One of the most common progressions in music is the II – V – I (or 2-5-1). This means in any key, it is the second chord followed by the fifth chord that then returns back to the one chord (or tonic). Even if you haven’t heard of this term or don’t think you know it, I’m sure you’ve heard it in use before as it features in tons of songs across a myriad of styles and feels.
Figure A uses a II-V-I in the key of C, meaning the II chord is Dm7, the V chord is G7, and the I chord is C. Play through the progression a couple of times to get the sound stuck in your head. You can play it strictly as crotchets with a straight feel or try making it a bit funkier with some syncopation.
If you’ve got even a slight handle on theory, you’ll probably see that this can easily be transposed to other keys too. Figure B takes the same II-V-I progression and moves it to the key of A. The one chord is A, the two chord is Bm7 and the V chord E7. Try working out II-V-I progressions in other keys to test your knowledge (if you know the major scale built from the 1 chord or tonic, it’s as easy as playing through the scale and identifying the second and fifth notes). Try looking through songs (particularly pop and jazz) and I’m sure you’ll start to identify and see II-V-I progressions everywhere.
You might be thinking, ‘What’s the use in knowing this?’ Well, it can help in a lot of ways. Working out songs by ear is a great skill and identifying a common progression such as this is a handy tool. Improvising is another important skill and being able to navigate changes rather than just noodling away on the same scale over the whole song can add another dimension to your solos.
Let’s take Figure A again as our song we’re jamming on. Imagine it’s a straight rock tune at around 120 BPM. The song is in the key of C (as C is the I chord or tonic), so a good starting point is a C major scale (C D E F G A B C). Try recording/looping the progression (or find a backing track) and experiment with the C major scale. Sound ok? All the chords are fit diatonically (meaning they come from the key of C), so the scale should fit – some notes will sound better than others, though.
Another option is the C major pentatonic scale (meaning a five-note scale). This is C D E G A C and has a definite ‘sound’ that you’re probably familiar with. Again, it will fit over our II-V-I progression, but some notes will sound better than others.
Arpeggios are a good starting point. Figure C uses quavers and strictly plays only notes from each arpeggio. How does it sound? Hopefully you can hear the chord changes outlined even without any accompaniment. This doesn’t always have to be the way with improvising, but it can be a very useful tool. We’ll go more in depth next issue.