When it comes to playing cocktail piano, of the many piano improvisation tips I could offer, a favorite to promote that is most conducive to getting satisfying results is using chord tones. However, this approach can take on a more mature flair when your mind set is that of combining chord tones with thinking and playing in a linear fashion as well.
Let’s say that you are improvising over the chord changes to a standard song like Jerome Kern’s I’m Old Fashioned (lyrics by Johnny Mercer). The beginning in the key of F would look like this:
/ Fmaj7 Dmin7 / Gmin7 C7 /
Here we have a I – VI – II – V chord progression. The chord tones for each of these chords are:
Fmaj7 = F A C E
Dmin7 = D F A C
Gmin7 = G Bb D F
C7 = C E G Bb
Consider using these chord tones in an arpeggiated fashion. Mix it up, changing the order from ascending to descending. In addition, start your improvised lines on a chord tone in the middle of the chord and work yourself outward, to the left… to the right… etc.
Perhaps you have already had some experience doing this. If so, you know the possibilities are unlimited, especially when you start using the inversions of these chords as well. One of the most important piano improvisation tips I ever learned was to not take this simple strategy for granted. Remember, it’s one thing to “know” a technique or strategy. It’s quite another to implement it.
In addition, take note that the four chords in this progression are diatonic chords in the key of F Major (Chord Progressions and How They Work #1 offers a good introduction to the diatonic system). This means that their chord tones are all members of the F Major scale. This being the case, the F Major scale serves as a good resource for improvising over these two measures. Play up and down the entire scale over this chord progression. If you play it in eighth notes, one time in either direction, you will fill up one measure. So, if you play in order (in eighth notes)…
F G A Bb C D E F…
…you will have played through the scale over the chords Fmaj7 and Dmin7. Do this for the next measure as well. Now, while maintaining the duration of these chords, play half of the scale for half a measure and use only chord tones for the other half of one of the measures. Mix it up!
Naturally, you can begin the scale beginning on different tones. You will find that certain chords lend themselves to starting on different notes of the scale. There is a gold mine of discovery just within what was mentioned in that last sentence.
As you come up with your own ideas using this improvisation strategy, your confidence will soar since you will be the one creating. The sky’s the limit here, so have tons of fun with this! As you do so, remember…
PLAY WITH PASSION!