Memorized chord progressions are among the guitarist’s most valuable tools; they not only provide musical maps, shortcuts and all, they also ease you into the wilder territory (innovation and improvisation) that we hope you’ll persevere long enough to be able to explore.
Knowing common chord progressions provides you the means of playing with other chording instruments like keyboards, banjos, mandolins, and even the bass guitar, which also has to be familiar with chord progressions. Knowing chord progressions by genre makes you that much more versatile and well-rounded a musician.
Even better, it’s fun.
In this series of articles, we’re discussing the most essential and common chord progressions in each particular musical genre. In addition to jazz, we’ll also be looking at chord progressions in rock (including prog, indie, grunge, punk, and post-rock), country, reggae, folk, and classical music (if we’ve missed an important one, let us know!).
In this way we hope to equip you with a tool that will organize and facilitate your future study, saving you time and headaches further down the road so you can concentrate on your art and creativity and can become the guitar master you were born to be.
Every musical genre has chord progressions that are peculiar to it, progressions that are a part of its very history, part of what makes it the genre that it is and that gives it its cultural significance.
So let’s make it easy and start with jazz.
Can It Really Be So Simple?
Jazz 305 at Dalhousie University was a notorious course because it demanded that each student scat sing over a famous jazz solo, record it, and submit it as a final project. The course was taught by the delightful Don Palmer, a Cape Breton sax player who studied with Lee Konitz in New York and later toured with many famous musicians, including Tito Puente. Naturally, he had a gig bag full of great stories.
One of the most valuable things Palmer taught us was that when you break it down, jazz really has only two chord progressions. That’s right— the progression of nearly every jazz tune is either the chords of twelve-bar blues or the chords of “I Got Rhythm.”
Surely, I thought, it can’t be that simple. Surely one of the most complex and difficult of musical genres couldn’t be reduced to just two progressions! But a few years of listening to jazz and messing around on the guitar proved him right. Just as I thought I’d found a chord progression that didn’t fit either of these, I’d look again and see that under all the extra chords and notes, the progression remained the same.
But that’s where the simple part ends. To say that a song is based on a particular chord progression is to say that it has the same basic structure, not that it’s exactly the same series of chords. Once you know a basic chord progression you need to tweak it a little to make it fit your needs: for example add some “grace” chords to ease the transitions from one chord to another and make it all smooth and natural, and then add some extra notes (not just the notes of the triad) to your chord to make it sound jazzy. That’s where a little complexity comes in. But it’s not going to seem complex to you for long because we’re here to help you understand it all.
Progressions as Modes of Communication
In jazz, as in much of rock, the chord progression is essentially a fluid process; for example, there can technically be a separate chord for every note in a tune, and sometimes a chord change in the middle of a note! As the melody moves forward, the note’s place in the tune and the harmonies that accompany it create new chords. You decide which and how many of those chords you want to play.
Chord progressions are, quite simply, modes of communication, even though they communicate ideas and sensations that can’t be expressed in words (which is why they’re in musical form, after all).
To better explain the mode of communication idea, take a look at the basic twelve-bar blues chord progression (each chord represents one bar): I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – IV – I – I.
(In the key of E-major, for example, this would be E–E–E–E–A–A–E–E–B–A–E–E.)
Have a listen to Gary Clark Jr. playing it.
As you’re listening, imagine yourself walking across a field toward an apple tree (I). You see an apple on the ground (IV). You leave it there, but you take a look back at your house, wondering if your mom might like you to bring her back an apple (I). Then you see a bigger, finer apple on the ground (V) and you decide to pick it up and bring it back home to your mom. As you turn to go home you see the first apple (IV) and decide to pick it up for yourself. Pretty soon you’re back home (I). Now listen to Gary play through the chord progression again as you imagine yourself telling your mom what just happened.
This little story illustrates how chord progressions give us a sense of starting out, finding something, finding something better (or bigger or scarier, etc.), returning to the first thing, and then finishing. The story might also be about starting out on an adventure, getting lost, fighting a giant, and then heading back home.
This is the kind of story you can make up with the standard twelve-bar blues progression. As the chord progression changes, and so does the story. Sometimes your story takes bizarre turns. Sometimes you get lost and stay lost (i.e. the progression doesn’t resolve to the root chord of the key). Sometimes you run into an old friend, or you meet a stranger, or there’s a bear in the tree. Similarly, the chord progression can be altered a little to fit the mood, genre, and lyrics, adding extra chords as well as 6th, 7th, 9th, and 13th notes to the chords themselves.
If you haven’t already done so, we strongly encourage you to understand major and minor chord sequences (you need to know, for example, that in major keys the second chord is minor) by taking some time to study our music theory articles. This will help you to transpose a chord progression (for example I-iii-IV-V-I) into whatever key you choose (for example, the key of E: E-G#min-A-B-E).
Deconstructing Chord Progressions
In order to deconstruct a chord progression, we need to break it down into its most basic form. This means that for now, we’re leaving the 7ths and 9ths and 6ths, etc., off the chords and giving you the basic chord sequence number, which will work in any key, major or minor. We’re also going to skip some of the extra “grace” chords that are there to facilitate the flow of the song but which aren’t absolutely essential because they don’t appear in every version of a song (the decision of which extra chords to use is up to the individual musician or bandleader).
The Two Big Foundation Stones of Jazz Chord Progressions
In its most basic of basic forms the song “I Got Rhythm” follows this chord progression (you can play along in C-major if you want to get the feel):
I ii V
I ii V
I IV V I
The bridge changes keys to one fifth higher (which happens in a lot of songs). The chord progression for the bridge is this:
V ii V I
(It changes to the key of G: a fifth higher than C.)
Fool around with it until you figure out where the chord changes come in. Try singing along. (If you don’t know the words, they’re a click away on Google.) Don’t forget to use your Uberchord app!
Now let’s look at twelve-bar blues again:
I– I – I – I –
IV – IV – I – I –
V – IV – I – I
Play through it in E-major: E–E–E–E–A–A–E–E–B–A–E–E.
There. Now you know how to play any jazz song. Sure, you’ll need to know different keys, different chord shapes, passing notes and grace chords, fillers, techniques, style, and how to swing it, but if you can get these two chord progressions down pat, you’ve got a solid foundation for playing just about any jazz song ever written and improvising on it.
To Sum it All Up
The two basic chord progressions of jazz are these:
“I Got Rhythm,” verses—
I ii V
I ii V
I IV V I
(In the key of C-major this would be: C–Dmin–G—C—Dmin—G—C—F—G—C.)
Bridge (key changed to one fifth higher, for example from C to G)—
V ii V I
I– I – I – I –
IV – IV – I – I –
V – IV – I – I
(In E-major this would be: E–E–E–E–A–A–E–E–B–A–E–E.)
If you want to be a jazz guitarist, the sooner you can get these into your bones, the better. You can always build from there.
Be sure to relax, get into the zone, give yourself lots of time, and keep your Uberchord app handy!