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3 Ways To Fix Your Chord Progressions To Be More Interesting & Beautiful

I always loved that Jazz Harmony is full of amazing chord progressions that have a natural flow but still contain some surprising sounds that make them interesting to listen to.

But how do you write chord progressions like that? Because most likely you’ll see 100s of lessons on II V I’s and while that is an important progression, you also want to be able to play other things.

I  was always messing around with writing music and putting chords together also before I was playing Jazz, probably because I couldn’t really play a lot of stuff so I experimented and improvised together things.

The problem I kept having there was that I didn’t really know what chords would fit together, not beyond the  I IV and V chords in the key, and even that I didn’t really get, so it would be more about luck and a lot of messing around before I created chord progressions that I liked.

Most of that is about having a better foundation and it is pretty amazing how far that will take you in terms of finding a lot more chords, and a lot more interesting sounds, that work together.  I could probably also have used some sort of strategy to help me put stuff together, but I was just trying things out at random.

Let’s look at finding some interesting chords and then  talk about how to fit them together!

The Basic Chords

I am going to start with a few basic things and then expand that REALLY a lot.

The basic process works for ANY scale and knowing this is useful in so many ways!  If you start with the a major key, like C major then you have one chord for each note in the scale:

You build the chords by stacking 3rds so for C major

Adding an other 3rd gives you the triads:

 

and then add another note a 3rd above to get the 7th chords:

This is pretty basic and it is going to get a lot more colorful, but you can already do great things with this! If you have a basic progression going from Cmaj7

to G7 then you can use the other chords to walk there in steps down the scale:

Or you can walk up; Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7

Or if you are moving from Cmaj7 to Fmaj7 then maybe add an Em7 as a step up to the Fmaj7

 

Let’s use this to make it a bit more interesting!

#1 Beautiful Borrowed Chords

The upside to not knowing anything and improvising is that you have not idea what won’t fit and you probably don’t mind so everything is worth a try, the downside is that most of the chords don’t sound that great. The key of the music you creating or playing is a very powerful tool when it comes to creating chord progressions. In this case, the best place to start is to add the chords from the minor key, so C minor, then I can show you a secret subdominant trick and a fun way to create some wrong chords to make everything weird.

For C minor, you have these chords:

These are much more fun to add to our C major chord progression because they fit in there but they clearly also sound different.

Especially the chords you can use as minor subdominants in major are great, in this case: Dø, Fm7, Abmaj7, Bb7:

So if I am going from Cmaj7 to Fmaj7, I can add the Em7 to get to Fmaj7 and use the Abmaj7 to go back:

And this works with pretty much all the minor subdominants, for example  Bb7:

And I am using the minor subdominant chord as a surprising sound that isn’t really dissonant but still resolves back to the tonic chord.

But you can also use them to get to the dominant like this:

Making Chord Progressions

Now that you have a few more chords to use then we can talk a bit more about how to put chords together. And this is useful if you are making your own songs, but it is also important if you are making your own chord melody arrangements and want to add a more personal color to them, or make your own intros or outros.

There are 2 ways that you can put chords together easiily, but keep in mind that they are not rules, if you play something else and it sounds good then that is fine as well, in fact I will show you some examples of that as well later.

#1 Circle of 5ths

Chords like to move in 4ths and 5ths, take a song like Autumn Leaves.

Cm7 F7 Bbmaj7 Ebmaj7 Aø D7 Gm6, everything is moving in 5ths or 4ths depending on if you see it as moving up or down.

That is also how I started with the basic chords going from Cmaj7 to G7 or Cmaj7 to Fmaj7.

#2 Step-wise

The other approach is to move the chords in steps. You already saw examples of this, but here is another one which is really a stepwise variation of a II V I:

And the other option is to use stepwise motion as a sort of leading note. so just a single step before the next chord:

And like this you can create some great progressions putting chords together that will flow!

The next type of chord, before I start breaking the rules, is really a bit overlooked, which is useful because then we can sound different from everybody else.

