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How to Improvise Cool R&B Chords for Piano

Hezekiah has been an online writer for over eight years. A longtime musician, his articles often focus on music theory and instrumentation.


A Guide to Improvising Deep and Soulful R&B Chord Progressions

So you would like to be able to improvise those deep soulful chords with a lot of emotion and tension?

R&B/soul or even blues chord progressions tend to have a lot more tension than other genres of music. Deeper neo-soul with artists such as Jill Scott, Erkah Badu, D'Angelo, Bilal, etc. tend to have chords with so much tension that they are technically outside the scale similar to Jazz, but the phrase will usually finish with a "coming home" note, usually in the Major key.

I am not too big on music theory myself so I won't be going into too much depth with explanations. I would rather like to show you some effective R&B chord progressions which can even be applied for the guitar that can be used to build tracks. I tend to discover most R&B chords by trial and error, although recently, I have developed a technique to quickly find nice chord transitions.

See below for some nice R&B chord progressions I have picked up over time.

A Four-Chord Neo-Soul Verse (Key of E Flat Major)

Using power chords, try the following R&B chords, easy to improvise on the piano.

Fm9 / Bb7 / Ebmin9 / Ab7 - This can be looped to create an R&B/soulful tension souding verse.

Switching from Fm9 to Bb7 (Dom) is simple. The C (index) and Eb (thumb) are simply shifted to - Bb (index) and D (thumb)., bass note stays on F (see the pictures below).

Same switching from Ebmin9 to Ab7 (Dom). Bb and Db are shifted to Ab and C - simple.

Bb7 can be deepened by adding a 6th (G)

Ab7 can also be deepened by adding a 6th (F)

Try playing these on an electric piano for that smooth sound. You can also try it out on the guitar too. The same applies of course.



Bb 7—easy to get to the 7th without moving too much

Bb 7—easy to get to the 7th without moving too much

Deep Neo-Soul Verse

This one is another four-chord pattern and has gentle tension on all chords giving it a deep sound.

Am9 / Bm7 Cmaj9th / BbMaj7.

You'll find that playing this to a slow tempo has a Dwele feel to it. Try it out preferably on an electronic Rhodes sounding keyboard.

Four Chords With Jazzy Key Changes

Start with Ab Major 7th(right hand improvise on the Eb key, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D)

G Minor 7th(right hand improvise on the Bb key, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A)

Gb Major 7th(right hand improvise on the Db key, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, B)

F Min 7th (right hand -> back to key of Eb)

Switching keys like this is one of the main ingredients for a neo-soul sound, this is what gives that depth and tension.

Using Slash Chords

Another very good technique to get a good soulful sound is to play an inversion with the bass key. For example, play the chord Gmin 7th, which is G, Bb, D, and F. Now this time, play the same chord but with C as the bass note, e.g., C, G, Bb, D, and F; listen to how that sounds.

It is the same chord; it's just that you have pulled out the 11th key and put it in at the front. If you play the same C in its original position, it doesn't quite give that same tension.

Check out the video below.

Download Free R&B and Neo-Soul Chords

Voicing and Improvising for R&B or Neo-Soul

Voicing can be described as "giving character" to a chord; it is also a good way to improvise on the piano. A chord will normally be played by pressing all keys simultaneously; however, hitting the keys at different times can create a melody within that same chord. With good voicing, you can really impress friends and family by them thinking you are really playing the piano with both hands when in fact, you are simply spicing up a power chord.

Everybody has different methods, but I like the Bass, melody x 2, Bass, Melody x 2, Bass Melody x 4.

To achieve this, simply positiion your hands for a power chord and randomly hit left, right x 2, left right x 2, left, right x 4. There are countless combinations.

Another good voicing method is to play a full 9th with your left hand. I think the easiest way to do this is invert of the 9th key as the 9th may be too far for your pinky to reach so bring it down an octave. The 9th key should now be next to the base key; with this setup, you should be able to play a 9th easily with all five fingers.

