listen passively. Try to pick out the chords, scales, and progressions used in their music.

Dissect Solos: Many apps slow down music, allowing you to dissect intricate solos, providing an understanding of the techniques used.

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Basic Techniques

With the groundwork laid, it’s time to delve into the basic techniques that define smooth jazz piano:

Chord Progressions

Understanding chord progressions is pivotal for anyone serious about mastering smooth jazz piano. These progressions provide the harmonic framework over which your melodic improvisations will flow. Two of the most common progressions you’ll encounter are the II-V-I and the I-IV-V. Let’s break each one down in greater detail.

II-V-I Progression

The II-V-I is arguably the most essential chord progression in the jazz genre, and it’s prevalent in smooth jazz as well. This progression features three main chords:

The II Chord: This is a minor 7 chord built on the second scale degree. For example, in the key of C, the II chord would be Dm7 (D-F-A-C).

The V Chord: This is a dominant 7 chord built on the fifth scale degree. In the key of C, this would be G7 (G-B-D-F).

The I Chord: This is a major 7 chord built on the first scale degree, serving as the resolution of the progression. In the key of C, this would be Cmaj7 (C-E-G-B).

How to Practice II-V-I

Understanding the Theory: Before sitting down at the piano, ensure you grasp the theoretical underpinning of the II-V-I progression. This means understanding how to construct minor 7, dominant 7, and major 7 chords.

In All Keys: Practice the II-V-I progression in all 12 keys. This will not only improve your dexterity but also your understanding of harmonic relationships across different keys.

Use a Metronome: As with practicing scales, a metronome can help you improve your timing as you play through the progression.

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Add Variations: Once you’re comfortable, try adding melodic variations or improvisations over the progression. You could start by arpeggiating the chords, then move on to integrating different scales or even altered dominant chords.

Listen and Analyze: Listen to how seasoned jazz musicians employ the II-V-I progression. This will give you a real-world sense of its application and inspire you to experiment on your own.


Improvisation is integral to jazz. Start with:

Melodic Ideas: Begin improvising by forming small melodic ideas or phrases over simple chord progressions.

Expand: As you grow comfortable, start integrating more complex scales and arpeggios into your improvisations.


Good jazz is about rhythmic nuance and timing.

Metronome Practice: Start slow, focusing on consistently hitting the beats. Then gradually increase the tempo.

Complex Rhythms: As you get comfortable, start incorporating triplets, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes to improve your rhythmic vocabulary.

Advanced Techniques

Once the basics feel like second nature, it’s time to deepen your skill set:

Modal Playing

Modal jazz is based on modes rather than chord progressions. Popular modes include Dorian and Mixolydian.

Dorian: Often used over minor 7 chords.

Mixolydian: Frequently used over dominant 7 chords.

Dynamic Range

A nuanced dynamic range can make your playing more expressive. Work on varying your volume during practices, keeping in mind the emotional content you aim to convey.


Syncopation adds a rhythmic complexity to your playing by emphasizing off-beats or weaker beats in a measure. One way to practice is to accentuate the “and” of each beat while keeping time with a metronome.

For more articles on piano questions, click here: Piano Questions: Your Ultimate Guide to Understanding All About Pianos

Conclusion: What is Smooth Jazz Piano?

Understanding smooth jazz piano can be a rewarding journey. With patience and consistent practice, you’ll find yourself playing smoother and more confidently. Keep honing your skills and don’t hesitate to seek further resources and guidance.

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