All about chords, part 2 Online Guitar Lessons
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All About Chords, part 2

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Darrin Koltow


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All About Chords, part 2
the ii-V7-I progression

by Darrin Koltow

Be sure and check out all of the lessons in the "All About Chords" series.

Part 1 - how harmony and chords work
Part 2 - the ii-V-I chord progression.
Part 3
- Arpeggios
Part 4
- The Blues Injection
Part 5 - CAGED - Form E
Part 6 - CAGED 2 - Form A
Part 7 - CAGED 2 - Form A - Arpeggios
Part 8 - CAGED 2 - Form A - Chord Melody
Part 9 - CAGED 2 - Blues Chord Melody

In the last lesson, we looked at this progression: the I, vi, IV, V7, I. In C major, that's C, Am, F, G7, C.

We worked backwards from there to explore the V7-I "mini" progression in detail. We're gonna pick up from there and change our progression just a wee bit to a related progression: the I, vi, ii, V7, I. Here it is in C major. Strum this a couple of times:

C, Am, Dm, G7, C

You see that we changed the F chord (IV) from the I, vi, IV, V7, I progression to a Dm, which is the ii in C major. It's not a big change in sound, but it's an important change. The progression we're playing now isn't a 16451, it's a 16251. (Please excuse the change to Arabic numbers from Roman. I'm part Syrian, so it's in the blood.)

Why the change? What's wrong with the '451 you ask? "Gee, I was getting to like the '451!" You can play with the '451 later. First, eat your vegetables.

We're switching to the 251 for a few reasons: first, check around the web, the curriculums in the big music schools, and with jazz professors and good teachers. They'll tell you to practice the 251, not the 451. That's reason one: the experts dig the ii-V7-I.

Reason B is as follows: Dm to G7 offers you more sonic variety than F to G7. Both F and G7 are based on major triads, correct? Not so with Dm, G7. Dm is minor and G7 is major. Major, minor offers your ear more variety than F, G7. In the same way, the term "Teeter Totter" is more appealing to the ears than "Totter totter." And I call it a Seesaw, anyway.

Keep in mind this replacement of the F major with the D minor is a preference, not a law, no matter how many music professors prefer the ii-V7-I.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Dm is a *substitute* for F, and F can sub for Dm. We'll go more into chord substitutions, harmonization, *re*harmonization, and 10 things you should never say to people who look like their pets, in a near future lesson.

Now that we've replaced the 451 with the 251, let's *play* it!

The ii-V7

In C major, the ii, V7 mini progression is Dm, G7. Play this on your guitar and *listen* to it.

| Dm Dm | G7 G7 | Dm Dm | G7 G7 |

You're not allowed to cheat on this by following the G7 with a C. I want you to feel the musical tension you're building up by playing this.

Hey, you know what? I just realized we have the beginnings of a George Harrison tune on our hands: My Sweet Lord (To be fair, George actually stole this tune from another group.) Let's do a Powertab on this. Here's the link: George Harrison's My Sweet Lord

Okay, we gotta do a reminder with this: the music in the Power Tab file is my interpretation of a song. It is taken from my own mind, and not copied from any authoritative source. It is to be used *only* for scholarly porpoises. Gosh those dolphins are getting smarter every year aren't they?

If you haven't downloaded the super cool and free Powertab yet, here's where to get it:

The purpose of the ii-V-I

Once you can play the ii-V progression smoothly, your ear should be crying out to hear the C. That's the purpose of the ii-V7: to build momentum to slam into the C.

How does it build this momentum? What is it about the ii-V7 that makes our ears want to hear the C?

Here are two important parts of Dm-G7: movement by a fourth, and the sweet note of Dm. Before we look at these reasons, keep this in mind: the job of the ii, V7 mini progression is to build tension, and *not* to provide the same sense of satisfaction that the V7, I provides.

Let's take a closer look at these reasons. Then, let's get our fingers and ears intimate with this important mini-progression.

Movement by a fourth

Think back a bit to the V7-I mini progression. Do you remember how the root of the V7 moved to the root of the I? It moved by an ascending perfect fourth. And we know from the last lesson and lesson how important, common and satisfying the perfect fourth is to our ears.

In other words, if you're not sure what chord comes next after the one you're currently playing, there's a good chance the root of the next chord will be a perfect fourth up from the root of the current chord. And even if a notated, "official" piece of music doesn't use a perfect fourth root movement between two particular chords, using a p4 root movement anyway still stands an excellent chance of sounding good.

Let's get back to the ii-V7 (Dm-G7). As with the G7 to C, the Dm to G7 moves by an ascending p4 or descending perfect 5. And sneaking a peak one step further back in our 16251 progression, how does the root movement from Am to Dm happen? Surprise, surprise: another perfect 4. Do you see how frequent this interval is?