For the right hand, try randomly hitting keys within that scale and see what you find. For a more jazzy organic feel, try hitting groups of keys that are next to each other; it creates more of a deeper harmonic sound.

An inverted 9th (blue)

An inverted 9th (blue)

What Scales Are Used for Soul or R&B?

Listening to thousands of soul/R&B/neo-soul tracks, I can clearly hear that the E flat, B/Bb, and F major keys are the most commonly used. The key for E flat is Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, and D. This is very easy on the fingers had has a very soulful and jazzy feel to it. The 2-5-1 sequence will be Fmin, Bb 7, and Eb Maj. Once you are comfortable with these, you can branch out to other combinations or even chords outside the scale. E.g., Gb Maj has a Gospel type of feeling if played in the key of Eb.

Another good trick for a jazzy sound is to play a 6th or augmented chord between chord transitions. This is simply done by moving the 5th or 7th (or both) down a step and playing that chord as an (in between) chord. I work it out using ear and trial and error. This also works for gospel-sounding music.

Be sure to try to learn all 12 scales, though, for music proficiency.

Also, it is good to note that some chords that sound wrong at the time of playing actually may sound cool and original after going away and listening to it at a later time. Therefore I recommend recording your session, even practice stuff.

Minor 2-5-1 scales

These are a very jazzy alternative to the Major 2-5-1 scales; however, it is a little more complex. For example, the 2-5-1 in Minor C would be as follows:

D Half Diminished (Db7m5), G7, Cmin7th

Swapping Between Minor and Major

Very good and useful trick to get soulful sounding chords is to alternate between minor and major while walking down the keyboards. It really works.

For example, start with C major, walk back to B and play B minor, Bb major, A minor, Ab major, and so on. Have a go playing these chords, and you will hear a soulful vibe.

The track "Golden" by Jill Scott has a similar chord progression walking from left to right.

Check Here for Chord Progression Updates

  • Ab Maj 7th / Gmin 7th or 9th / GbMaj 7th / Fmin9th - Very soulful neo-soul grove which can be played at 4/4 signature
  • Cmin7th / Dbmin7th / Bbmin9th (tension can be eased) if you follow with AbMaj / G7.
  • Gmaj7th / Gmin9th / EbMaj9th / Db Maj9th (GMaj7th is in the key of D Major, after that use melodies from keys Eb or Db, it's up to you)
  • Fmin9th, Gmin7th, Amin9th.
  • Bbmin9th, Gmin7th or 9th, Fmin9th
  • Bbmaj9th, Amin7th, Gmaj 7th - Very D'Angelo sounding.
  • Db Maj 9th, G7+9, Cmaj 7th - Very soulful and refreshing sounding
  • Fmin7th, Cmin7th, D dim 7th - Very Bluesy sounding vibes.
  • Gmin9th, Fmaj7th, Emin9th, Ebmaj7th, Dmin7th - Typical Neo Soul Vibe.
  • Ebmin7th, Emaj7th, Abin7th, Gbmaj7th
  • Gmin7th, A7#5, Dmin7th, Gmaj

Listen to Gospel Musicians

Gospel musicians are very good with the improvisation of soulful chords. They need to because they want to avoid playing the same intro when people come into the church all the time. It may be a good tip to speak to some gospel keyboard players and find out what techniques they use. They tend to use "Phat" chords, simply means chords that use many keys, sometimes up to 10 keys using both hands. Gospel musicians tend not to explain the chord names, but you will get a feel of the type of sounds they use and what notes or keys group together.


Hezekiah (author) from Japan on June 01, 2016:

Checking out the soulful keys site in the link - more help there

Angelo on May 13, 2016:

Very helpful, thank you.

brian on May 06, 2016:

can u plz help me to space the chords to sound more nicely I see all the chords names but I don't now how 2 play them

Maffy on July 01, 2015:

Thanks for the tutorials, checked out the videos on your page too. Nice downloads

Riley on June 09, 2015:

Thank you for the tutorial, very useful.