#2 The Secret Subdominant

You already know about the diatonic chords, and some of the minor subdominants, but you also have the #IV subdominants, where the most common ones are the #IVdim and the #IVm7(b5)

And these are amazing ways to get some other sounds into the progression, just more variation together with the subdominant and minor subdominant chords.

The classic example is this one:

But can also work with it in a progression from Am7 to Cmaj7 like this

You can see that here I am turning the Em7 into an inversion to get step-wise movement, this is another thing you can also do to get your chord progression to flow better, explore making some of them inversions so the bass becomes stepwise movement.

The other one is a diminished chord that you probably know from a chord progression like this:

But it is also amazing as a suspension like this:

#3 Disguised Chords That Sound Amazing!

It can also be great to sometimes be less obvious. Check out this progression, and see if you can recognize the chords:

So it is starting on  Cmaj7 and ending there as well. The 2nd chord is a G triad with a B in the bass, so an inversion to make a stepwise bass melody, and the Am7 is also fairly easy to recognize.

The chord with Ab in the bass is a little less clear, but in fact that is an Fm6 with Ab in the bass, which makes a lot more sense than trying to call it an Ab6(b5) the fact that it is an Fm chord also makes it clear why it resolves so nicely to Cmaj7, and it is a beautful variation instead going to an Fm chord or using Abmaj7, because you sometimes want to search for a less common sound.

Working with stepwise movement and inversions is a very powerful tool that you also will come across in Jazz Standards, maybe check out the beginning of” Like Someone In Love” as an example.

But a much more exciting and less typical idea is to make the chord progression more vague by changing the bass note, so that you don’t have a too obvious connection, check out how this sounds:

What is happening here is that I am taking a G7alt (play) and then using a b9 so the Ab as a bass note which creates this Abm6. The voice-leading still makes sense but the bass movement isn’t as obvious, which might be exactly what you want.

You can make a turnaround much more interesting by turning a G7altered into an Fm7(b5) which will eliminate most of the 1 6 2 5 sound. But you do need to couple it with an Em7 to justify the bass being F:

The Best Strategy for Creating Chord Progressions

As you saw already from the beginning of this video then I tend to start with a few chords and then find a way from chord to chord adding more harmony. This is an incredibly strong principle, but you need to be able to reduce chord progressions to the basic chords to tap inot that freedom. Using functional harmony like that is an incredibly powerful tool, and you can check out how to use it and also some approaches from Barry Harrys and Pat Martino in this video:

How The Pros Think About Chord Progressions (and you probably don’t)

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How To Use Outside Playing – A Few Secrets And Some Important Advice

Sometimes you have to solo on a single chord for a longer time, and it can be hard to keep things interesting, so having the option of using some outside material to change things up can make your solo a lot better if you can get it to sound right.

The point of using outside material is to make it sound wrong.

Because you want the listener to feel the tension that needs to resolve and that helps make the solo interesting and gives it a story.

Playing notes that don’t fit the chord is pretty easy, but playing something that moves away and comes back so that it still sounds like the music is MUCH more difficult, but as you will see it is far from impossible, and there are a few ways to do so.

#1 – Ab7 – Side Stepping Up

The first approach is to move up a half step from the chord you are soloing over. For this video, I am using a static G7 chord,

in fact it is a really nice backing track from Quist, there’s a link in the description. If you move up from G7 then you, of course, have an Ab7 chord. Almost all the notes in the scale will sound outside, and in fact the Ab7 works as a tritone substitute for the dominant D7, so there is also a harmonic connecting, but that is not really what I am using in the solo.

Instead, I am moving from the “normal” solo into the outside material by repeating a phrase or a part of a phrase and give the listener something to hold on to when things get weird.

Here it is this section

And then that short phrase is shifted up and I can keep on improvising using Ab7 material.

Another thing you should notice is how I play long notes to really drive home the tension they create before resolving with a short phrase that moves back into the G7 chord

Here’s the complete solo:

The next one is also using another chord as a way of thinking about the outside solo, but then we get into using some exotic scales as a diffrent approach, and rely more on structures like triads.

