by Gjermund Sivertsen
Jazz Piano lesson - Four Hats

As jazz pianists we need to wear four hats. We need to be able to context switch between four roles as we play. These are: 1. The solo jazz pianist. 2. The duo jazz pianist. 3. The band jazz pianist. 4. The trio jazz pianist

This is my video from YouTube on how to wear all the four hats:

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Since you’re reading this, you probably want to play jazz piano. Did you know that all jazz pianists train themselves to wear four different hats? In other words: As a jazz pianist, you should practice wearing four hats so that you’re able to play in the four most commonly known contexts for jazz pianists.


When you’re playing any standard tune from the real book, you should be able to play as if you are wearing all the four hats, one by one.

Again, what this means is that you should be able to play as if you are:

1. Playing solo piano

2. Playing together with another solo-instrumentalist

3. Playing with a band (where you don’t have to play the melody, and bass/drums are a part of the group)

4. Playing in a trio (Piano, bass, and drums)

Note: When using the word hat, I mean role. You need to be able to take on different parts as a jazz pianist and manage to switch between them.

Also note: When writing this summary, I have conventional jazz in mind. The example used for the video was a ballad. Most ideas presented here will also apply to a swing tune or an up-tempo tune.

You need to develop some skills to master all the roles, but let me break down the four roles one by one:


The first hat you need to wear is the hat of the SOLO jazz pianist.

In the past, I’ve spoken about the importance of getting to know the four core-elements of jazz (and of music in general). These are melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics.

When you’re playing solo jazz piano, you have to take care of all the four core-elements.

In other words: You have to present the melody, play the chords, and make sure to keep the time.

The melody.

When you’re playing alone on a tune such as Ystim, then you should be aware of how to present the melody the best way as possible. There is no one-way-fits-all way to do this, but here are my thoughts:

  1. Present the theme with clarity and make it calm (since it is a ballad)
  2. Since you’re playing it solo, you can do what you want with it. I like to play rubato when I present the melody and play in time when I’m playing a piano-solo over the chord changes.
  3. If the tune is very known, then you can disguise the melody. If not, try to play it straight-forward.

The harmony (solo jazz piano)

Here are my tips for improving the way you play harmony, when you’re playing alone:

  1. Play the bass almost all of the time. By bass, I mean root-note.
  2. Vary the range you play in. Don’t make it dark all the way, and don’t make it bright all the way.
  3. Vary the voicings you play. I usually switch between playing A/B voicings, scale voicings, 10ths with my left hand, and upperstructure voicings. What all of these means is a long story that I don’t have the time to go through in this short article, but I teach them all with many exercises throughout the Jazz Piano Step-by-Step Course.

The rhythm and dynamics (jazz piano alone)

As I said above: When I play solo jazz piano (alone), then I like to present the melody rubato. When I then play a piano-solo, I want to keep it more in-time. The dynamics vary from pp to mezzo forte, usually on ballads, and louder on medium swing tunes. In the example from the video, I played mostly around mezzo piano.

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How to play the pianosolo when you play alone:

When you play a ballad, and you want to invent a new melody on the spot, you’re playing a piano solo. It can be confusing to speak about playing a piano solo and playing solo piano. Those are two different things, so I hope you’re with me. Now we’ll talk about how to play a piano solo when we’re playing solo piano in a ballad.

What I like to do when I’m playing a piano solo alone in a ballad is to play in time.

Then, I’m playing the chord changes with my left hand. Usually, I play 10ths in combination with slow-stride piano.

I try to keep the harmony simple and the rhythm steady. I also like to vary the inversions of the chords I play. For example, I could play a simple C7 chord as C-E-Bb. The next time I play the chord, I would play an E-Bb-C. I am changing the inversion of the chord slightly.

Another thing that you can do is to keep the rhythm steady by playing just the top note of the chord with your thumb. Keith Jarrett does this a lot when he plays ballads.

On top of that, I usually play some slow-stride piano when I play a piano solo and am playing by myself. Also, you can play walking 10th if you can reach the 10th.

With your right hand: Try to play an improvisation that sounds like you’reactually saying something and not just pouring out random notes that you think will fit. It is easier said than done, but it can be achieved by focus and training over time. I have helped many students progress in this matter. The great thing when it comes to the piano solo is that you will never be completely done. You can always gain more wisdom, so what you play will be more authentic. To achieve this, you’ve got to go through many processes that are not related to music at all. That’s a long story for another time.

Let’s have a look at how you’d play if you were playing together with a saxophone or a singer.
(If you’re a student of mine, you can play through the syncope-exercise that you can find in the bonus section)


The DUO hat is the hat you would wear if you play together with another person that plays a solo-instrument. By solo instrument, I mean one-note instrument (usually a melodic instrument), for example, a singer, a saxophone, a trumpet or a violin (Even, technically, you can play on multiple strings on a violin).

