How To

Jazz Chord Progressions – Beginner’s Guide

Photograph of the blog post author, Joelle Banton

Joelle Banton

21.5.2020

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Chord progressions are a succession of chords played one after another for a specific duration. In jazz, there are many similar chord progressions in different keys. From practicing simple jazz chord progressions, the process of learning jazz standards will become easier. A few examples of common jazz chord progressions are ii V I, I vi ii V, and iii vi ii V. If you want to break down jazz tunes and learn how to improvise over them, you need to master a few progressions. This guide includes 10 of the most used Jazz chord progressions, and will help you distinguish some of the most important progressions and their variations. 

jazz guitar

The Major ii-V-I 

The most utilised chord progression found in jazz music is the major ii-V-I sequence. This Jazz chord progression is made up of three basic chords built from the first (I), second (II) and fifth (V) degree of the major scale.

Each degree corresponds to a chord, – this means we play a minor seventh chord on the degree II, a dominant seventh chord on the degree V and a major seventh chord on the degree I. Which makes in the key of C major: Dm7 (II), G7 (V) and Cmaj7 (I), which are three four-note chords built by stacking thirds.

Dm7G7Cmaj7
iim7V7Imaj7

One Chord Per Measure

You can find the ii V I progression with two chords per measure. The first example below uses two basic drop 2 chords. 

two chords per measure

Examples of Jazz Standards That Use II-V-I Progressions

The V Chord of a ii-V-I 

As seen above, the II-V-I progression is very easy to play. It’s a smooth introduction to jazz comping. Although, only playing notes can be boring in the long run.

The next step is looking into another important jazz chord progression – the V7 as an altered chord (Valt or V7alt). It means that we will add altered notes not present in the original scale (the major scale). These altered notes are b9, #9 #11 (b5) and b13 (#5).

This will create tension, and an imbalance of the V7 chord which should resolve to the I chord to release this tension. The new progression is now ii-V7alt-I.

There is no change for the minor (II) and the major (I) chords. However, the V chord will undergo a few changes. They are:

7b13135b7b13 
7b9135b7b9 
7#9135b7#9 
7#11135b7#11 
7b13#9135b7#9b13
7b13b9135b7b9b13
7b5b913b5b7b9 
7b5#913b5b7#9 

In this example, the V is changed with the b13 (Eb) which transforms into the major third of Cmaj7 (E). 

chord progression jazz

In the next example, the V has an altered fifth in the bass, which resolves to the root of Cmaj7. This makes a downward chromatic bass line (D, Db, C) from Dm11 to Cmaj.

jazz chord progression

The Minor ii-V-I Cadence

The minor ii -V-I chord is equivalent to the major II-V-I, but in a minor key. The jazz chord progression can be heard in many jazz songs including Blues bossa, Autumn Leaves, and Black Orpheus.

The chords are m7b5 (II), 7alt (V) and minMaj (I). The latter one is most of the time replaced by a minor 7 chord because it is a little bit dissonant. Jazz standards in minor keys are not common however, there are often minor II-V-I cadences within Jazz songs.

Dm7b5G7altCminMaj7
iim7b5V7altIminMaj7

Below is a C minor II-V-I sequence illustrated with three chords

C minor II-V-I sequence chord progression

Dim7 Passing Chords

Cmaj7 C#°7Dm7 D#°7Em7 A7
Imaj7 #I°7iim7 #II°7iiim7 VI7

The use of diminished 7 passing tones to connect the Imaj7 and iim7 chords is frequently used in jazz music, and is an important harmonic device that can make things more interesting as a jazz guitarist. Dim7 sequences add harmonic tension to this progression. 

Examples Of Jazz Standards That Use Dim7 Passing Chords

Song TitlePlayed By
CherokeeTal Farlow
Have You Met Miss JonesKenny Burrell
Joy SpringJoe Pass
But BeautifulLenny Breau
Ain’t Misbehavin’Django Reinhardt

Below are two ways illustrating how you can on comp these important chords:

Take The A Train Chord Progression 

Cmaj7%D7%
Imaj7%II7%
Dm7G7Cmaj7%
iim7V7Imaj7%

Mainly associated with the classic tune ‘Take the A Train’ from Duke Ellington, these chords are cool in sound as well as fun to play.