#2 F#7 – Side Stepping Down

Another option for side-slipping or side-stepping is to move down a half step, which sometimes is a bit nice because it sounds less like a dominant and therefore a little bit more mysterious.

This solo also uses the motivic way of getting to the outside section, but here the motif is also placed differently in the rhythm as well.

It is about giving the listener the idea that they get the melody but then because it is shifted away they at the same time are surprised about the sound.

And the same type of motivic development is used with a basic F# triad melody to go back up to G7.

A later example will also use voice-leading as a way of resolving which is a more abstract motivic technique.

The F#7 Solo is written out here:

#3 Augmented Scale

So, let’s try a funny scale that doesn’t really fit the chord, but also almost does.

The augmented scale is a 6-note scale which you can see as constructed either of 3 major triads a major 3rd apart, in this case G B and Eb major.

A

or it is the sum of two augmented triads a half-step apart, here I am using B and Bb, but you could also call it F# and G,

Since the chord is a G7 then some of the notes in the scale work pretty well and others are pretty far out.

As you will hear I am really focusing on using the major triads as a way to create melodies. This creates melodies where sometimes it is inside and sometimes outside the G7 sound, but it still works because the triads are strong enough melodies to carry it.

The transition is a bit more abrupt with taking a pause before starting the augmented lick, sort of a shock effect, and then you can use the G major triad to return smoothly back home.

The entire solo is written out here:

You Need To Get This Right!

The trick to getting outside playing to work is to make sure that what you play as outside phrases still makes sense. It still has to be a melody. The two strategies that I am using for this have been either:

#1 Think another chord

So that you can use that chord to create melodies with arpeggios and licks that you already know, even though you still need to get used to how weird it sounds on top of the chord in the music. Sometimes I am also using a chord that I naturally can resolve back to the music like a dominant, and sometimes I don’t that is really something you have to experiment with yourself to figure out what you like. Just make sure that you are playing melodies that you really think sound like melodies, otherwise it falls completely apart.

#2 Think in Melodic structures 

This is a bit more abstract and you probably need to develop this a bit by in your playing. But it is about relying on structures like triads and then put those together. You can work on this by sitting down and making melodies with the triads to get that sound into your ears.

And Luckily that skill is useful for a lot more than augmented scale stuff on a G7, as you will see already in the next example which also has a bit of quartal harmony.

#4 The Wrong Dominant Diminished’

B-roll Cleaning? Sweeping away alterations b9, #9, b5, b13

Sometimes you want to resolve the melody as if it is a chord, so you want to resolve several notes in one phrase down to other notes in the next phrase.

This is subtle but it actually really makes a difference, and It is a little bit like going back and cleaning up the mess you left unresolved

You can use D7 diminished or what I would actually refer to as F# diminished, as a great tension over G7, and it lets you play a sort of dominant sound that resolves back to the G7,

but here I am more focused on using triads and quartal arpeggios.

Let’s first look at the scale:

If you write it from D then it would be these notes:

D Eb F F# Ab A B C D Eb F F#

And the first structure that I am using is a quartal arpeggio from C: C F# B which you could also see as the upper part of a D7(13) chord.

This scale also contains 4 major triads a minor 3rd apart.

D F# A – D major

F A C – F major

Ab C Eb – Ab major

B Eb F# – B major

This example also jumps more or less abruptly out of the harmony, using the quartal arpeggio and following it up with a wide-range melody with the B major and Ab major triads, landing on the high Ab which of course is very dissonant over the G7.

The resolution, in this case, is first running down the scale to resolve to D, the 5th of G7 and then back up to A as a resolution to the Ab which is in a way voice-leading the resolution, and also taking care of resolving that long Ab that was just there.

 

The solo is here:

#5 Altered, But Wrong

The point of playing altered is usually that you want to create some tension that you can resolve moving to a I chord. But in this case, the chord doesn’t go anywhere, and you can still change things up and create a lot of tension using the altered scale.

The outside line starts with a G7(#5) arpeggio which begins by sounding like it is just chord tones but then the Eb makes it clear that something else is going on.