If you play with a Bass player, you will perform differently. Also, if you’re playing together with a guitarist, you’d play different (unless the guitarist plays solo lines only).

When you play with another solo-instrumentalist, you don’t need to play the melody (usually). The rest, you need to take care of. You have to play the chords, keep a steady beat, and usually, you will have to play an intro.

Also, in most cases, you have to play a piano solo too. Then you’re usually alone, and you won’t get help for the soloist (in most circumstances). Let’s speak about the piano solo first, as the only thing to say is that you do what you’d do if you were playing alone. Just remember to make a signal to the other person when he starts playing again. If you play together with a skilled musician, he or she will understand by the way you play. In other words: End your piano solo so that it makes sense for the other person to play the melody again.

The harmony (Duo with another solo instrumentalist)

The choice of chords and voicings are quite different when you play
together in a duo setting. First of all, you usually don’t play the melody. It gives you the freedom to play bigger chords. I like to add upper-structure voicings of the chords I’m playing when I play together with just one other musician. Also, I suggest that you try to vary the way you play different chords. Sometimes, play small chords. Other times, play big chords.

Also, the choice of chords and voicings depends on how the other player is playing and the style you’re playing. In our case, when we’re playing a ballad, I suggest you listen to the way the other person plays the melody. Then, create the harmony that you think will fit. To do so in the best way possible could be another lesson within itself, but the concept is to create the harmony that has another melody underneath the original theme. Again, the detail for doing this is a vast subject that we need to explore in a dedicated lesson.

I also suggest you learn some runs that you can add when the soloist plays either a long note or nothing at all. To do this, you need to learn a few runs and try to use them everywhere until they feel natural. Once you do this, you won’t need to think about it when you’re playing together with another solo instrumentalist.

When it comes to the rhythm: You can’t play rubato (in most cases). Keep a steady beat, but feel free to pause occasionally.


When speaking about the “Band Hat,” I mean how you would play if you were playing together with bass, drums, and another solo instrumentalist. For the sake of simplicity, I’m referring to how you’d play if you were playing together with e.g., bass, drums, and saxophone. There are multiple other variations, such as playing in a big band, playing along with other musicians where you also play together with other chord instrumentalists, such as guitar. Doing so can be another topic for a different lesson.

As a pianist, your main job when wearing the band hat is to play chords. I like to say that we should aim to play great sounding harmony. What that means is for you and your fellow musicians to decide.

The harmony (When playing in a quartet)

The types of chords you can play when playing in a quartet where you won’t have to play the bass, the melody, and the rhythm, are many. I like to think that now I have the freedom to create beautiful chords, and then try to listen to everyone else quickly before I decide the type of harmony to play.

In my mind, I always have a picture of what I’d like to play in the upcoming chord, but sometimes I need to change my mind and play something else if, for example, the saxophone plays differently than what the sheet says.

In other words: If there is one thing you should remember to do, it would be that you should remember to listen to how the others are playing and try to play something that fits with what they are playing. Remember: No matter what band you’re playing in, you should think of it as one unit that goes in the same direction. To do so, you have to align with what the others are playing. (That’s also another reason for why it is important to mostly play with other musicians who are a good personality-match to you).

The types of chords I like to play in a jazz quartet (on a ballad) are:
Upper-structure voicings, A/B voicings, Scale-voicings, Block chords.

Usually, you’d stay away from playing the root, as the bass player is better at this than we are.

Exactly how to play the types of chords mentioned and apply them to a jazz ballad in a quartet setting, is also a life-long study. I cover a lot about all these types of chords in the Jazz Piano Step-by-Step Course, in case you’re not a student yet.

The rhythm and dynamics (When playing in a quartet)

The drummer usually keeps the beat for you, but it does not mean you won’t have to keep track of it too. Since your job is to add mostly chords and some fills, you should vary the way you play the chords rhythmically. I usually try to play them staccato some times and sustained at other times. Sometimes I play them on the beat, and at other times, off the beat.

On a ballad: Try to play soft. Still, it depends on who you’re playing with. I used to play with a drummer who played way too loud, no matter what style he played. Another drummer had the skill to play incredibly soft on ballads. Playing with him was much more comfortable and calm than the first drummer. Again: You’ve got to listen to the rest of the band and make sure to talk to them about the desired outcome of the music you play together.

How to play a pianosolo when you play in a quartet (on a ballad)

To speak about how to play a solo is not something that I can put into a couple of sentences. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when you play a piano solo in a quartet.

First of all: You can float on top of the rest of the rhythm section. The drummer keeps the beat, and the bassist plays the bass. All you need to do is to play chords in Mid-range and create a new melody on the fly. I’m not saying this is easy, and you can study it for the rest of your life. The chords you’d use are mostly A/B voicings in combination with fourth-voicings, and sometimes scale-voicings.

When you play the piano solo, I suggest your goal is to play something meaningful. I will explain what I mean, but let’s first look at the fourth and last hat, the trio hat.


