Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
  • Smooth Jazz
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So you’ve learned some cool jazz scales and chords, and now you feel confident you’ll finally sound like a pro. You excitedly sit down at the piano to improvise a brilliant solo but then…something’s missing! Your solo might have some cool jazzy notes and colors but it still feels disconnected and uninspiring compared to the pros. Let’s fix that by discussing The Ultimate 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise!

Before we do, let’s understand why our solos can still lack direction even with all the fancy chords, scales, or even licks under our belt. You can have all the best materials in the world to build an amazing house, but if you don’t know how to put it all together and connect the pieces, it’s just going to fall apart! Think of our jazz chords and scales as our materials for improvising, and our 2-5-1 jazz scale exercise as the glue that holds them all together to construct a solid solo.

Additionally, don’t worry if you do not yet know all your jazz chords and scales, we’ll discuss them here too. There will be a lot to gather here whether you are a beginner jazz pianist or an advanced player. Here’s an outline of our lesson today if you’d like to jump ahead to any section:

Excited to start building? Let’s dive in!

Most Common Jazz Progression: The 2-5-1

For those of you who might be newer to jazz, it might seem like there are endless amounts of complex chords that you have to learn for the hundreds of jazz standards that are out there. However, with some time and experience, you start to realize that is far from the case. In fact, it all boils down to a relatively small amount of chord progressions that are mixed and matched in various ways. Oftentimes, using musical principles, we can predict what chord will be coming next in a piece of music.

Of all these common jazz chord progression patterns, there is one that stands out above all the rest. It’s called the 2-5-1 chord progression. It is a  staple of almost every jazz tune, and you’ll see it sprinkled into nearly every jazz progression. This is why many jazz exercises are made around the 2-5-1 chord progression.

Here is the 2-5-1 chord progression written out in C major with root position chords. It starts with D minor 7th, then G dominant 7th, C major 7th, and finally C6. The C6 chord doesn’t necessarily occur in every jazz tune but since both the major 7th and 6th are common options to play over the major 1 chord, it gives us practice for both. Also, we think it sounds better this way 😊. Check it out:

Jazz 2-5-1 Chord Progression (ii-V-I)
The 2-5-1 progression (also ii-V-I) is the most commonly occurring chord progression in jazz standards.

If you want more practice with 2-5-1 chords in the context of real jazz chord progressions, then check out the Play Lead Sheets With 7th Chords course.

2-5-1 Chord Shells for Left Hand

So the only problem with the 2-5-1 played as above is that we are playing full root position 7th chords in the left hand. This creates a very muddy and clunky sound that’s difficult to move around. Good jazz pianists generally voice their chords with more space on the bottom end. This opens up the sound, creates better resonance, and allows our left hand to move around to different chords much more easily. A common way to do this is to use chord shells in the left hand.

What are chord shells? They are simply the root of the chord paired with either the 3rd or the 7th above it.

2-5-1 Chord Shells for Left Hand
Jazz pianists commonly use left hand chord shells to outline the harmony with smooth voice leading.

As you can see, the alternation between the root and 3rd chord shell and root and 7th chord shell in a 2-5-1 chord progression allows us to either keep one of the notes in the same place (as in Dm7 to G7) or move it only by step (as in G7 to Cmaj7). This maximizes a smooth sound and ease of playing!

If you want to learn more about chord shells then check out the course Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises. 

2-5-1 Jazz Scales for Improv

Now that we know what our chords are and what our left hand will be doing, let’s review some of our common jazz scales that are used over the 2-5-1 chord progression for improvisation.

We’ll go over a good jazz scale to use over each chord and then use these scales in our jazz scale connector exercise in the next section.

Choosing Scales Based on Chord Type

For the 2 chord, it’s easiest to use a Dorian scale. This scale is a mode that is taken from the same notes of a major scale but starts on the second note (matching the chord built on the 2). In the key of C major, the second note would be D so it would be D Dorian (and it would share all the same notes as C major). Dorian scales also highlight the important chord tones that are found naturally in the 2, a minor 7th chord.

For the 5 chord, we can use a scale called dominant diminished. This scale starts on our root and goes up in alternating half steps and whole steps until you reach the octave above. This 8-note scale creates beautiful jazzy colors over dominant 7th chords.

Last but not least we can simply use the major scale on our 1 chords. If you know what you are doing, you can get a lot of colors even out of so-called “vanilla” scales.

Jazz Piano Scales for 2-5-1 Improv
Jazz piano scales for improvisation on a 2-5-1 chord progression.

We could go over endless other scale options and possibilities over the different chords, but doing so would be beyond the scope of this lesson. If you want to learn all sorts of jazz scale options to use over the 2-5-1 then check out Scales for Improv on 7th chords. 

In any case, no matter which scale you choose to use over each chord you can still apply them in the following 2-5-1 jazz scale exercise!

The Ultimate Jazz Scale Exercise: Scale Connector

So now that we covered what our building materials are for our jazz improvisation and soloing, let’s talk about how to put it all together into something solid and connected. How do we do that?

Many times when first learning how to improvise, we learn all these scales and chords in our head. The problem is we usually only practice these scales starting from the root of the scale and over only one chord at a time. This method makes it difficult to improve in real jazz improvisation. This is because in real music we have moving chord progressions, and the melody that we are improvising isn’t always starting from the root of each chord’s scale (nor should it!).

This will make it a challenge to smoothly change your scales according to the different chords coming up when you are in the middle of an improvised line. Usually, you’ll end up with either an unintentional and disconnected gap in your playing, or something that sounds dull or not quite right.

That being said let’s discuss this awesome 2-5-1  jazz scale workout we’ve been hinting at and how to practice it.

How the Jazz Scale Connector Exercise Works

This exercise drastically improve your solos so you can effortlessly cross over many different scales over many different chords!

The first step is to pick a starting note, then play up to the same note an octave above in steps according to the scale of the current chord. Then you will have to come back down an octave but on the scale of the next chord. 

Let’s take a in-depth look at what this would be like with the scales mentioned above over a 2-5-1 progression in the key of C major.

Root Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise

Root Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Piano Exercise
2-5-1 jazz piano scale connector exercise starting from the root.

In this case, we picked our first starting note D, the second note of the scale. Since the chord progression starts on the 2 chord we’ll play up to the D an octave above using a D Dorian scale. Once we reach the top we’ll come back down the octave, but on the way down it will be a different route using a G dominant diminished scale over the 5 chord.

Once we reach the bottom we will start on the next note of the scale a step up. This would be our second starting point and in this case E. We’ll go up and down the octave with the C major scale over the two types of 1 chords we have, Camj7 and C6.

As you can see, we have created a smooth and connected pattern while adhering to the various chords of the moment. This keeps all the beautiful jazz colors we want while remaining musically connected.

Notice we are simply using chord shells in the left hand in order to focus on our right hand lines.

Let’s move forward to all the other starting positions until we cover each starting note of our key over each chord. 

3rd Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise

3rd Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Piano Exercise
2-5-1 jazz piano scale connector exercise starting from the 3rd.

5th Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise

5th Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise
2-5-1 jazz piano scale connector exercise starting from the 5th.

7th Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise

7th Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Piano Scale Exercise
2-5-1 jazz piano scale connector exercise starting from the 7th.

9th Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise

9th Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Piano Scale Exercise
2-5-1 jazz piano scale connector exercise starting from the 9th.

11th Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise

11th Starting Point 2-5-1 Scale Exercise
2-5-1 jazz piano scale connector exercise starting from the 11th.

13th Starting Point 2-5-1 Jazz Scale Exercise

13th Starting Point Exercise
2-5-1 jazz piano scale connector exercise starting from the 13th.

Further Developing the Jazz Scale Connector Exercise

Now if you’ve been able to go through the entire exercise above, then you get a well-deserved congratulations! As much as I’d like to say that it is now over, it is actually still just the beginning. Here are a couple of things to try in the jazz scale connector exercise after you feel like you mastered the above:

  1. Try the exercise in the opposite direction. We started with an upward direction first then we went downward, so try flipping it and start the exercise in a downward motion then back up.
  2. Play the exercise in a variety of keys, in fact all if possible.
  3. Try using different scales over the different chords
  4. Use the exercise over different chord progressions, especially other common jazz progressions

Some Extra Soloing Tips

Once you feel ready to jump into some actual soloing again, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Leave little gaps in between your lines, this shapes your solo and creates natural musical phrases.
  • Think rhythmically, and be sure to vary up your note values: Quarter notes, either notes, triplets, etc.
  • Steps vs skips, be sure there is a nice contrast of lines with skips and lines with steps in your solo
  • Aim for chord tones (1,3,5) on a new chord’s downbeat if possible. This helps us feel that you are following the chord changes.

Conclusion and Additional Resources

I hope you enjoyed this lesson on the 2-5-1 jazz scale connector exercise. With some time and practice, this exercise should really help propel you much closer to that pro jazz sound that you are looking for.

Don’t forget you can download below this lesson’s PDF sheet music to reference the material we discussed. You can also access the smart sheet music and transpose the music into any key, as well as several backing tracks to play the exercise with or even to solo with. Things can be a lot more fun with a backing track!

Be sure to check out the following course series:

2-5-1 Soloing with...

Thanks so much for checking out this Quick Tip. See you in the next one!


Blog written by Daine Jordan & Michael LaDisa

Quick Tip by Jonny May

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