A Lesson in Modal Jazz

Hi folks!  This article is not for players who are brand new to piano, or brand new to improvisation.  That said, if you are a newbie in either category, you may still find it interesting.

I wanted to give you a brief introduction to the idea of “modal jazz.”  We’re going to look at probably the most famous example of modal jazz, a tune called “So What,” by Miles Davis and Bill Evans.  This track is eternally famous because (1) the modal jazz idea was pretty new at the time, and (2) because “So What” is the most well-known track on the best-selling jazz album in history, called “Kind of Blue.”

It seems to me that contemporary modal improv, which had its birth in the late 1950’s, led the way to the most groundbreaking improvisational rock of the 1960’s, and has never stopped being at the heart of improvisational pop/rock/jazz solos until this very day.

My goal here is to show you enough about modal improvisation to start jamming along with these guys, as they improvise on this classic tune.  The way to “jam along” here is to play your own improvised lines along with each soloist in the recording.  In that sense, you and the soloists will be improvising simultaneously. This kind of interwoven conversation is not unheard of in jazz, so don’t feel like you’re interrupting the masters LOL.

There are three links below to YouTube videos of “Kinda Blue,” as taken from the original recording.

In a nutshell, modal jazz is more concerned with exploring scales and modes than with creating melodies based on chord progressions.  I’ve included a link to an excellent Wikipedia article on modal jazz, in case you want to know more.  For now, this article is sufficient in terms of experiencing and practicing the modal approach.

(1) “So What” explores improvised melodies using the “Dorian” mode.  (The terms “scale” and “mode” are sometimes used interchangeably, and the distinction is somewhat academic, depending on the context ).

(2)  If you start on “D” and play every white key on the piano, going up or down one white key at a time (as in D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D.), you have just played a Dorian scale.

(3) Academic note: The scale of “C Major” uses only the white keys, as well (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C).  It is considered the “parent scale” of D dorian mode.  I won’t go any deeper than that in this article, because this post is about jamming, and we want to jam now.

(4) “So What” improvisation alternates between D dorian and Eb dorian.  So here are the two scales you will use:

D Dorian = D, E, F, G, A, B, C, (D) 

Eb Dorian = Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db, (Eb)

(5) I’d like you to discover when the band goes from one mode to the other (D dorian and Eb dorian) by just listening.  Feel free to peck at the piano or keyboard to confirm your suspicions. As I said, “So What” alternates between the two dorians. That is, D dorian, Eb dorian — D dorian, Eb dorian…over and over. The original chart has a fixed number of measures specified for each mode, but it’s better for ear-training to fly without instruments.

(6) Once you are comfortable with the notes of D dorian and Eb dorian, try playing your own lines along with the masters as you listen to the recording.  You can try imitating their lines, and/or you can just belt out some of your own. I recommend both: the former is for validation, and the latter is for finding your own voice.

The track starts with an intro, and then sets up a groove.  The chords used in the set-up groove are Bill Evans’s famous “So What” chords.  (More on those chords in another post.)

OK!  If any of the above is unclear, or if there is not enough information, please comment on this post and I will respond!

Three links to “So What”

Wikipedia article on Modal Jazz

Wikipedia article on musical modes

Please comment with questions, feedback, etc!



















Video: Ray Charles “What I’d Say” — Practice your blues licks with this one!


What’s up, Blues Cats and 12-bar Chicks?

If you want to get better at your blues piano playing, who better to learn from than Ray Charles? Try playing this video while throwing in your own blues licks on top.  Also try to imitate or paraphrase some of Brother Ray’s.

Here’s some insight to help you:

(1) The key is E.  You can start joining in by using the E-minor blues scale, throughout the whole jam, right hand only.  The E-minor blues scale is E, G, A, Bb, B, D, (E). Even if that’s all you practice here — which is quite valuable — it still helps to realize the following things about the chords involved . (If you’re especially ambitious,  you can try playing these chords in your left hand, while riffing with the right.)

(2) The chords are E7, A7 (added ninth, optional), and B7.

(3) The chord progression is a classic 12-bar blues, in its most basic form, outlined here:

E7 — 4 measures (bars)

A9 (or just A7) —  2 measures (bars)

E7 — 2 measures (bars) 

B7 — 1 measure (bar)

A9 (or A7) — 1 measure (bar)


E7 — 1 measure (bar)

B7 — 1 measure (bar) 

Now go back to the top.

(4) Repeat the above progression over and over, as you would in any 12-bar blues.  EXCEPTION: You may notice that the B7 in the turn-around does not happen in the 12-bar introduction, where Ray is playing the left-hand bass line and nothing else.  Here, E7 is implied throughout the last two bars.

(5) In the sections where the band stops, but the singing or soloing continues (called a break, or “stop-time”), the prevailing harmony is four bars of E7, as usual. Each time this break happens, we are sitting at the top of the 12-bar cycle. Therefore, each break leads us right into the A7 at measure 5.

So here’s the video, and have fun!

Easy 3-finger Technique for Impressive Pentatonic Runs on Piano (that’s right, only 3 fingers!)

Hello improvisors and jammers: Here’s a powerful way to play impressive pentatonic piano/keyboard licks when soloing in rock, blues, or jazz settings, using only three fingers in your right hand.  This video uses the famous “minor pentatonic” scale (“pentatonic” refers to a five-note scale). With a little work you will be amazed how fast you can fly across the keyboard using this simple trick of the trade!

Learn about the Major pentatonic scale, and its cousin, the “Relative Minor” pentatonic (video lesson)

Learn about the Major pentatonic scale, and its cousin, the “Relative Minor” pentatonic scale (a video lesson). The relationship between any major scale (or key) and its relative minor scale or key is explained here as well, in terms of traditional music theory.

Video: Pentatonic scales, Major and Minor

“A Study in Blues Piano” Course Coupon (starts now, offer expires 3/31/2018)


Coupon Expires March 31, 2018* Here’s a handy dandy discount coupon for my “A Study in Blues Piano” on Udemy: Lifetime access for just $12.99. (List price is $24.99.)

*If you missed the discount window, see the bottom of this post for a another link, where you may find this course at a discount as well.

The Course at $12.99 (coupon is automatic)

or use coupon code 88KENT when purchasing.

Please share this with your musical friends!

Expires March 31, 2018 so act now! 


If you miss the coupon window, the course can be accessed using the link below. Sometimes Udemy sets their own temporary discounts, so you could get lucky!

The course at regular price ($24.99) (may be discounted by the vendor)


Learn a 12-Bar Intro for Blues — Plus the Start of a Solo

Hey Blues people!  Wassup from the OG (Old Guy). Let me show you this nice 12-bar opening, to get your jam started. I’ve also included something to get your improv going after the intro.

The Blues Piano Crash Course (first 3 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


NOTE:  You can buy this entire course here:

The Blues Piano Crash Course++


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.