2-5-1 Jazz Licks for Piano
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The topic of improvisation stirs a wide array of emotions in jazz students ranging from adventure and excitement to fear and boredom. In many ways, your own personal feelings depend on how long you’ve been at it. Initially, most students experience some sort of emotional or mental interference when it comes to improvisation. However, as students grow more comfortable as improvisers, they often require additional inspiration to keep from becoming stagnant in their jazz vocabulary. Regardless of where you are in your improv journey, today’s Quick Tip on 2-5-1 Jazz Licks for Piano is the perfect remedy for overcoming fear or boredom in your practice routine. In this lesson, John Proulx demonstrates how to have fun playing 2-5-1 jazz licks as a practice game. You’ll learn:
- How to Practice 2-5-1 Jazz Licks for Piano
- 3 Dominant Scales for 2-5-1 Jazz Licks
- Examples of 2-5-1 Jazz Licks for Piano
Today’s lesson is perfect for beginner and intermediate jazz piano students looking to have fun improvising over 2-5-1 chord progressions.
Since 2-5-1 chord progressions permeate jazz standards, developing an arsenal of 2-5-1 jazz licks is an essential practice investment for jazz students. The good news is that the jazz vocabulary you acquire from this type practice will be pay off again and again. Therefore, it’s important to have a deliberate practice method for building 2-5-1 jazz licks. That’s what today’s lesson is all about! If you are a PWJ member, be sure to download the lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
A solid practice strategy for improvising over 2-5-1 chord progressions should include progressions of various lengths. For example, sometimes the 2-chord and the 5-chord occur in the same measure, lasting two beats each. At other times, however, these chords may receive an entire measure on their own.
The following examples illustrate the difference between a medium 2-5-1 progression (2 bars long) and a long 2-5-1 progression (4 bars long).
Medium 2-5-1 Progression (2 bars)
Long 2-5-1 Progression (4 bars)
Sometimes, especially in ballads, you will even find short 2-5-1 progressions in which the 2-chord and the 5-chord receive just one beat each! Short 2-5-1’s are best practiced in the context of a particular tune in which they occur. However, medium and long 2-5-1’s are perfectly suited for general practice. Therefore, today’s lesson focuses on jazz licks over medium and long 2-5-1 progressions.
In today’s Quick Tip, John shares, “when we’re talking about 2-5-1 licks, often times we think of scales and we think of techniques and exercises and that tends to sound more academic. I think a good way to think of this is in terms of a game, or something that’s very creative.” The practice game that John Proulx demonstrates in today’s Quick Tip involves exploring different jazz scales for the V7 chord in a 2-5-1 chord progression. To play the game, we’ll start each 2-5-1 lick with the same melody for the 2-chord. Then, with each repetition, we’ll improvise different ideas over the 5-chord, drawing on different scale types.
“When we’re talking about 2-5-1 licks, often times we think of scales and we think of techniques and exercises and that tends to sound more academic. I think a good way to think of this is in terms of a game, or something that’s very creative.”
—John Proulx, Jazz Performer & Educator
Since the V7 chord is a dominant 7th chord, any scale that works over a V7 chord is considered a type of dominant scale. Today’s lesson covers three specific types of dominant scales—mixolydian, bebop dominant, and dominant diminished.
Mixolydian scales are the most basic type of dominant scale and supply a “pure dominant” sound without any alterations or chromaticism. The Mixolydian Scale is essentially a linear version of the dominant 7th sound. In other words, just like G7 is the 5-chord in C major, the G mixolydian scale starts on the 5th degree of the C major scale: G–A–B–C–D–E–F♮. In jazz theory, we call G mixolydian the “5th mode” of the C major scale. Here is G Mixolydian over a G7 chord shell.
G Mixolydian Scale
An easy way to construct any Mixolydian scale is to start with a major scale and simply lower the 7th scale degree: 1–2–3–4–5–6–♮7. In the example above, the lowered 7th tone is F♮, as compared to the F♯ that is found in G major.
