Chord Progression Made Simple

In this article we’ll show you a very common chord progression made simple by this step-by-step approach. This chord progression is EVERYWHERE - one of the most common chord progressions in all of jazz (and many other styles of music). And this progression uses only four chords!

Chord Progression Made Simple: Which Four Chords?

Many of you have probably heard that the most common chord progression in all of jazz is the “ii – V – I” (read “two, five, one”). These Roman numerals refer to the diatonic chords in a given key, representing four distinct chords starting on each indicated scale degree (i.e., a chord built on the 2nd scale degree, 5th scale degree, and 1st scale degree). We’re going to add one additional chord to that progression (the “vi” chord) to make it a “ii – V – I – vi” chord progression. In the key of C major, these chords would be:

D minor 7, G dominant 7, C major 7, A minor 7.

chord progression made simple 1

Chord Progression Made Simple: Which Hand Plays What?

Step 1 is to be able to play the roots of these four chords with your left hand smoothly and in time. Pretty easy, right?

Step 2 involves using some inversions and upper extensions in order to make our chords sound a bit cooler and more advanced than the vanilla, root position chords we see pictured above. So we’re going to reconstruct our chords to create some nice voice-leading (i.e., make the chords transition nicely from one to the next). And we’re going to do that according to these “rules”:

For major and minor chords:

  1. Invert the chord so that either the 3rd or 7th is the lowest note in the chord;
  2. Replace the root of the chord with the 9th (which is the same thing as the 2nd).

Following these two steps for the chords in our progression results in the following:

chord progression made simple 2

Make sure you understand those two rules and how they led us to the versions of the Dm7, Cmaj7, and Am7 chords above.

For the G dominant 7th chord we are going to follow the 2 steps above and add one additional step:

  1. Replace the 5th with the 13th (which is the same thing as the 6th).

Following these 3 steps for the G7 chord gives us the following:

chord progression made simple 3

Notice that in re-writing these chords, a clear pattern developed. When we use the 3rd as the lowest note for one chord we must next use the 7th as the lowest note for the next chord in order to allow the voice-leading to work, alternating in this way… and vice versa.

chord progression made simple 4

Step 3 is to practice playing the left and right hand together:

chord progression made simple 6

Chord Progression Made Simple: Make It Sound Even Better!

Want to tweak it a bit more? Try these two bonus steps!

Step 1: Create a bit of a walking bass line feel by playing the root of the chord on beat 1 and the 5th of the chord on beat 3.

chord progression made simple 7

Step 2: Change the “vi” chord (A minor 7) to a “V7/V” chord (read “five-seven of five,” or A dominant 7th chord). Add some cool extensions like flat-9 and flat-13 by lowering those tones by a half-step.

chord progression made simple 8

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