That arpeggio also contains the augmented triad, G B Eb which really helps getting the outside sound across.  From there the line continues up to an Abm lick that is shifted up as a sequence to Am and then Bdim which helps it get back to the chord as a resolution.

The Altered Scale solo:

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Jazz Chords – Drop2 is a Powerful Tool

I always loved playing Jazz Chords, mostly because you don’t just play the chord. You can change it and add your own colors and movement to it.

One of the most flexible types of chords for this is Drop2 chords., and once I started working on playing Drop2 chords then it felt like I could tap into a lot of new sounds. It opened a new world for me with comping and harmony.

In this video, I focus on how you can use drop 2 voicings on a standard and give you some rules that you can use to open up how you play chords because it is that process of taking chord symbols and then turning them into beautiful music that I find amazing, but, I  will also briefly explain what a Drop2 voicing is and why that isn’t very important, but we’ll get to that later.

Let’s first just go over a basic set of chords for the song.

The Basic Chords And What To Play

The song is in C major, and the first chord is a Cmaj7 chord.

For now, I am just showing you what I am using in this video, if you want diagrams of all the inversions and string sets, then you can download those on my website, but right now, the important thing is what you can do with this type of chord. And then. In the long run, it can be great to explore the inversions as well.

Then you have a II V in Eb, Fm7 Bb,

It is practical to stay in the same area of the neck,

then it is Back to Cmaj7

Notice that I am really just playing the basic 4 note version of each chord, so the voicings just contain root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th:

Cmaj7: G C E B

Fm7: Ab Eb F C

Bb7: Ab D F Bb

Then you get a II V I in Ab major: Bbm7 Eb7 Abmaj7

Another thing that you should always try to do is to think about the chords in small groups, so II V in Eb and II V I in Ab. That is much more flexible and makes it easier to learn songs by heart because you don’t have to remember as many details. I am going to show you quite a few ways of thinking about chords that are like this and incredibly useful for being creative with chords.

Next, you have a II V in G: Am7 D7

And a II V I in C major: Dm7 G7 Cmaj7

For the turnaround I am just re-using the chords I already covered and adding a Db7.

Why Drop2 doesn’t matter

I think one of the most common questions I get whenever I talk about Drop2  is why it is called that and how they are constructed. Let me quickly show you why that isn’t that relevant for playing them.

Drop2 voicings are called like that because you take the 2nd highest note (Cmaj7 root position) and then you take that down an octave.

and you can play this in a much nice way like this (Cmaj7 drop2)

 

If you are playing chords then you have to know them, we don’t have time to think about what note is moving up or down an octave, and if you want to use drop2 voicings you need to have them in your fingers and your ears. Even if you are practicing the inversions then you don’t really think about how it relates to a closed voicing, so it is good to know but not something you really use while playing.

Let’s start putting the chords to use, because THAT is important, and that is what makes them great!

Rule #1 – Cmaj7 is also C6 and Cmaj7(9)

For “a Chord symbol is something you can interpret as” A Chord Diagram in Stone? (download cave painting and put2 chord diagrams on it)

When you play chords in Jazz then you improvise with the harmony. A Chord symbol is something you can interpret, it isn’t a static grip.

So when you see Cmaj7 then you are free to play

Cmaj7, C6, Cmaj7(9), Cmaj7(13)

And some of the other rules I will cover are about how you change the chords and add some of the more colorful extensions.

Now You can easily turn two bars of Cmaj7 into something much more interesting even add a bit of chromatic magic:  (Cmaj7 and C6 with Bb passing note

When you have all these options then you can also tell why I often just write the basic chord and don’t really spend time on the extensions. That is up to whoever is playing the chords

Rule #2 – 9th Instead of Root And Some Chord Relationships

When it comes to adding extensions to a 7th chord then one of the first ones to add is probably a 9th. For voicings with 4 notes then you need to play the 9th instead of something else, and in this case, the root is the obvious choice because it is right next to the 9th and the bass player is anyway taking care of the root.

