How to Solo on I VI II V Chord Progression

You have arrived at one of the most common chord progressions in Jazz. The I VI II V (or turnaround) chord progression continues to entertain and challenge me. Let me show you a few tips and tricks I have learnt for navigating this famous chord progression.

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Remember that everything I cover in this lesson I use on a daily basis. I am not strictly a Jazz Guitar Teacher. I admit I don’t teach these concepts everyday. More importantly (I feel), I am a Jazz Guitar Player first and foremost, I USE these concepts everyday. This information is practical and ready to use.

This lessons includes:

  • I VI II V Example
  • The Easy Option
  • The Big Picture
  • Individual analysis of each chord
  • TAB Examples

I VI II V Example
turnaround

As you can see Cmaj7 is our I chord, Dm7 is II, Am7 is VI, and G7 is V.

The Easy Option

In a I VI II V in it’s most basic form, we could use ONLY diatonic major scale modes and chords.

For example:

  • I Maj7 | Ionian Scale
  • VI min7 | Aeloian mode
  • II min7 | Dorian mode
  • V dom7 | Mixolydian mode

All these modes have the same notes so theoretically we could simply play just a major scale over this whole progression.

Easy right?

End of lesson?

Time for a cup of tea?

Play a round of golf?

If only jazz was that simple! Pick up your jazz scissors and lets cut up this chord progression. Remember not to get too worried if you are overwhelmed with this lesson. Take just a little at a time. You can do it!

First, before we zoom in – let’s zoom out.

The Big Picture

Why do I VI II V exist? What function does it serve?

The most POWERFUL interval in music is a perfect 5th. The sound of a chord resolving down to another chord a perfect 5th away sounds great. It is a powerful harmonic movement. Jazz borrowed a musical concept from Classical music, called the ‘circle of fifths’. I’m not going to bore you with all the details right now so let me summarize for you.

The I VI II V progression uses the circle of fifth concept to create a strong harmonic movement that leads back towards the tonic chord. This is why you might have seen this chord progression at the end of tunes – it leads back to the home/ tonic chord.

Long story short, because of its cyclic nature, the I VI II V is a formidable progression of chords that is widely used in both classical, jazz and pop.

The I Chord

Our home: the tonic I Chord. I’m sure you have already come across it.

Scale: Major Scale/ Ionian Mode
Chord: Maj7
Chord/ Guide tones: 3, 7
Color tones: 9, 13
Avoid note: 11 (or 4)

Check out my major scale lesson here for a more in depth lesson on a Imaj7 chord before we continue. Learn some major chords here and some arpeggios here,

The II V

Check out my in depth II V lesson here. Below is a quick summary of that lesson.

IIm7

  • Scale: Dorian Mode
  • Chord: min7
  • Chord Tones: b3, b7
  • Color Tones: 9, 11, 13th
  • Avoid Notes: none

V7

  • Scale: Mixolydian, (Advanced jazz guitarists check out Altered Scale & half-whole diminished scale)
  • Chord: dom7
  • Chord Tones: 3, b7
  • Color Tones: 9, 13th
  • Avoid Notes: 11th

Advanced II V I Tips

I recommend you check out the bebop dorian and mixolydian bebop scales for better options than your normal major scale modes. For you advanced guitarists out there wanting some more colorful options for the V7 chord, check out the Altered Scale.

Before I get to our final chord, here is something cool to try. Instead of playing a IImin7 chord, play a II7 chord. Meaning, make your II min7 chord into a II7 dominant chord (has a major 3rd). This will lead really well into the V7 chord. Check out my great lesson on the II7 chord here to understand this concept of secondary dominants.

(But what if a minor7 chord is written? You, as an improviser, have the POWER to change chords. If you want to make a II7 chord – go for it.)

The VI Chord

I have left this chord last because it is so awesome! So the easy and boring way to play a I VI II V would be to play a VI min7 chord.

For example C Am7 Dm7 G7

We could play an A aeolian Scale over our VIm7 or Am7 chord. This would sound nice.

But we are jazz guitarists.

We always take the hard road.

Jazz is about adding color to chords. Jazz is about pushing and pulling our listeners ears with the release and build up of musical tension. This makes jazz interesting to listen too (and hard/fun to play). So, how can I spice up a plain I VI II V? Make the VI chord a VI7b9 Dominant7 chord. Easy!

The VI7b9 Chord

In the key of C, play a normal diatonic I VI II V: Cmaj7, Am7, Dm7, G7.

Nice. Grandma digs it. Grandpa too. Now play this:

turnaround
Wow! Grandma and grandpa REALLY dig it now. Your cousins and dog digs it too.

Ok, what type of dominant chord is our VI7 chord? To understand any dominant chord, look at where it wants to go. Dominant chords resolve to a chord a perfect 5th below. Our A7 resolves to Dm7. Because the chord that A7 wants to resolve to is normally a minor chord, we treat the A7 as a V7 chord in a minor key.

Use these guidelines for VI7 chords:

  • Treat VI7 chords the same way you treat V7 chords in a minor key
  • Scales: 5th mode of harmonic minor, Altered Scale or half-whole diminished scale.
  • Chord: dom7b9 is your go-to chord. dom7#5, dom7Alt are good too.

I highly recommend you check out my minor ii V lesson here for a in depth look at dom7 chords in a minor key.

I VI7 II V – (Putting It All Together)

We have successfully cut up our chord progression into little chunks and analyzed them. Now it is time to get out our jazz-tape and put it all back together. If you have checked out my major II V I lessons you would have heard of a little trick called ‘Voice Leading.’ I am going to use the same concept now.

Before I get started, here are two musical terms you should know:

  • Chord or guide tones: 3rd and 7th of a chord. Your target notes.
  • Voice leading: The movement between chord tones.
  • VI7 Chord Tones: 3rd, b7 and b9

Lets get to it! Play the chord tones on each chord of a I VI7 II V.

turnaround

Now instead of jumping around, lets smooth this out and create a musical contour:

turnaround

That still doesn’t sound very musical so now lets tie it all together with arpeggios and use voice leading to create nice melody.

guide tones I VI II V

That sounds good right? Can you see and hear how using guide tones clearly outlines the harmony of a I VI II V? Below are some more lines for you to try out.

I VII II V Examples

turnaround turnaround turnaround

Well done, you made it to the end of this I VI II V lesson. You deserve a break – reward yourself! Return to top 5 progressions to check out some more cool progressions.

Thanks for checking out this lesson, please feel free to leave a comment below with any suggestions or questions.

~ Sam Blakelock | pickupjazz.com

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