Jazz up your Blues Progressions



In this lesson I am going to help you improve your blues sound by adding some chord substitutions to the standard I-IV-V blues chord progression that are commonly used by jazz players.

As well as improving your comping sound (playing the chords), it will also help you improve your soloing sound, too. You can use all these substitutions as arpeggios and play solo lines with them over even the most straightforward I-IV-V blues chord progression.

Before we begin, let’s explain a bit of the lingo:

“I-IV-V” refers to the chord progression that a standard 12 bar blues uses. “I” is the chord built up from the 1st note of the major scale that we’re playing from. If the key of the blues we’re playing is A major, chord I is A major. If the key is C major, chord I is C major etc..

Chord “IV” is the chord built up from the 4th note of the major scale of the key we’re in. In the key of A major, if the 4th note is D, chord IV is D major. In the key of C major, if the 4th note is F, chord IV is F major.

Chord “V”, as you may have already guessed, is the chord built up up from the 5th note of the major scale of the key we’re in. In the key of A major, if the 5th note is E, chord V is E major. In the key of C, if the 5th note is G, chord V is G major.

To give it a more bluesy sound, instead of playing just simple major triads (3-note chords), we can add a b7th note to the chord. In the key of A major, if the 7th note is G#, the b7th would be G. In the key of C, if the 7th note is B, the b7th note would be Bb.

The chord we get is known as a Dominant 7th chord. You can think of this as being a “major triad + b7th”. You will be able to see more on the theory of this chord type in future lessons.

1) The first example is a basic I-IV-V 12-bar blues chord progression in the key of A using dominant 7th chords.

Chord I = A7            Chord IV = D7            Chord V = E7















2) In the next example, we’re just warming up by adding one substitution that is used by both jazz players and more traditional blues players. By simply exchanging chord I in bar 2 for chord IV, we lift the standard 12-bar blues progression a great deal. It gives the progression more movement than simply plodding along on A7 for 4 whole bars before a change. It also gives soloists more of an interesting sequence to solo over.















3) In the following example we are doing quite a bit more to the progression. Keeping the substitution in bar 2 from example 2, we are also adding chord V into bar 3 for the last 2 beats of the bar, creating a I-V-I progression over bars 3-4. We are repeating this in bars 7-8 as well. The other substitution we are making is adding a Diminished 7th chord built from the #4th note of the scale of A major (D#). This chord has exactly the same notes enharmonically (ie they sound the same) as D7, except the root has been raised to D#.















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4) The next example is the same as the previous one in the first 6 bars of the progression. In bars 7-11, we are playing a I-VI-II-V-I sequence that is very common in jazz, but with a twist. A straightforward I-VI-II-V-I sequence in the key of A would be:


To make it more bluesy, we are substituting Amaj7 for A7 and substituting F#m7 for F#7.

Along with this, we are putting in a chromatic run down of Dominant 7th chords from I (A7) down to VI (F#7):
















5) In the next example, we are substituting chord I in bar 4 for a II-V progression in the key of Ab (Bbm7-Eb7). This sounds good because we are momentarily going out of key by a semitone but resolving back down a semitone to chord IV in A (D7) from chord V in Ab (Eb7).

In bars 6-8, we are substiuting more II-V progressions chromatically down from C (Dm7-G7) to B (C#m7-F#7) to Bb (Cm7-F7) which then resolves us very neatly into a chord II in A (Bm7) for our II-V-I turnaround at the end.















6) The follwing example keeps the same substitutions as the last example but adds a I-VI-II-V-I progression at the end which is a common turnaround in jazz. As before, we have substituted what would be Amaj7 for A7 and what would be F#m7 for F#7.















7) In the last example we are introducing another kind of common substitution in jazz – The Tritone substitution.

In bars 11-12, we have substituted from the last example C7 for F#7. (C is a tritone – 3 tones – away from the note F#), and Bb7 for E7 (Bb is a tritone away from E). Another name for a tritone interval is a #4th or b5th.

We have also substituted chord II (Bm7) for B7. This just makes it sound  smoother as we play chromatically down the chords C7-B7-Bb7-A7.













Some of the theoretical explanations may sound complicated and can be daunting if you are new to chord theory and particularly jazz chord theory. This should not stop you being able to play and learn these examples. If you play them enough you’ll start to learn them in the same way many players out there learn scales – by shapes and finger memory. Once you can play them and start using them in your blues playing you won’t worry if the people listening know whether you understand the finer points of tritone substitutions or not. It is always worth that extra effort to study theory though. How can you break the rules if you don’t know what the rules are?

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  1. Great presentation of the I-IV-V Chord Progressions

  2. Very cool ………..many thanks !

  3. a very cool lesson!! many thanks from Switzerland!!


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