Jazz Chord Progressions – Intro Lesson For All Guitarists

My early lessons were scheduled on a weekly basis at the local music store. However, I would go there every chance that I could, hang out, thumb through the guitar magazines and eavesdrop on the conversations of the older and more experienced players.

They would mention guitarists and music styles that I’d never heard of. The names held a mystery of some secret musical world only available to those would traversed the gauntlet of power chords, triads, and pentatonic scales.

These local elder statesmen stated that if you could play jazz then rock was easy. I was intrigued.

That statement encourage me to learn more. I don’t necessarily agree with it 100%. Instead, I like to view it in this manner:

  1. If you understand jazz chords and progressions then you can understand rock and pop music better.

  2. Also, if you can play jazz chords and jazz chord progressions then it increases your vocabulary and ability to handle rock and pop situations.

In this lesson, we’re going to look at some must-know jazz chord voicings and chord progressions.


Jazz Chord Theory

Chords are referred to by their function in the key. The Roman numerals tells us what that function is. Take a look at the table below:

C Major ScaleCDEFGAB
Scale DegreeR234567
Jazz HarmonyImaj7IIm7IIIm7IVmaj7V7VIm7VIIm7b5
  1. The notes of the C major scale are shown in the first row.

  2. The Scale Degree is then displayed underneath its corresponding note in whole numbers. The scale degree presents the note’s relationship to the scale.

  3. The Chords are the diatonic chords represented by their chord symbols. Jazz is four-part harmony (i.e., four notes stacked one on top of each other a 3rd apart).

  4. The Jazz Harmony are the Roman numerals that we discussed above. This is also called the analysis and in jazz they are referenced by uppercase Roman numerals. In classical music, uppercase means major and lower case means minor. Here, we’ll use upper case with the chord symbol.

We use this to be able to move from one key to the next (transposition) and keep the same chord structures. This is a very brief overview and way too much to get into in an article like this. I encourage you to dig deeper if you find this topic interesting. It certainly warrants further investigation.

Basic Blues Progression

Everything begins with the blues. The 12-bar blues is the foundation for jazz and rock styles so this is our starting point. Also, we’ll approach this with the “four-to-the-floor” strumming style made famous by Count Basie’s guitarist, Freddie Green.

Blues has special considerations in that it uses the I–IV–V chords but they are all dominant 7 chords. There’s not much further explanation on this, it just is and we’ve all come to accept it.

Jazz Chord Progressions 1

It may be easier to visualize the Basic Blues Progression like this, where each cell is a measure:


Blues with Substitutions

The basic blues progression can be “jazzed up” (pun intended) by adding some substitutions that help add interest and create more of a weaving motion. Check it out.

Jazz Chord Progressions  2
IV7#IV°7I7 / IIm7IIIm7 / VI7 or (IIm7–V7)*
IIm7V7I7 / VI7IIm7 / V7

Let’s analyze what’s going on here.

  • Bar 4, Fm7–Bb7: F is certainly not the II in the key of Bb and Bb is not the V. Here’s the cool thing about jazz; you can temporarily shift out of the key. In this case, the Fm7–Bb7 function as the II–V of Eb (coming up in the next measure). This is called extended dominance and is used extensively in jazz. Today’s rock and pop musicians are also using this technique.

  • Bar 6: Uses a common substitution the #IV°7 (E°7) for the IV7 (Eb7). This is a cool move that you should know.

  • Bar 7: Doesn’t use a substitution. It simply adds the IIm7 chord to the second half of the measure.

  • Bar 8, Dm7–G7/D: The Dm7 is the IIIm7 and the G7 is the VI7; however, they also form a diatonic II–V of Cm7, coming up in the next measure (another example of extended dominance).

  • Bar 9 & 10: Instead of the V to IV movement from the Basic Blues Progression, jazz prefers the II to V.

  • Bar 11 & 12: This is another popular progression found in jazz the I–VI–II–V. In earlier styles of jazz, blues and swing music, these chords were all dominant 7 forms. In some cases, the II and VI chords are minor.

The Circle of Fifths (or Cycle of Fourths)

One of the basic principles that defines chords moving from one to the next is that there is a strong tendency for notes to move down a perfect fifth (or up a perfect fourth). What that means is that G wants to go (counterclockwise to C, then C wants to go to F, etc.

The COF (Circle of Fifths or Cycle of Fourths) looks like the face of a clock. Instead of numbers that indicate the hour we have note names that can be used to represent chords and keys.

Circle of Fifths

How to Use the Circle of Fifths

Here’s how it works. Let’s find the I–IV–V chords for any key:

  • Find the key— we’ll use C. The note that is counterclockwise is the IV chord (F) and the note that is clockwise is the V chord (G).

  • Try this with any note: For example, A; the note before is D (the IV chord) and the note after is E (the V chord).

This also works with key signatures (the sharps and flats). Clockwise adds a sharp or subtracts a flat, and counterclockwise adds a flat or subtracts a sharp:

  • The key of C has no sharps or flats and sits at 12 o’clock on the COF.

  • Clockwise to G we add a sharp (the key signature has one sharp).

  • Counterclockwise (from C to F) we add a flat.

This is a very rudimentary look at the theory and usage of the Circle of Fifths. It’s merely to understand the science behind chord movement and explain why chords move the way that they do.

The Jazz IIm7–V7 Etude

Here’s a simple etude that will get you used to playing and hearing the II–V movement.

Jazz Chord Progressions 4

The I–VI–II–V Progression

This is another chord etude. This example will help you get used to the I–VI–II–V chord movement.

Jazz Chord Progressions 5
Imaj7 / VIm7IIm7 / V7Imaj7 / VIm7IIm7 / V7
IIIm7 / VI7IIIm7 / VI7IIm7 / V7IIm7 / V7
Imaj7 / VIm7IIm7 / V7Imaj7 / VIm7IIm7 / V7

Rhythm Changes

Rhythm changes refers to the 32-bar song form that became popular during the 1920s. It’s made up of four 8-bar sections. There’s an A section that repeats; however, notice that the last two bars are a little different. That’s because the progression tells you what’s coming up next. The third 8-bar section is the bridge and the fourth 8-bar section is the A section again:

  • A1: 8-bar section. Notice the last two bars keep the motion moving forward.

  • A2: 8-bar section. Notice the last two bars come to a conclusion. The motion stops.

  • B (Bridge): This is a new section that changes the mood and keeps things interesting.

  • A3: 8-bar section.The final section that completes the cycle.

This song form is commonly referred to as the AABA form. But, most players call them rhythm changes. George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and the “Flintstones Theme” are probably the most famous examples of this song form. Also, jazz improvisers used this progression as a vehicle to hone their skills.

Jazz Chord Progressions 6

Closing Thoughts

I think back to the music store guys (I wish I had known their names) and recall how there frethead discussions influenced me. It was challenging trying to find my way into the world of jazz.

Much of my early jazz education came from listening to WBGO (the jazz station from New Jersey that I could pick up on my radio), the liner notes from albums, and the good fortune of studying with Emily Remler when I was 17.

Berklee certainly continued my education but it’s been playing and working with other musicians where I find the real inspiration.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this article. I appreciate you hanging with me.

Ed Lozano

Ed Lozano is a professional guitarist, instructor, producer and published author. He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and lives in the Andes mountains.