The Ultimate Chord Progression & Exercise

Weekly Newsletter #44

June 9, 2022

If you’re a songwriter, improviser or just a player who wants to find more creative chord progressions then learning The Circle of Fourths, the “Jazz Progression” and mastering your ii-V-I’s are going to be some of the greatest tools in your arsenal. 

At a certain point, everyone comes to a crossroads on the guitar: accept where you currently are, or push through to find a whole new set of skills. 

Becoming proficient at chord playing and understanding simple but effective ways of coming up with interesting and colorful chord progressions is something we all must do if we want to continue advancing on the instrument. 

One of the greatest ways to achieve this is by utilizing the Circle of Fourths. 

What Is The Circle Of Fourths? 

You’ve probably heard of the Circle of Fifths, but what is the Circle of Fourths? Well it’s actually the exact same thing, just in reverse. 

Take a look that the standard Circle of Fifths: 

If you start at 12 o’clock and travel clockwise you’ll notice that the interval between each letter is a fifth. This is where the name Circle of Fifths comes from. C to G is a fifth, G to D is a fifth, Eb to Bb is a fifth and so on. 

However if you travel counter-clockwise you’ll actually be moving in fourths. 

This is the basis not only for jazz players, and where the ii-V-I progression comes from, but it is also one of the most useful ways of tonicizing chords and creating new progressions. 

What Is ‘Tonicizing’ A Chord? 

“Tonic” most often refers to the I chord or “home” of a key. For example in the key of C major, a C chord is considered the tonic. 

However using the Circle of Fourths allows you to trick the listener into thinking that a different chord is the tonic of a key. 

Most times a dominant 7 chord is used to create tension, which demands a resolution to the home chord. However, by mastering this sequence of fourths you can actually deceive the listener into thinking a tonic chord is coming but instead prolong the resolution and eventually end on nearly any chord you want to, without it sounding weird or out of key. 

In order to accomplish this, and thereby enhancing your ability to create new chord progressions, you must think of the Circle of Fourths as simply guide notes and not keys. 

Using The Circle of Fourths 

The first step is to master the pattern associated with the notes moving counter-clockwise through the circle. 

Starting on C on the 15th fret of the 5th string, you move down two frets and to the 6th string, this will put you at F, the next note in the circle. From there simply stay on the 13th fret and move up to the 5th string, this is Bb. Moving down two frets and to the 6th string again will put you at the next letter, Eb. This pattern can continue indefinitely, but try to follow it all the way back to C on the 3rd fret, 5th string. 

Check out the VIDEO and TAB for a more in-depth lesson on this entire subject. 

It is this pattern of bass notes that we will use to create an infinite series of chord progressions. But first, let’s just take a look at the first three: C-F-Bb. 

Now remember, we’re thinking of these as notes, not chords yet. 

If we are traveling through these three notes and ending on Bb we can consider Bb to be the tonic, or I of our little example. If Bb is the I then F is the V of Bb and C would be the ii of Bb. Essentially when playing through these three notes you’re playing a ii-V-I bass line. 

ii-V-I Cycle Drill 

Upon those three notes, which outline a ii-V-I, we will build the associated chords. Thinking of Bb being the I chord, that will be a Bbmaj7, the V of Bb is F7 and the ii is Cm7. 

Putting these chords on those three bass notes creates a ii-V-I progression: Cm7-F7-Bbmaj7. 

We can follow this ii-V-I with a continued series of new ii-V-I’s by starting on each new letter moving through the Circle of Fourths. After beginning on C, we can begin the next ii-V-I on F, which would result in ending on Eb. 

This creates a new chord progression: Fm7-Bb7-Eb7. 

Through both of these progressions we have used the two preceding chords to “tonicize” the I chord. 

Following this pattern through the entire sequence of bass notes results in an overlapping series of ii-V-I’s that can be both challenging to play, but also can lead to some awesome chord progressions for songwriting. 

The Jazz Progression 

There is so much more that can be done with this concept of treating the letters of the Circle of Fourths as bass notes. 

Not only can you create ii-V-I’s but you could run through any series of seven or less of these chords and be outlining the “Jazz Progression”. This progression consists of all the notes within a key played in a sequential ii-V-I pattern. 

The full Jazz Progression is: IV-vii-iii-vi-ii-V-I. 

Most times songwriters and players won’t play the entire progression but simply a part of it. However you could certainly practice the entire progression using this drill. The only caveat would be that you end up having a #4 as the starting chord. 

This is actually essential in jazz, because almost always jazz musicians use a #4 as it follows the Circle of Fourths. 

Looking at a jazz progression which would end on C, we must begin on the seventh note to the right of C (counting C as the first of those seven). 

This puts us on F#. However F# isn’t in the key of C, instead it should be F. But by following the Circle of Fourths you actually end up with an F#. This is partly responsible for the “outside” sound that many jazz players use; they are tweaking one note within the key (#4) in order to more closely follow the Circle of Fourths. 

Keeping that in mind, the entire jazz progression would be: F#m7b5 - Bm7b5 - Em7 - Am7 - Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7 

Now, as I mentioned, this could be a great practice tool to incorporate into the overlapping drill of bass notes, but you could alternately cut out a certain number of these chords and create a chord progression that uses just a snippet of the full Jazz Progression. 

Am7-Dm7-G7-Cmaj7 would be a vi-ii-V-I for example. 

Taking It To The Next Level 

A common tool for sophisticated songwriters and chord players is to simply take the bass note pattern of the Circle of Fourths and impose any chord quality upon them. 

Very often using a sequence of dominant 7 chords can lead to an increasing level of tension that you can choose to resolve at any time. Playing through the bass notes and putting dominant 7 chords on each note tricks the listener into thinking that the next chord will be the tonic, but instead is another dominant 7. 

This is also an incredibly useful way of creating key changes within a song. 

In this example it ends on a C7 but you could just as easily end on a Cmaj7 or even a Cm7…or you could simply stop at any point within the sequence and play the next chord as a major or minor and have tonicized that new chord. 

Taking this dominant 7 idea and using extensions and alterations creates yet an even more sophisticated way of accomplishing this never-ending key change. 

There is truly no limit to the number of combinations you can come up with simply by starting with the Circle of Fourths bass notes and building chords on each one. 

The Ultimate Progression, is one that can follow the same pattern and yet always be new, exciting and inspire you to create a fresh new sound that will take your playing and writing to a whole new level. 

-Max Rich