10 Levels of Turnarounds – Unlock Amazing Jazz Chord Progressions

Jazz harmony is a huge topic, and learning to understand and analyze chord progressions can seem like an impossible task, but if you understand a few of the techniques involved you can both create beautiful chord progressions and have an easier time figuring out how to solo over them, and you can see these techniques in action on a very simple progression that you already know.

Level 1 – The Basic Turnaround

For this video, I will use this turnaround and show you how you can create some nice surprising sounds using that.

What is important to understand with the basic turnaround is that it is just an embellished version of a I V progression, which you might know if you have followed some Barry Harris videos.

The first thing to add is to turn the V into a II V which is really just a glorified version of a G7sus4 to G7

Then to add some extra movement then Am is added to have a little variation in the bar with the I chord.

This is the basic progression, now you can start making variations to it. Along the way you also want to realize that I don’t really think in substitutions that much, simply because that is not a very useful way to use or understand harmony.

Level 2 – A Secondary Dominant

The first variation that you want to add to the progression is a secondary dominant. In this case, a way to get the progression to flow a bit more towards the Dm7 chord:


The turnaround is in the key of C major, and the A7 is not the dominant in that key, that is G7. Like this, you are using the A7 to create a pull towards the Dm7 and add movement to the chord progression. When the A7 appears like this then it is described as a secondary dominant, so a dominant resolving to something else than the tonic of the key. Since the A7 is resolving to Dm7 then you can treat it as an A7 in D minor and the logical scale choice is then D harmonic minor making it an A7(b9b13)

Written out Dm harmonic highlighting A7(b9b13) – D E F G A Bb C# D E F G A Bb C# D E F

You could also use the same principle to have a D7 resolving to G7.

Can you see why the D7 is not a D7(b9b13)?

Level 3 – The “Easy” Diminished Chord

You can also take the secondary dominant and turn it into the “easy” diminished chord:

Here the A7(b9) is turned into a diminished chord. Also sometimes referred to as a secondary dominant diminished. This is really just an A7(b9) with a C# in the bass, and you will solo on it using the same material that you use on the A7 chord, so D harmonic minor.

On-screen comparison of A7(b9) and C#dim: A C# E G Bb – C# E G Bb

The reason for using the diminished chord is usually just to have a different type of bass melody.

Later in the video, you will also see an example of the “difficult” diminished chord which is a great example of where thinking substitutions is going to make things more difficult.

Level 4 – Doesn’t Have To Be THE tonic chord

Of course, you can also start on a different chord than the Cmaj7, other chords in the key have a tonic function and the III chord is a beautiful option that also highlights that the progression is still moving not standing still:

You also want to notice that it sounds great to use a G7 that is borrowed from minor, so a G7(b9b13). The b9 and b13 become chromatic leading notes that help pull stronger towards the resolution to Cmaj7.

Let’s have a look at the difficult diminished chord.

Level 5 – The “Difficult” Diminished Chord

The basic progression was Cmaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7, and then you can add more momentum by playing an A7 or a C#dim chord in the second half of the first bar.

I already mentioned that this was not a substitution, what does that mean?

When you talk about substitutions then it is about taking one chord and replacing it with a related chord, but there is not really a connection between Am7 and A7(b9) in this progression, It makes more sense to just view that progression as a different route when moving from Cmaj7 to Dm7 and that is also what you have in this example:

The star of this example is the Ebdim chord. This diminished chord is an altered subdominant chord that resolves back to the more regular subdominant chord Dm7. I have some older videos on this type of diminished chord if you want to dig deeper into that. I often come across people trying to turn these dim chords into dominants that don’t resolve, personally, I don’t think that really helps me hear how the progression moves so I like this analysis a lot better.

Since it is a subdominant chord then it is usually written as derived from the IV in the scale, and in this case the #IVdim.

Let’s get rid of the tonic chord so that it doesn’t even sound like a turnaround in C.

Level 6 – Where Did The Tonic Chord Go?

As you can see then quite a few things have happened compared to the I VI II V that we started with.

There are two main things happening here: The first is extending how much is borrowed from C minor, so now you have the entire II V coming out of C minor, but probably the most curious one is the first chord which until now was reserved for a tonic chord like Cmaj7 or Em7, but now it is a secondary dominant, namely E7 resolving to another secondary dominant: A7 and then the minor II V before resolving to Cmaj7. The E7 is a secondary dominant that would resolve to Am in the key so you would use A harmonic minor when soloing over it and it has a b9 and a b13.

Choosing this as a turnaround is a way to emphasize movement, so it is not so important to have the tonic clear, but instead, it is important to keep the song going for example at the end of an A-part going to the next A-part. You will see an even more radical version of this later in the video.

Level 7 – Altered Dominants & Tritone Substitution

I have of course talked a bit about why substitutions aren’t the best way to approach harmony, but this example has two clear examples of just substituting chords with similar functions.

Here you have the secondary dominant in bar 1, A7, being substituted with an Eb7, which is the dominant that shares the same tritone interval as the core notes: C# and G

The other substitution is using an altered dominant for the G7 which is a sound that is a bit further away than borrowing from minor, and actually also related to tritone substitutions. It is a great sound to create a lot of tension and movement toward the resolution to the I chord.

Level 8 – My Favorite Turnaround

This turnaround variation is a great way to incorporate Minor subdominants and Coltrane changes into a turnaround

Here you have the first 3 chords as being straight out of a Coltrane cycle in C: Cmaj7 Eb7 Abmaj7  B7 Emaj7 G7 Cmaj7

Another way to look at this, and probably the reason why it sounds so great is that it involves a beautiful minor subdominant chord: Abmaj7

The first two chords are similar to the previous example and sound similar to what we pretty much expect in a turnaround, but the Eb7 resolves as a V chord and not a tritone substitution which takes us to Abmaj7,  a nice but still satisfying detour.

Using the Db7, the tritone substitute of the G7 makes it easier to move from the Abmaj7 back to Cmaj7.

This turnaround is often referred to as a Ladybird or Tadd Dameron turnaround, but not everybody agrees on what that is, so it is a good idea to check. In emergencies, the Blues always works 🙂

Level 9 – Chromatic Passing Chords

Let’s step it up and add some chromatic chords. This one probably came from the diminished chord progression that I talked about earlier, just stepping out of the key and approaching the Dm7 from a half-step above:

Here you have the Ebm7 that just quickly jumps out of the key to slide back in on the Dm7. You will quite often hear people like Bill Evans, Jim Hall, and Keith Jarret reharmonize dim chords to parallel minor chords and even Parker does it sometimes so it may be coming from that. Again calling it a substitution for a dim chord is really a stretch though.

Level 10 – What?!

Having a turnaround where the first chord is not at all what you expect is great, and this example uses a chord that does that, but still really works in with the progression.

When the ear expects a Cmaj7 and gets a Bb7 then that still is acceptable because the Bb7 moves on to an A7 and then continues in the turnaround. The Bb7 is there as a tritone substitute for the E7, the secondary dominant for A7.

I don’t think this one is that common, but it does sound really great so you should give it a try in a Jazz standard as a reharmonization.

Put It To Use In Chord Melody

You can create amazing things by taking songs and adding chords to them while also exploring different sounds and options with the chord progression. If you want to explore how to make your own chord melodies then check out this video.

It is a great way to build your knowledge and skills with jazz chords and in the process get started making some beautiful Chord Melody arrangements.

An Amazing Exercise For Jazz Chords (And Your Playing In General)

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