Given the guitar’s well-established role as an accompaniment instrument, it behooves acoustic players to learn a lot about chords. Backing up your own singing or someone else’s means you’ve probably recognized familiar chord progressions that occur throughout popular music. As you add songs to your repertoire, you’ll likely notice that a lot of them use not only the same chords, but chords in the same order.
Chord progressions are typically indicated by Roman numerals so that they can be thought of and played in any key. For example, the chord progression G–C–D is a I–IV–V in the key of G. G is the I chord; count up four notes in the G major scale (G A B C D E F#) to arrive at C (IV), and next is D, or V. Once you know that trick, you can transpose to any key by using the numbers. So, a I–IV–V progression in the key of C is C–F–G.
One of the most common chord progressions in all styles of popular music is the ii–V. In any major key, the ii chord is a minor triad or a minor seventh chord. The V chord is a major triad or a dominant seventh chord. So in the key of C, the ii–V is Dm–G or Dm7–G7.
Since the ii–V progression is found all over so many styles—it’s ubiquitous in jazz standards, for example—it’s well worth learning some chord forms to play in a variety of contexts and complexities. This month’s lesson will show you some basic ways to play a ii–V, as well as some spicy variations on this essential progression.
Think of the George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord” (see arrangement on page 56) to get the sound of a ii–V in your mind’s ear: Am–D (Example 1a). That’s a ii–V in the key of G major, and in “My Sweet Lord,” it eventually resolves to the I chord (G). Example 1b uses a D7 chord in place of D. Notice that this makes an easier change between the ii and the V, since your first finger stays in place as a common tone between the Am and D7 chords. The D7 chord sounds a little more interesting than the D, too.
Example 2a is a variation on Ex. 1, this time in the key of D major. You can still use open-position chords, even when switching to seventh chords, as in Example 2b. Example 3 shows a mix of triads and seventh chords being used to good effect in the key of C major: Dm–G7–C. In the interest of efficiency, keep your first finger on the first fret when you switch from the Dm to the G7 chord. Again, you can resolve the progression after a few repeats to the I chord (C/Cmaj7).
Beginners’ Tip #1
In learning the ii–V progression, if you usually use a pick, try playing fingerstyle. If you only have played with your fingers, try a flatpick. Be creative with the rhythms and just practice getting used to the feel of the new technique.
In this week’s lesson, you’ll play some ii–Vs with voicings containing open strings, rather than more common barre chords. Take the key of E major, for example, with a ii–V of F#m7–B7. In Example 4, you’ll see that you can substitute F#m11, using the open B string as the tension or even the optional open high E string as the flatted seventh. Switching to B7 will be easiest if you use your second, third, and fourth fingers for the F#m11 grip. Your first finger should be ready to drop down onto the fourth string while your second finger moves over by one string to play the new bass note, B. If you’re using a pick, make sure to mute the fifth string on the F#m11 chord; if you play fingerstyle, you can avoid the A string until you play the B7 chord.
Another unexpected way to play a fairly easy voicing on the guitar instead of a barre chord is the James Taylor–sounding ii–V–I in A major shown in Example 5. Notice that you can keep your fourth finger down on the note D (string 2, fret 3), for the common-tone advantage when changing to E7. Likewise, keep your third finger on the second-fret C# when switching between the A and Amaj7 chords.
Example 6 might remind you of Ex. 4, since the chord forms are based on similar voicings. The difference is that you’ll use your first finger on string 2 for Gm11 grip, instead of what was the open B string on the F#m11 chord. And you’ll leave that finger in place to play the C7 chord. The resolution to the I chord (Fmaj7) in bar 3 brings back the use of an open string, this time the high E, which is the major seventh of the Fmaj7 chord.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Try the examples in Week Two very slowly and pay careful attention to the fingering suggestions. Once you can train your fourth finger to stay on the third fret of the B string when changing between Bm7 and E7 chords (as in Ex. 5), you’ll have a good habit for all chord changes with common tones.
Moveable chords are useful because they allow for playing in any key using grips that you might already know. Not all moveable chords are barre chords, but all barre chords are moveable chords! As long as you don’t include any open strings, a chord is moveable. Example 7 shows that the voicings from Ex. 6 are moveable by relocating the roots, just like you would do with basic barre chords. Note the introduction of a fifth-string-rooted ninth chord (D9)—a common voicing for the V chord.
Happiness is finding economical fretting-hand movements, some ii–V examples of which are shown in Examples 8a–b. Starting on Cm7 with the root (C) on the fifth string, and then switching to F13 with the root (F) on the sixth string, you can work your way up the neck in half steps (Example 8a) or whole steps (Example 8b). Make it even jazzier by changing the minor seventh chord to a minor ninth (Example 8c), and continue the pattern up the fretboard in half or whole steps.
Beginners’ Tip #3
This would be a good time to review bass notes and barre chords. Power chords will be just as effective for
committing the bass notes on the fifth and sixth strings to memory.
In the style of Gypsy jazz, Example 9 takes you back to playing the ii chord with its root on the sixth string. This time, the quality of the Am6 instead of an Am7 adds some sophistication to the progression. Notice the subtle change in moving to the D9 when you only need to move the bass note from A to D. Again, these are both moveable chords. Pay attention to the blocking of the fifth string on the Am6 chord if you’re using a pick.
Minor keys often use a iim7b5–V7b9 progression as a way to get to the i (minor) chord. This concept is shown in the key of C minor in Example 10a and G minor in Example 10b. Notice that the G7b9 chord has the same fingering as Ddim7. A nice variation on the minor ii–V is to resolve to a major I chord instead of minor, as in Examples 11a–b.
Beginners’ Tip #4
You can easily form an Am6 chord by starting with a basic open A-minor grip and adding your fourth finger to the second fret of the high E string, which is an F#, or the chord’s sixth. Lift your second finger from the Am6 shape, strum strings 4–1, and you’ll have a D7 chord, for a ii–V (Am6–D7).
TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Here’s a short chord etude that puts the ideas from all of this lesson’s examples into context. These colorful voicings lend themselves to bossa nova accompaniment, as shown in the example’s syncopated rhythms, but feel free to try the etude with your own favorite picking-hand patterns.
Jane Miller, a guitar professor at Berklee College of Music, has performed and presented master classes around the world. Miller is the author of Introduction to Jazz Guitar (Berklee Press/Hal Leonard, 2015). Her latest album of original music, Boats, is available on her website. janemillergroup.com
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This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.