Song TitlePlayed By
Take the ‘A’ TrainGeorge Benson
The Girl from IpanemaCharlie Byrd
DesafinadoCharlie Byrd
Mood IndigoKenny Burrell

Below are two ways that you can work on these chords to help get them under your fingers.

Take the A train
Take the A train chords
Take the A train chords
Take the A train music

I to IV

In blues music, the movement from chord I to a chord IV is usually used during the jazz guitar idiom. This movement can be used in a progression to a major key situation, however many have also used it as a jazz-blues standalone piece. 

Examples 

From practicing the examples below, it will allow you to confidently bring the changes to your music sessions in no time at all. 

Chord I to IV example
Chord I to IV
Song TitlePlayed By
Satin DollTal Farlow
CherokeeTal Farlow
Joy SpringJoe Pass
Have You Met Miss JonesKenny Burrell
There Will Never Be Another YouGeorge Benson

IV to IV Minor

Cmaj7C7Fmaj7Fm7
Imaj7I7IVmaj7ivm7
Em7A7Dm7G7Cmaj7%
iiim7VI7iim7V7Imaj7%

Used by a myriad of jazz musicians and improvisers and by many pop artists including the Beatles, the IV (major) to iv (minor) harmonic change variation is one that every jazz guitarist needs to have under their fingers from both a comping and soloing point of view.

Chord I to IV example
I to IV chords example

Famous examples include:

Song TitlePlayed by 
Moose the Mooche Pat Metheny
Shaw NuffBarney Kessel
All of MeGeorge Benson
All the Things You ArePat Metheny
There Will Never Be Another YouGeorge Benson

Rhythm Changes Bridge

D7G7C7F7
III7VI7II7V7

Based on the cycle of 5ths, the bridge to ‘Rhythm Changes’ features four 7th chords moving up by a 4th with each new chord in the progression. Although only four chords are available, these changes may be hard to get to grips with, which makes them worth looking into.

Below are a few ways that you can learn playing the bridge to Rhythm Changes (in Bb major) to help you get started. 

Rhythm changes song bridge
Rhythm changes song bridge chords

II V I Minor 

Dm7b5G7Cm7%
iim7b5V7im7%

Like its major-key cousin, the minor ii V I progression can be heard in many songs from a wide variety of musicians. However, this progression includes the hard-to-play 7alt chord. Even more experienced players find this difficult, which is why it is important to explore. 

Below are a few examples to introduce you to comping through this important group of 3 chords:

II V I minor chord progression
II V I minor chord progression

Stray Cat Strut 

Cm7 Cm7/BbAb7 G7
im7 im7/b7bVI7 V7

This minor-key turnaround is a progression that every jazz guitarist and even jazz pianist should be able to play with ease. From the classic tune ‘Stray Cat Strut’, these four chords can add flair to any boring minor-turnaround.

stray cat strut chords
stray cat strut chords

Conclusion And Advice

After going through this Jazz Chord Progressions guide, you should find comping and soloing easier. Now, you have gone through some of the most important jazz chord progressions and their variations try playing some of the well-known jazz arrangements mentioned throughout this guide. For practice, try playing in different styles and different tempos.

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Every jazz guitarist should frequently study jazz and classical harmony. This should also make the process of improvising a lot easier too – just make sure you record your sessions as well. You could even come up with the next biggest jazz chord progression yourself, take a look at our guide to the Blues scale or apply your knowledge to the world of piano chords!

So, now you have learned about jazz chord progressions and are hopefully putting these tips into play and writing your own songs! Allow us to help you amplify your musiccollaborate with others, and even get your music in TV, film and more. Why not try Music Gateway for free?



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