Aiming for being capable of playing solo and in ensemble, a jazz pianist is exposed to the following:

  • Bass player is playing the root tones, hence the pianist can play rootless
  • When playing alone or improvising, both hands can handle harmony and and typically right hand melody. In the case of playing alone, base tone needs also to be covered.
  • While comping, the melody is covered by the soloist.

During my time learning piano I’ve basically in my solitude opened up jazz standards and learned them with compact voicings in my left and melody in my right. Straight forward. Now, moving towards more complex solo playing and playing in ensembles, I want and need to learn having voicings in my right hand, preferably combined with the melody. It’s a bit of unlearning, and I find old habits hard to break. This is my quest, and I find it overwhelming to learn.

So I wonder:

  • What is the best approach for learning this? Voicings and melody combined in right hand.
  • How does one plan the layout? The chord/voicings can clash with the melody or the hand positioning and there are so extremely many combinations at each moment, such as when combining fingering and from what chord you’re coming from to what you’re going to, that I don’t see how one consciously can decide between all those. This is significant with jazz piano/theory: this overwhelming amount of combinations. For instance, given twelve tones and all different intervals, you have a huge amount of combinations to navigate in order to understand various concepts. To me it seems one has to learn a set of combinations/sequences and then fall back to that subconscious routine/muscle memory.

In one way the answer is simple: “just expose yourself to it through your grinding and practice, until you get it”, but I suspect that you people have as usual something clever to say!

  • 1
    I would like to point out that this question has partly a good answer related to mine: music.stackexchange.com/questions/58506/…
    – Frans
    May 31, 2020 at 21:16
  • Not sure I understood what the exact problem really is, but check out this two minute video that outlines the basic steps, how to move from "left hand chords, right hand melody" to more pianist-like playing youtube.com/watch?v=78-Ggxq6868 Jun 1, 2020 at 9:21
  • Yes, what that video demonstrates is what I want to achieve. I find it hard. One finger layout may match the first set of tones in a bar, but may not match the next ones, or it might not be suitable with from what finger layout one is coming from -- it's a chaotic mess and no matter what I find it hard to find layouts that works well. After playing say a couple of sets of tones into a bar it's tempting to go back and play it in a different way when knowing how it developed, but that's an approach that for obvious reasons is a no go, or require memorising.
    – Frans
    Jun 2, 2020 at 18:26
  • I think the exact finger techniques and layouts will sort themselves out by lots of playing, or at least that's how it worked for me. One way to develop it is to focus on the rightmost fingers 4-5 or sometimes 3-5 playing a smooth uninterrupted legato melody, and adding chord tones at least on rhythmically relevant beats with fingers 1-2 or 1-3 if you can. Every now and then your melody fingers have to make a jump, and to keep the melody fluid and continuous you'll have to do some finger maneuvers, but I think you'll "invent" them if you play a lot and focus on keeping your lines continuous. Jun 2, 2020 at 19:47

3 Answers 3


You don't seem to have done anything that jdjazz suggested in his answer three years ago. It was a very good answer. As Laurence Payne says, you need to study, or at least play through, lots of piano music.

You say you're playing jazz standards "with compact voicings in my left and melody in my right." So you only use one RH finger at a time? And all its spare fingers do nothing? Well why not stop playing these compact voicings all the time, uncompact them and give some of the notes to your RH? Sharing the notes of the chords between the hands is very elementary stuff for a piano-player.

BTW, have you been playing a lot of George Shearing?

  • Yeah, I guess I play with one finger at the time, the spares do nothing. Yupp, the plan is to uncompact. No, I haven't even heard of George Shearing. I agree jdjazz's answer was good, I will try to incorporate it over time.
    – Frans
    Jun 2, 2020 at 18:21

Study piano music, from Mozart to contemporary. You'll find a multitude of ways of playing bass, chords and melody all at once. That's what piano music DOES!

Ok, different rhythms, different chords. But it's still the three basic elements - melody, bass and something in the middle.

  • 2
    I think its pretty clear from the question that OP knows this happens, and "study piano" is a correct but trivial answer. It looks like the question instead of negating the existence of "something in the middle" is asking how to approach the overwhelming amount of possibilities. There are theoretical approaches and progressive pedagogical steps to take which would be interesting to read.
    – hirschme
    May 31, 2020 at 23:07
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    @hirschme I've read Frans's question a few times and can't make out what he/she is looking for or needs except, as Laurence suggests, a much wider experience of music. Jun 1, 2020 at 3:01
  • I would suggest listening to a good block chord player as well, such as Brubeck, for some ideas on getting both chords and melody into the right hand. Jun 1, 2020 at 18:06

A small point: when comping, a way to avoid quite a bit of trouble is to choose voicings that do not overlap on the range of the melody line. Either both hands below (especially if there's no other bass line), or one above and one below, or even both above if the melody line is mid-range and there's a bass and maybe other mid-range stuff happening.

Another specific: unless your group wants that kind of thing, voicings that would otherwise be interesting but create minor seconds (or major seconds?) or non-meaningful tritone intervals with the melody line are maybe not a good idea. That is, some voicings that would be interesting for a solo piano are maybe not so good as accompaniment.

Also, unlike solo, where you more-or-less need to have something happening all the time, when comping you can play in a much lighter way, leaving lots of silence in your part. There doesn't have to be the same continuity. So you can imagine harmonic or melodic progressions (perhaps in other parts), and just "tag up" here and there, especially for rhythmic purposes.

And, the latter: in an ensemble, the piano part can be much more a rhythm instrument, with some tonal and harmonic sense, but with an important rhythmic role. For example, off-beat harmonic suggestions... This is quite different from playing lyrical solo pieces.

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