There is a term in jazz called piano trio. What it means is when there is a trio that usually contains piano, bass, and drums.

I love to listen to good piano trios, and there are many!
But more than anything: Playing in a trio can be extremely fun too. I’ve had experiences when playing in a trio that feels like ecstasy. I have no idea if that’s true, as I’ve never tried ecstasy, but as a pianist in an excellent piano trio, I’ve experienced how it is like to be entirely inside the music we’re creating together.

The key to an excellent piano trio is to play with musicians that are a good fit for your personality, and that are good listeners. Of course, it helps if they are skilled musicians too, but in my opinion, the personality match needs to be there to make it work.


Anyway. When you play in a piano trio, you’re usually the one who is playing the melody. To me, this is like a bonus. Now I can play the tune with emotions and phrase the theme just like I hear it in my head. That’s why I find the act of playing in a piano trio to be more emotional than wearing other hats.

Also, since you’re playing together with two more people who take care of the bass and rhythm, you can float on top of what they do. A good contrast to make then is to play the melody behind or in front of the beat. Again: Even if you’re playing with drums, you should keep track of the rhythm too.

The harmony (When playing in a pianotrio)

How you play the harmony depends on you, your fellow musicians, and the style of music you’re aiming to play. The tune Ystim is a ballad, so what I like to do when I play a ballad, is to make it sound open. Now, there is no need to play big chords but instead play on the sound of the piano itself. There are a lot of overtones when you play on an acoustic piano, and in a trio, you have the chance to let your piano sing.

The chord types I’m using are mostly A/B voicings, and then I strip these down to just one or two notes. Occasionally, I also play fourth voicings and scale voicings. If I play more traditional jazz, I sometimes play block chords too. The possibilities are many, but try to play mostly rootless voicings.

How to play a pianosolo when you play in a trio (on a ballad)

When you play a piano solo, the principles are pretty much the same for all of the different hats. Yet, it will sound completely different.

If I spoke about how to play an improvised piano solo in two sentences, I would say:

  1. You create a shape.
  2. Then you tweak that shape before you create a new one that connects somewhat with the first.

In other words: You create “something,” then you repeat that “something” and add a change, for example, by changing a note. The point is that you’ve got to play something that is connected when you improvise a new melody on the chord changes of the tune.


One of the first things I teach my students who are new to improvisation is to create a list of contrasts and try to apply them to their improvisation. That is an excellent way to get to know the framework of improvisation.

For example: If I say Bright, you’d say Dark. If I say Loud, you’d say Soft. If I say Inside, you’d say Outside, and so on.

Then, when you improvise, try to play something that makes sense where you, for example, only use bright notes (at the top of your piano). Then, change and play a solo where you only use the dark side of the keyboard.

Again, the point is to get to know the framework and your limits and play music with what you’ve got.

Another thing to keep in mind when you’re improvising is to think about how you’re playing overall, and then create something that makes a peak.

For example: If I have been playing nice and inside for the first 16 bars, I can suddenly play outside, where I move the harmony up a half-step together with the improvised line.


The topic of how to play a meaningful solo is a big topic that is too broad to fit in a few sentences. There are a lot of things you can do that are easy to apply to make your improvisation sound good, and hopefully, some of what I mentioned about improvisation helped you out.

Just remember that when you’re improvising, you’ll sound like a young child at first. Gradually over time, maturity comes, and this will reflect how you’re playing too.

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I want to end this summary with a summary of what I’ve written and where to go next.

To play jazz piano well, you need to practice as if you are wearing the four different hats, one by one. If you’re new to jazz piano, a good place to start is by learning the A/B voicings.

Then I suggest that you fail a lot. Yes, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, usually it means you’re on the path of something greater. You’re then slowly moving out of your comfort zone by failing a lot.

If you can play together with other people, that’s great. If you don’t have a trio or a band, a good substitute is a play-along track. Feel free to play over the play-along tracks that are available for the tune Ystim.

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My students, who have been with me for a while, know how to play the A/B voicings, block chords, scale-voicings, and all the necessary scales required to get the flow of improvisation. If you are a student of mine, I want to end by saying that we’ll cover the details of playing Ystim in lesson 51-53. Then we’ll move on to a swing-tune in lesson 54-56. Here we will try to apply many of the things that we’ve learned throughout the Jazz Piano Step-by-Step Course.

If you are not a student of mine yet, I want to let you know that you can become one. Just sign up at and test out the Jazz Piano Step-by-Step Course yourself. I’m all about helping my students finally crack the jazz code and get great results as quickly as possible. Yet, being able to play jazz piano is not a quick-fix and will require some effort to achieve.

Once you’ve experienced the freedom of playing jazz piano, you will never want to go back. Instead, once you’ve started moving towards musical freedom, all you want is to keep developing your music to the next level. It is a never-ending journey.

Take care of your music!

- Gjermund Sivertsen