Illa Beats on June 05, 2015:

Very informative explanations there. I've been looking to get into the Neo Soul genre for some time. It's just hard to find the material to learn.

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on May 07, 2015:

Thank you and well appreciated

Natalia on May 06, 2015:

it was really helpful to me thnku so much from colombia south america !

Clarissa on April 08, 2015:

Neo soul chords are rather complex, thanks for explaining. I look forward to more videos.

Simon on March 31, 2015:

Thanks so for this, I checked your website too, very useful. Keep it up.

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on January 06, 2015:

Thanks, I hope this is usefull for you.

Johnny on January 06, 2015:

A very nice article there, checked out your site too. Some cool loops there, keep it up. I am trying to moving towards the Neo Soul genre.

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on January 05, 2015:

You are welcome.

Wolfman on January 05, 2015:

Thanks for this info, very usefull for my piano learning.

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on December 28, 2014:

Thanks - check out my site for much more chords etc.

Charlie on December 28, 2014:

These videos really do help a lot. Thanks mate. Love to see some more.

Calvin on December 26, 2014:

Very nice, thanks.

Jonny on December 25, 2014:

Thank you for the tips here.

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on October 22, 2014:

The Ebmin9 is simply the Ebmin7th and you can play with your left hand by inverting the 9th playing the F with your 4th finger. The keys are Eb, F, Gb, Bb, Db.

The Ab7 is just the Abmaj7th and shift the G to Gb.

Eric on October 15, 2014:

How do you play the Ebmin9 and Ab7?

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on December 25, 2013:

@pimentel, Thanks.

pimentel on December 25, 2013:

simply amazing

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on November 20, 2013:

You try and get back into it, thanks.

CraftytotheCore on November 20, 2013:

This is an amazingly detailed Hub. I play the piano. I was in a jazz band years ago. We had an electric piano I bought second-hand. And for some reason, it broke. We haven't been able to replace it. I miss it!

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on May 30, 2013:

Thanks, I hope you find it useful.

Elena from London, UK on May 30, 2013:

Very useful - I wish I could get back my passion for playing the piano. I was learning and still had the letters on all the white keys. lol.

I will keep this for when I take it up again. Thanks.

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on May 24, 2013:

I'm glad you find it useful.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on May 23, 2013:

I'm sharing this with some of my own piano students. Thanks so much! Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and sharing!

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on November 18, 2012:

Thanks Bruce, I hope it does help people to pick up some Jazzy chords for there productions.

Bruce Chamoff from New York on November 18, 2012:

Hey this is a great hub and voted up. I have been a musician for over 40 years and have recorded a jazz album with the saxophone in 2000, but since I came from a rock background where the chords are more straightforward and less soulful, I could never get into those amazing jazz chords. Your hub is motivating me to rethink some jazz tunes.


Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on November 17, 2012:

Thanks so much for this very good information.

Will bookmark. Voted up and sharing~

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on January 21, 2012:

You're welcome

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on January 21, 2012:

Cheers mate

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on January 21, 2012:

Thank you very much

jazrstreets on December 26, 2011:

loved this! thanks :)

tablesturn on November 24, 2011:

Thanks - very useful

onmugen on October 13, 2011:

Good Stuff! Very Informative!

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on September 12, 2011:

Goldenkeys, I liketo use Reason 4, but FL Studio has Vst compatibility so I like to use some of the Smooth Electric Piano soundes/Rhodes/Wurlitzer etc..

Goldenkeys on September 12, 2011:

What music software do you use?

Jefsaid from London, UK on May 04, 2011:

Good stuff! I have a piano that I would like to make some nice noises on so hopefully this can give me some tips

Hezekiah (author) from Japan on February 17, 2011:

Thanks Vsmoove, check the web site too.

Vsmoove on February 17, 2011:

Very interesting blog here!

Hiphop Production Training Course on December 04, 2010:

Very interesting... I will bookmark this hub thank you