How to simplify chord progressions

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How to simplify chord progressions

Some songs have so many chords that change so fast that it’s very hard to improvise over them. You find yourself just running after the chords and after the form of the songs. Maybe you can follow the form and you can play the “right” notes over each chord, but then you lack creativity in your improvisation because you are concentrating so hard on playing the “right” notes that you forget about being musical…
In such situations, it’s very helpful to simplify the chord progression. It allows you to improvise over less chords, making the changes slower, and gives you more space to focus on your musicality.
I will demonstrate how to simplify the chord progressions over two of the most common chord progressions: II-V-I and I-VI-II-V, as in Django Reinhardt’s composition Swing 42.
Two main functions for chords:
There are two main functions for chords that you need to be aware of:
– The unstable chords that lead to other chords (usually Dom7 chords).
– The stable chords (usually tonic chords).
Simplifying the II-V-I progression:
In the II-V-I progression – you can always disregard the II chord and improvise only on the V7 chord. That is because the V7 is the important chord. It leads to the I.
The II is neither a leading chord nor the stable chord. It is merely an extension of the V7 chord and thus less important. You can ignore it when you improvise.

Simplifying the I-VI-II-V progression:

You can hear the I-VI-II-V progression in a few ways. One of the ways is to see it just as a turnaround that starts with the 1st degree and leads back to it. So we can make this progression very simple in our improvisation and we can think only of the 1st degree!

We can also think of the Dom7 chord because it leads us back to the tonic. It would look like this:

Practice these two options and get used to hearing the difference between the sound of the tonic and the sound of the Dom7 over the I-VI-II-V progression.

The II-V inside the I-VI-II-V

Another way to look at the I-VI-II-V progression, is seeing it chord by chord:

C: The 1st degree.

Am7: The 6th degree – an extension of the 1st Degree. It shares most of its notes with C:

C chord: C E G

Am7 chord: A C E G

G7: The 5th degree – a Dom7 chord that leads us to the 1st degree.

Dm7: The 2nd degree – an extension of the 5th degree.

So we can ignore the VI degree as it is not an important chord. It does not lead us to another chord and it is not a target chord. It’s just an extension of the 1st degree.

And we can ignore the Dm7 chord for the same reason:

The minor II-V7:

Later on in Swing 42, after the I-VI-II-V progression that repeats twice, we have another II-V7 progression:

Em7b5 – A7

This is a minor II-V. You can recognize it by the half-diminished 2nd degree. But it doesn’t make any difference to us, we can still omit the II degree and improvise only over A7.

So the next part looks like this:

What to play over each chord:

Simplifying the chord progression allows you to play whatever you like over each of the simplified chords.

You can choose to play arpeggios, scales, licks, or other phrases, as long as you keep the new simplified form in mind and play whatever you like over each chord.

 

Swing 42:

Here is a suggestion for the complete A part of Swing 42 – simplified vs. original chord progression:

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16 Comments
  • Eddy de Cloe
    Posted at 12:10h, 28 May Reply

    Thanks for being the mising link in my journey of finding my musical self.

    • Yaakov Hoter
      Posted at 14:20h, 28 May Reply

      Wow Eddy. Thanks for letting me in!

  • Dana Woodaman
    Posted at 15:04h, 28 May Reply

    Hi Yaakov,
    Cool lesson but one thing I don’t understand: in measure 9, you talk about a minor II-V progression. In the context, of that one measure, I could see it being a II-V if suddenly we were in the key of D but since I don’t see a key change I cannot understand how you analyzed the changes that way.
    Thanks in advance for helping my brain work better! And thanks for taking the time to post this.
    Cheers,

    • Yaakov Hoter
      Posted at 16:20h, 28 May Reply

      Hi Dana
      In this context – We call A7 a ‘secondary dominant’, as it leads do Dm, but Dm is not the tonic.
      So we don’t change the key. We can create a tension (Dom7 chord) that leads to any chord we want in the song.
      It means that You can do this for any chord. But you also need to hear the result and see if you love it. Depending on your musical taste.
      The secondary Dom7 is always the 5th degree of the target chord.
      In this situation – A is the 5th degree of Dm (the target chord).
      For each Dom7 chord we can add a related 2nd degree. So Em7b5 is the related 2nd degree for A7.
      We can simplify the chord progression and ignore the Em7b5 chord when we improvise.

      Hope this helps
      Cheers
      Yaakov

  • James Paxton
    Posted at 18:01h, 28 May Reply

    Very well explained Yaakov, keen to adopt over many of Django’s tunes. A really good post!

  • joe Yahr
    Posted at 17:05h, 29 May Reply

    Yaakov! you’re a brilliant teacher – your way of explaining is crystal clear and best of all… it works!
    Many thanks,
    Joe

    • Yaakov Hoter
      Posted at 13:52h, 30 May Reply

      My pleasure Joe. Thank you!

  • Jeffrey MacMillan
    Posted at 12:28h, 30 May Reply

    Absolutely killer lesson about a big confusing subject,
    My only small complaint would be, you show some unfamiliar chord forms ( G7 two locations hard to read and the Em7b5 )
    But my response is, wow, great lesson!
    Thank you.

    • Yaakov Hoter
      Posted at 13:52h, 30 May Reply

      Hi Jeffery. You might find this e-Book useful for you
      Cheers!
      Yaakov

  • Jeffrey MacMillan
    Posted at 12:28h, 30 May Reply

    Absolutely killer lesson about a big confusing subject,
    My only small complaint would be, you show some unfamiliar chord forms ( G7 two locations hard to read and the Em7b5 )
    But my response is, wow, great lesson!
    Thank you.

  • Nick greene
    Posted at 22:47h, 15 June Reply

    Awesome video! Your explanation is very clear and helpful. I am curious can you play arpeggios of just the tonic with embellisments over full chord progressions like after you’ve gone- I’ll see you in my dreams- ect. Also on minor progressions like minor blues”example gm arpeggios over gm-cm-d7 or g major arpeggios over after you’ve gone in g. Thank you again I look forward to your response!

  • Nick greene
    Posted at 19:37h, 16 June Reply

    Awesome video! Your explanation is very clear and helpful. I am curious can you play arpeggios of just the tonic with embellisments over full chord progressions like after you’ve gone- I’ll see you in my dreams- ect. Also on minor progressions like minor blues”example gm arpeggios over gm-cm-d7 or g major arpeggios over after you’ve gone in g. Thank you again I look forward to your response!!

    • Yaakov Hoter
      Posted at 05:20h, 17 June Reply

      Hi Nick
      Do you mean playing a unique arpeggio for each chord or playing one arpeggio for all the form?
      The answer for the first question is yes. For the second question is no.
      You’ve mentioned the minor blues form- Here is video who might help you with this:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCLwdVNdSCY

      Hope that helps
      Cheers!

  • couples necklaces set
    Posted at 05:56h, 08 August Reply

    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point. You definitely know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog when you could be giving us something informative to read?

    • Yaakov Hoter
      Posted at 03:08h, 12 August Reply

      Thanks!
      I have two e-books and all my video lessons are covered with written materials. A lot of the guys (including me) love to learn from videos…
      It’s interesting for me what you’ve wrote, can you elaborate – what would you like me to to write about?
      Cheers
      Yaakov

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