The sweet note

Let's not forget the other reason for the characteristic sound of the ii-V7: the D minor's sweet note, or its third. As described in more detail in the publication Guitar Chords (, the interval between the root and the third of the minor chord is a minor third. This minor third is responsible for the wistful sound you hear when you play the Dm.

Let's watch -- and listen -- closely to how the minor third of the Dm becomes another interval as we move from Dm to G7. The following tab strips the Dm-G7 down to its bare essence. If you're under 18, please close your eyes.


Dm to G7

Compare this movement to the essential parts of the G7 to C movement.


G7 to C

Do you hear how much more satisfying the B note moving to the C note is in the V7-I movement, compared to the F moving to the G in the ii-V7?

Some people, especially those crazy jazz musicians, dig making that minor third in the ii chord a major third. Try that to see how you like it. Play this slightly changed version of our lesson's progression. Strum each chord twice.

C, Am, D7, G7, C

Sounds a bit different, doesn't it? Different can be good. Remember that the next time you forget to shave one side of your face or leave the house wearing two different socks.

Why chords are built in thirds

Before we move on to practicing the ii-V7, let's get a question out of the way. Keep in mind that making music involves lots of choices, and being aware of those choices will make you a better musician.

While it's great to have all these choices and options, our minds can focus on only one thing at a time, despite the ability some people seem to have to drive, chew gum, hold a conversation and groom themselves all at the same time.

I mention this because I want you to be aware of how chords are normally constructed, and of *alternative options* to that structure.

Triad construction

A triad in root position has the root in the bass. The next note is a third above that. The third note, called "the fifth," is a third above the third.

This structure is just one of many options. In other words, *you're not obligated to build chords using only thirds.* You can use seconds, fourths, or other intervals.

If you want to get more info on building chords using intervals other than thirds, there are lots of resources to help you do that. One place to start is this hip article at WholeNote, called Quartal Harmony

Staying with thirds

Now that we know there are choices we can make for building chords, why are we choosing to build 'em in thirds instead of fourths, or some other interval?

The main reason is because of simple conditioning, socialization, programming or whatever else you want to call the repeated exposure to something. In short, I grew up digging music based mostly on chords built in thirds. Chances are, you got the same wonderful brainwashing. And, most of the tunes you hear on the radio -- including jazz tunes -- will feature chords built mostly in thirds.

Tertial chords aren't better than quartal chords. We just got greater exposure to them. At least now we have an awareness of other possibilities for building chords. Now, onto practicing the ii-V7.

Practicing the ii-V7 change

All this talk about the ii-V7 change is just a lot of hoo- hah unless we can actually use it to produce music, right? We want to have this important mini progression under our fingertips in many ways, ready to play at a moment's notice, because we know how important it is.

And we know that we can practice the ii-V7 in many ways that are *fun*, darnit, because we've learned how to practice similar progressions in ways that are fun.

Do you remember how we approached practice for the V7-I? We played V7-I in several keys, the ones we play lots of tunes in. We're gonna do the same thing with the ii-V7.

And as with the V7-I change, we're not going to worry about exactly where to play the chords on the fretboard. Play 'em in open position if that's what you're comfy with. Play 'em with barre chords around the 5th fret. Play 'em in the bathroom and at your weekly mahjong parties for your great Aunt Vivian, who really needs to trim those nose hairs. Man, just play 'em!

Here are the changes in F, G, A, E, D and for extra credit, Gb.

Key F: Gm, C7 Key G: Am, D7 Key A: Bm, E7 Key E: F#m, B7 Key D: Em, A7 Key Gb: Abm, Db7

If you do the Extra credit progression, Abm, Db7, you get a Gold Star, and a chance to win a Les Paul...endorsed roll of toilet paper.

To help you play these progressions -- to *practice* 'em -- download the Power Tab file for them here:

I recommend singing the names of the chords as you play 'em so they don't run together into one big chord glob. Or, instead of singing the chord names, sing the key center you're working toward. For example, sing "F" while playing Gm to C7.

Treat this Power Tab file as a kind of metronome, or even better, a computerized teacher: play the tab in Power Tab, and play your guitar along with it until your playing and the computer's playing sound like one guitar. Then, increase the tempo a wee bit.

After you play through these and get 'em smooth, play them again, but with the dominant ii. In other words, instead of playing Gm, C7, play G7, C7. To remember why we're doing this, skip back a few paragraphs. Playing the dominant ii is going to give you more interesting options for your own playing. Also, it will help you recognize this change when you hear other people play it. "It's not just for jazz anymore!"

In the next installment of All About Chords, arpeggios: Highly hip chord components.

© 2002 Darrin Koltow, All rights reserved

Free Download - 17 Essential Strum Patterns PDF

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