The 4th tone of the Mixolydian scale (the note C in the example above) is considered an “avoid note” because it is a ½ step above the 3rd. Sounding the 3rd and 4th simultaneously creates a dissonance. Therefore, the 4th is best used for passing motion or neighbor motion on weak beats.
For a deep dive on jazz piano soloing techniques with the Mixolydian mode, including stepwise motion, 3rds, turns, chord outlining, triad pairs and more, check out How to Improvise a Solo With the Mixolydian Mode (Int, Adv).
Another popular scale choice for improvisation on dominant 7th chords is the Bebop Dominant Scale, or Dominant Bebop Scale—both names are common. The Bebop Dominant Scale is based on the Mixolydian mode, but contains eight notes instead of seven, due to an added chromatic passing tone between the tonic and ♭7 degree. The following example shows G Bebop Dominant over a G7 shell.
G Bebop Dominant Scale
Jazz musicians favor the Bebop Dominant scale for three reasons. Firstly, the 8-note scale fits perfectly within a measure of successive 8th notes. Secondly, the structure of Dominant Bebop Scale places a chord tone (Root, 3rd, 5th or 7th) on every beat, resulting in strong linear harmony. Finally, the added chromatic tone introduces an interesting color or “rub” against the prevailing diatonic harmony.
“Very simply stated, the added chromatic tones make the scales ‘come out right’…all of the chord tones are on down beats…the tonic of the scale falls on beat 1 of each successive measure and the fifth falls on beat 3.
—David Baker, Jazz Composer & Author
Check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Bebop Scales (Adv) to learn professional improv exercises and techniques with Minor Bebop, Dominant Bebop and Major Bebop scales.
Another popular 8-note jazz scale with a completely different dominant sound is the Dominant Diminished Scale. Another name for this scale is the Half-Whole Diminished Scale, because it is formed from alternating ½ steps and whole steps, beginning with a ½ step. The Dominant Diminished Scale is not a “pure dominant sound.” Rather, it contains three chord alterations—the ♭9, the ♯9 and the ♯11. In addition, the Dominant Diminished Scale does not contain any “avoid notes.”
G Dominant Diminished Scale
When improvising, we can apply the sound of the Dominant Diminished Scale just about any time a regular V7 chord symbol appears. However, some chord symbols specifically imply the Dominant Diminished sound, such as G7(♭9), G7(♯9) or G13(♭9).
To practice improv exercises and examples with the G Dominant Diminished scale, check out our Quick Tip on Improvise Jazz Piano With the Dominant Diminished Scale (Int). To master playing Dominant Diminished scales in all 12 major keys, check out our Quick Tip on The Diminished Scale Demystified (Int).
Now that you’ve learned 3 different dominant scale options, you’re ready to play John Proulx’s 2-5-1 jazz lick game. Remember, we’ll use a fixed melodic idea for the 2-chord, while trying to come up with original ideas for the 5-chord drawing on the scales in the previous section.
In the following examples, John provides one possible solution with each dominant scale on both medium and long 2-5-1 chord progressions. After playing along with John’s example in each the video, try to come up with several of your own licks while the backing track continues to loop the 2-5-1 chord progression.
2-5-1 Jazz Licks with the Mixolydian Scale
Medium 2-5-1 Example—Mixolydian
Long 2-5-1 Example—Mixolydian
2-5-1 Jazz Licks with the Bebop Dominant Scale
Medium 2-5-1 Example—Bebop Dominant
Long 2-5-1 Example—Bebop Dominant
2-5-1 Jazz Licks with the Dominant Diminished Scale
Medium 2-5-1 Example—Dominant Diminished
Long 2-5-1 Example—Dominant Diminished
Congratulations, you’ve come to the end of today’s lesson on 2-5-1 Jazz Licks for Piano! By using the practice game from this lesson, you’ll breathe a fresh wind of inspiration into your practice routine. In addition, you’ll expand your jazz vocabulary to include plenty of original 2-5-1 jazz licks.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
🌟 Course Series: 2-5-1 Soloing with…
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Baker, David. How to Play Bebop 1: For All Instruments, The Bebop Scales and Other Scales in Common Use, Alfred Music, 1988, p 1.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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