I’ll demonstrate this with two chords and show you a useful connection at the same time: The basic Cmaj7 and Fm7 are

B-roll: sheet music replacing the diagrams and tabs

And the Root for Cmaj7 is here, so making that a D is giving us this Cmaj7(9).

On the Fm7 the root is on the B string and replacing it with the 9th gives you this:

Getting Out Of The “Grip” Of The Chord

It might seem like you have to learn even more chords to also have a Cmaj(9) and an Fm7(9), but if you look at those chords then notice that one is an Em7 voicing and the other is an Abmaj7 voicing

This is because:

Cmaj7 – C E G B – replace the C with D – D E G B which is Em7

and

Fm7 – F Ab C Eb – replace F with G – G Ab C Eb which is Abmaj7

Personally, I don’t like thinking other chords than what I am hearing, so I don’t want to think of that as an Em7, and I have become used to thinking of it as something that is both a Cmaj7(9) and an Em7 depending on what I hear in the music. But maybe that is different for you. I find it confusing to have these extra steps in between and I don’t want to think about stuff. You probably want to figure out what works for you with this.

Here you can also move with passing notes and create some beautiful movement, in fact, it works great to move both the 9th to the root and the 7th to the 6th on a maj7 chord:

The next extension that you want to add to a chord is a 13th, so let’s go over that.

Rule #3 – 13th instead of 5th

The basic chords work the best if you keep the 3rd and the 7th in the chord. If you take the Bb7:

Example (+adding examples of Bb7(9) )

For now, the root is used to get the 9th in the chord, so the next note to work with is the 5th.

You can replace the 5th in the chord with the 13th. This works great on dominant chords:

And the same process for the Eb7 can transform that into an Eb7(9,13).

The basic chord, the 9, and then the 9 and the 13.

Example Eb7 Eb7(9) Eb7(9,13)

With this you can create more movement on the II V I in Ab major by also adding the 9th to the Bbm7:

There is also a rule that sounds amazing for minor chords, I’ll get to that in a bit.

Getting Caught In The Grip of Chords

B-roll: G major, campfire, different bar chord options

When you are first learning chords then you learn a grip and that is how that chords sound, later you realize that there might be more ways to play that chord, but for Jazz, I would take that a bit further.

As you can probably tell, then you should not be thinking of these chords as different isolated things, they are more like a group, of chords. A set of options that I can use to make music. This is not so different from how you think about a scale or an arpeggio when you improvise and choose notes to put together in a solo line.

B-roll: Text Cmaj7 in sheet music, zoom in, and add different diagrams around it while blurring out the other chords.

Rule #4 – 11th instead of 5th

As you saw earlier, then you can replace the 5th with a 13th, but sometimes it is more useful to replace it with an 11th, which is a way to get a #11 on a maj7 chord and also have a very useful sound for m7 chords.

If you take the Fm7(9) that you already learned earlier in the video

then the 5th is the C on the high E string, and you can replace that with the 11th of F: Bb like this:

Besides being a beautiful chord this also gives you the chance to create some contrary motion in a II V which is when some voices move up and others down when going from chord to chord:

And using this to create a maj7(#11) is also really simple

Here’s a Cmaj7 and the 5th, G, is the lowest note in the voicing, so that becomes an F#, the #11:

And combining this with the Fm7 Bb7 you can get some cool sounds like this:

Simple Melodies – The Most Important Rule

When you are playing chords behind a soloist then it is incredibly important that you don’t get in the way of the soloist.

One of the ways to make melodic comping that does not get in the way is to focus on stepwise movement in the melodies. This ties together chords very well, and luckily is also a lot easier to play than skipping around.

It can also be a powerful tool to use short melodies that repeat through the changes creating a riff that the soloist can play over:

 

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About the book

The E-book has a few different approaches to making altered dominant lines and I explain how the licks are constructed. For each lick, I discuss the arpeggios and melodic ideas that I use. This should help you get started writing your own II Valt I licks. And you can of course also check out some of my other lessons on altered dominants if you want some more inspiration!

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