Essential Theory: Fourths and Fifths

NOTE: Website, mentioned in the video, is my older site, soon to be retired.

Piano and Music Theory – FOURTHS and FIFTHS – “Perfect and Not-so-perfect.” Essential knowledge for building chords without rote memorization, and for understanding chord progressions, plus understanding general music theory.

Understanding “Thirds” – how standard chords are built!

Hi folks!

In order to understand tutorials on piano playing, it is essential that you know some basic terminology from the world of music theory.  So here’s an important video on “major and minor thirds.”

If you aren’t clear about major and minor thirds, you might want to watch this.  Afterward, you can read the rest of this article, using your newfound vocabulary!

Stacked Thirds

Chords are often understood and learned as a series of “stacked thirds.”  For example, a major seventh chord can be seen as the following stack:

Major third, Minor third, Major third.

Let’s look at the CMaj7 (C Major Seventh) chord as an example of stacking thirds to build a major seventh chord from any root.  The notes of the CM7 chord are C, E, G, and B.  Starting from the root C, we can stack thirds to create the chord.  First we pile on the E, which is a major third above C.  Then we put a G on top of the E.  The musical distance (interval) from E to G is a minor third.  Finally, we top off the stack with a B, which is a major third above the G.  We now have a really tasty sandwich!

OK so here’s the vid with some tips on finding major and minor thirds on your keyboard, starting from any piano key.

Questions, comments? Please jump in. Let’s make this a community!

Book Review: Jazz Piano Series by John Mehegan

My “jazz piano bible” is a series of four books by John Mehegan, referred to collectively as the Jazz Improvisation series.  Books can be an invaluable part of your training as a musician, especially in the area of jazz, since a solid understanding of classic jazz can get fairly heavy on the music theory side of things.

I have included links to these four amazing books here, if you want to check them out.  Just below those four links is a single volume by Mehegan that covers the most essential information from the four-volume set.

Volume One: Tonal and Rhythmic Principles

Volume Two: Jazz Rhythm and The Improvised Line

Volume Three: Swing And Early Progressive Piano Styles

Volume Four: Contemporary Piano Styles

Here’s the compilation volume:

Improvising Jazz Piano

These books are systematic in their approach, which I love.  Lots of other books on jazz piano are full of great ideas, but they tend to be collections of “try this, try that.”  Books of that type are overwhelming to me.  I always want to look for the core principles behind things.

The great jazz pianist Bill Evans appreciated the fourth volume of this series so much that he wrote a great introduction for it.

Study Tips

I highly recommend that you read somewhat casually through all four volumes first, in sequence, and then go back and study the details and techniques that seem most interesting to you.  As you do that, decide on certain things that you will practice on a regular basis, and put in the work!

I’ve noticed that I tend to focus on volumes one and four, although volume four makes occasional references to material in the other books, so it’s best to have all four volumes handy.

The first thing I put into major practice is what Mehegan calls “Contemporary Left-hand Voicings.”  (I have a couple of videos on that topic that I will be posting here soon.)  These voicings, covering major, minor, dominant, diminished, and half-diminished sevenths, which Mehegan calls the sixty-chord system (five chord qualities on each of the twelve roots) are essential to have in your toolbox.

I keep these four volumes around the house and pick them up now and then for review.  I’m amazed at how much this material can have a new freshness to me when I re-read it, especially after having applied it for a while.

Be advised, Mr. Mehegan uses the Roman numeral approach to chord progressions almost exclusively, as in II-V-I.  For example, he provides chord charts to tons of songs, and all are in that format.  It is good to be able to think in those terms.  That is, instead of learning a jazz standard as Am7, Dm7, G7, C, you can learn it as VI, II, V, I, thereby setting yourself up to be ready to play that tune in any key.

I encourage anyone who is familiar with these books, or is beginning to study the material, to share please your insights, opinions, or questions in the comments section of this post.   Let’s make this site a community!


The Blues Piano Crash Course (first 5 lessons)


NOTE:  You can buy this entire course here The Blues Piano Crash Course++

You might be interested to know that the information in the first two lessons below was shared with me when I was fourteen years old, at a time when I knew zero about playing piano.  I did have seven years of drumming experience by that time, however.  The guy who showed me this stuff was a drummer as well.  Since I had the advantage of good two-handed coordination skills on the drums, and the additional advantage of piano being a percussion instrument, I was able to go home that afternoon and start seriously jamming on my parent’s piano.  My dad came home from work that evening and he said, “When did you learn how to play the piano?”  I’ll never forget that day! After about a year, I was playing keys in a band.  I started taking formal piano lessons, and eventually I got a college degree in piano and general music.  In other words, Blues was the beginning of my entire career as a piano and keyboard player.

What does all that mean for you?  Assuming you already play either a little piano, or another instrument, there is enough raw material in this post to get you seriously going on blues piano.  On completion of the first few lessons below, you will already have enough information to start sounding like you actually know what you’re doing.

As with all other video-based lessons on this site, it is not necessary to read music.

“Music is like magic.  If you convince the audience, you are a success.” — Me

Lesson One:  The Blues Scale

Lesson Two:  A Left-hand Groove

Lesson Three:  Five Must-know Riffing Devices

Lesson Four :  The Classic “12-bar Blues” Progression

Lesson Five:  Coordination Practice

NOTE:  You can buy this entire course here:

The Blues Piano Crash Course++


The Amazing Tetrachord: How to Instantly Visualize any Major Scale

I’ve had lots of happy feedback about this lesson, ever since I first posted it on YouTube.  People are basically saying that this is the easiest way they have found to learn the notes of all twelve major scales, quickly and painlessly.  I learned about tetrachords in my college theory classes, and I have found them to be a little-known “secret” for organizing one’s thoughts about scales and modes.  Let me know what you think!

Getting All Lydian on the IV Chord

Here’s a great concept to embellish the sound of a IV chord in a progression.  In addition, try experimenting with this approach on any major chord you may come across, even the I chord, depending on the type of sound you’re going for.  Let your ear be the guide.  The scale being used here is called Lydian, which is closely related to the major scale.  Some tunes use this scale on the I chord for an especially fresh sound.



Twelve Blues Licks Explained in Depth (First 5 Licks)

It seems like almost everyone loves — or at least super appreciates — the Blues.  This affection for Blues music is almost universal, no matter what your GOC (genre of choice).

Blues is at the heart of jazz and rock especially.  You will basically never meet a successful rock or jazz musician who is not well-versed in the Blues, and who does not love playing it.

OK, let me backpedal a bit on that last statement.  Exceptions to the “well-versed” thing might be: an early-school punker, or a psychedelic player with a synthesizer, using pads only, with no regard for the key of the tune.  I’ve done studio work with people in genres like that.  Such free spirits are not often “well-versed” in the blues.  In fact, some couldn’t blues their way out of a paper bag.  Here’s the kicker though. In my experience, without exception, these pioneers also truly love the genre of Blues.  It’s weird.  I think it’s because Blues is built into the DNA of Rock. Same for Jazz. Especially for Jazz.

Anyway, today let me offer up my recent series of twelve video lessons on the topic of blues piano.  Each lesson below covers a specific blues lick, including insights on how to transpose, alter, and adapt it to your own soloing.  As I like to say, one video is worth a thousand licks! Actually I just made that up.

NOTE:  I’m planning to sell the whole package of twelve licks online (for download and/or streaming) , so this post will be updated when that is available. The whole package will be available here, as well as places like

Here is the list of ones you can see now: