For some, learning jazz can be a daunting task. It’s harmonically complex, and because of this, there is a demand for a certain level of virtuosity.
I often find that those who love jazz but are too afraid to try to learn it become deterred by the sheer overwhelming nature of the task at hand.
However, when you are learning jazz or any style of music for that matter, you need to simplify things. It’s easy to listen to jazz or even look at a piece of sheet music and feel discouraged, so I find that it is helpful to break it down into smaller pieces.
Jazz can be made simple.
For the most part, it’s only a small handful of common chord progressions rearranged and reused. Once you know a few jazz standards, you start to realize they all have similarities.
The key is you need to understand basic chord progressions used in jazz.
You need to know them inside and out. And once you know them, and learn how to improvise over them, any jazz standard you come across becomes exponentially simpler. Even the slightly unusual ones can be de-mystified.
If you want to break down jazz tunes and learn how to improvise over them, you need to master these 9 chord progressions.
Once you have a good handle on these, you will be surprised at how easy playing jazz starts to become.
If you need extra help with understanding jazz theory, how to construct chords, connect them together, and ultimately start improvising, check out my eBook and companion course Zero to Improv.
First we’ll start with “basic” jazz chord progressions, and then we’ll move to substitutions and other common progressions.
Basic Jazz Chord Progressions
These are the fundamentals. Learn these first!
1. Major ii-V-I
The major ii-V-I is easily the most important chord progression to get a handle on when it comes to jazz. This chord progression is also important in other styles of music as well. You’ll want to spend plenty of time working on ii-V-I’s.
In this case, we are in the key of C major. Dmin7 is the ii chord; G7 is the V chord and Cmaj7 is the I chord.
I won’t be sharing licks for all of these chord progressions, but this being such an important one, here is an idea to help you get started.
Take the ii-V-I into all 12 keys, playing the arpeggios of each chord.
Learn a ii-V-I lick from a favorite jazz musician or learn one of these.
Identify the 3rds and 7ths of each chord, and then target them when you practice improvising.
2. Minor ii-V-i
This chord progression has the same function as the previous major ii-V-I, but of course is in a minor key.
In many jazz standards, you will find major and minor ii-V-I’s in the song form. If you’re not sure how to come up with chord qualities in minor keys, go here.
The V chord can be altered, meaning, you can add a b9, #9, or #5 (sometimes #11). In this case, I notated the V as a G7(b9) chord.
- Seek out a tune with lots of minor ii-V-i’s such as Yesterdays or Alone Together. Find a recording you like and learn a minor ii-V-i lick by ear.
Practice taking the minor ii-V-i chord progression through all 12 keys, and play the
arpeggios of each chord.
3. Major I-vi-ii-V
This chord progression you see all of the time. You can find it most naturally in any rhythm changes tune, such as Oleo.
It’s important to note that the vi chord, to be diatonically correct, is a minor chord. However, jazz musicians will often turn it into a dominant 7 chord.
This is common practice, and so I have listed it as an option above. This is important to be aware of.
Learn a I-vi-ii-V lick by ear or learn one of these.
Learn a rhythm changes tune.
Practice taking the I-vi-ii-V chord progression through all 12 keys, and play the arpeggios of each chord.
4. Minor i-vi-ii-V
Now let’s bring this progression into the minor.
Remember that the vi chord in the minor diatonic series is being borrowed from the melodic minor harmonization of 7th chords. Therefore it is a half diminished chord.
The challenge of this progression is learning how to improvise over two half diminished chords in a row.
- Learn some minor blues heads. Often times this progression is used as a turn-around.
Work on spelling out the half diminished chords. A great “pitch collection” to use is the Locrian mode.
These are the basic jazz chord progressions you need to know. If you have these down you will be well on your way to dominating jazz standards.
I provide lick examples for all of these as well as strategies for starting to connect these chords together in my eBook and Companion Course Zero to Improv. Check that out if you want to go deeper.
Common Substitutions and Chordal Movements
I think it’s important that we go over a handful of important substitutions, alternatives
and add-ons to the basic chord progressions.
The basic chord progressions are foundational, but they are just scratching the surface.
While I won’t be going over every possibility, I’ll cover some key ones that you should be
in the know about.
5. iii replaces the I
In jazz, you will often see the iii chord replacing the I chord. For example, in the key of C,
a Cmaj7 is replaced by an Emin7.
- Go through some jazz standards you know and look for opportunities to subsitute the iii for the I. Sometimes this won’t be appropriate, but it’s a good exercise of awareness.
6. #i diminished replaces the VI7
A classic substitution is the #i diminished for the dominant VI chord.
Most often this is seen in the context of a I-VI-ii-V progression. But when you sub the #i diminished for the VI it becomes: I-#idim-ii-V.
Why this works is a pretty hefty topic, and diminished theory is something I cover in Zero to Improv. But the basic concepts is that a dominant 7(b9) chord has all the same notes to it’s corresponding diminished 7 chord.
- Go through jazz standards you know and identify VI-ii relationships. The replace the VI with a #i diminished.
Jazz musicians are always looking for different ways to cycle chords. In traditional jazz
harmony, the harmonic movement is always trying to get back to the I chord.
Whenever the purpose of a chord progression is to come back to the I chord it’s called
a turnaround. One such popular turnaround is the I-IV-iii-VI, which cycles into the ii-V-I.
Take a look at the IV chord.
To be diatonically accurate, the IV chord would be major 7, however, jazz musicians usually turn it into a dominant 7 chord. The major 7 can be used but is less common. The VI chord is usually a dominant 7 in this scenario.
- Learn I’ve Never Been in Love Before. This standard has this chord progression in it.
8. Chromatic ii-V’s
Jazz musicians will often utilize what I call Chromatic ii-V’s. Sometimes they are included in a composition, but jazzers will sometimes add these into the harmony, or outline them in their improvisation.
Let’s use a ii-V-I example. This is a common use of chromatic ii-V’s but you can apply this to others when cycling in 4ths.
- Learn Bye Bye Blackbird. This substitution is actually built into the composition.
- Try imposing your own chromatic ii-V’s over jazz standards you know.
9. Tritone Sub of V
There are several different examples of tritone substitution that I cover in Zero to Improv, but the most common is the Tritone Sub of V.
In short, a tritone substitution is when you substitute a chord (usually dominant 7th) for a dominant 7th chord a tritone interval away.
Notice that a tritone sub of V in the context of a ii-V-I has the root notes moving chromatically (D-Db-C).
Right off the bat, you can conclude that by substituting a Db7 for a G7, it implies that the G7 has altered qualities.
- Next time you come upon a ii-V-I, play a tritone substitution either in your comping or in your solo.
Get all of these chord progressions down, and you will have a huge advantage.
I highly suggest spending considerable time isolating these progressions outside of the context of a song so that you can learn to improvise over them.
Again, these are just progressions to be aware of. But if you want to start improvising over them with confidence, you’ll want to figure out the note choices you have to work and how to choose and place the right ones to make the changes come out in your solos.
Zero to Improv is my basic jazz theory eBook and Companion Course that helps with these concepts and applies it all to improvisation. Check it out if you think it may help!
Any other chord progressions you think other musicians should be aware of? Leave them in the comments below.