Jonny May
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Are you a beginner piano student wanting to learn to play jazz? Well, one of the challenges beginners often face in learning jazz piano is finding a point of entry. That’s because, quite frankly, there is a lot of new data—scales, chords, progressions, rhythms, tunes, techniques and so on. In addition, the inventive spirit of jazz composition requires students to know chords in all 12 keys in order to play jazz tunes. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny explains The Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise to help you master the most important jazz piano chords for beginners in all 12 keys. You’ll learn:

Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed—a plan, and not quite enough time.” We’re guessing you already have one of the two. Now, here’s the other.

Intro to the Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise

Jonny’s Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise acclimates students with playing chord shells over a series ii–V–I progressions descending by whole steps. For example, in today’s exercise you will first cycle through the major keys of C, B♭, A♭, G♭, E, D, playing a ii–V–I progression in each key. Afterward, you’ll play ii–V–I progressions in the remaining keys: D♭, B, A, G, F, E♭.

The concept behind the Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise is not original to Jonny, nor does he ever make any such claim. In fact, jazz musicians have been using this chord progression for decades to “cut their teeth” at playing jazz chords, scales and licks. In fact, you’ll find similar exercises published in jazz method books by world-renowned jazz educators and authors including Jamey Aebersold¹, Mike Steinel², John Valerio³, Tim Richards⁴, Jeremey Siskind⁵ and others. You might even say that solitary shedding of ii-V-I progressions in descending whole steps is a rite of passage for serious jazz students.

“The basic ingredients in music are scales, chords, melody, rhythm and harmony. Jazz education’s purpose is to give you the basics you need in learning to play jazz or to improvise.”

—Jamey Aebersold

The lesson sheet PDF for The Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise and the corresponding backing tracks appear at the bottom of this after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

What is a 2-5-1 chord progression?

A 2-5-1 chord progression (aka: ii-V-I) is a common musical convention of three consecutive chords which effectively establish a key. For example, the chords Dm7→G7→Cmaj7 create a pleasing sound that identifies C major as a tonal center. The numeric identifiers in a 2-5-1 progression represent the relationship of each chord to the tonal center—aka the “tonic.”

2-5-1 Progression in C Major

The Ultimate Beginner 2-5-1 Jazz Chord Exercise for Piano Dm7 G7 Cmaj7
Sample 2-5-1 chord progression (aka: ii–V–I) in C major shown with root position 7th chords. After learning basic root position chord shapes, beginner jazz piano students should learn to play chord progressions using convetional jazz piano voicings.

Why is the 2-5-1 progression so important in jazz?

Jazz pianist, author and PWJ instructor Jeremy Siskind writes, “the ii-V-I progression and its components makes up a high percentage of the harmonic landscape of jazz standards. Because the progression is so common, jazz musicians spend a lot of time practicing voicings and licks for ii-V-I progressions.”⁶

You might even say that reading jazz tunes in a fake book is a bit like playing a Whack-A-Mole game in which the 2-5-1 progressions are the moles!

Chord Shells: The Best Jazz Piano Chords for Beginners

If you’re a beginner jazz piano student, there’s no better way to play jazz piano chords with than with chord shells—a broad term that may describe any 2 or 3-note voicing that contains the essential tones needed to imply a given chord quality. The most commonly played chord shells contain some combination of the root, 3rd and/or 7th.

The following example shows a ii-V-I in C major in which the 5th has been omitted from each chord. These 3-note voicings represent one example of chord shells.

7th chords with omitted 5th = 3-note jazz piano chord shells

For a deep dive on other types of chord shells, check out our course Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Int).

Even though the example above uses R-3-7 chord shells (root-3rd-7th) on each chord, jazz pianists do not typically connect their shells together in this manner. Notice, for example, that as you move from chord-to-chord, each note moves by a significant leap of a 4th or a 5th interval. Instead, jazz pianists prefer voicing solutions with closer, smother connections. We call this principle voice leading.

Voice Leading with Guide Tones

In composition and arranging, voice leading describes the consideration given to the manner in which each pitch moves from chord-to-chord. Generally speaking, “good voice leading” seeks to do the following:

  • retain common tones in the “same voice” from chord-to-chord (think SATB choral texture)
  • resolve other tones with close movement (stepwise or 3rds) as in a melody
  • avoid disjunct or unnecessary leaps

The key to achieving good voicing leading with chord shells is to give careful attention to the guide tones—the 3rd and 7th of the chord. Also, it’s important to note that the voice leading principles above generally refer to inner voices…notes that are written in between the melody and bass line. Therefore, we are less concerned about leaps in the melody and the bass line.

A & B Voicings

Frequently, it is necessary to invert a chord’s guide tones to achieve desirable voicing leading. For example, inverted guide tones place the 3rd of the chord above the 7th. Therefore, there are essentially two ways to play 3-note shells: R-3-7 and R-7-10. (Note, a 10th interval is equivalent to an octave + a 3rd). We call a voicing with the 3rd on the bottom an A Voicing. On the other hand, we call a voicing with the 7th on the bottom a B Voicing.

The following example illustrates how to play a Dm7 chord with the root + guide tones or root + inverted guide tones. Depending on the playing context and the size of your hands, these voicings might be played entirely by the left hand or shared between both hands.

D Minor Chord Shells: A Voicing & B Voicing

Jazz Piano Chords—Guide Tones & Inverted Guide Tones

In the illustration above, the first Dm7 is voiced R-3-7; this is sometimes called a “closed” chord shell.  By contrast, the Dm7 example on the right is voiced R-7-10, which is also called an “open” chord shell. Most beginner students can quickly adopt the R-3-7 closed shells because they are essentially a root position 7th chord with the 5th omitted. On the other hand, students often find R-7-10 open shells more challenging to adopt because they are not used to visualizing inverted guide tones. However, both voicing formats are essential to playing 2-5-1 chord progressions with good voice leading. In the next section, we’ll demonstrate why.

Voicing Leading: Playing in All 12 Keys by Recognizing Patterns

So far, we have learned two types of 3-note chord shells and explained the principles of voicing leading that should guide how we select chord voicings for a progression. Next, let’s look at how to connect chord shells in a 2-5-1 progression with good voice leading.

The following 2-5-1 progression demonstrates that alternating between A Voicings & B Voicings (or closed and open shells) provides the smooth and desirable voice leading that was lacking in our earlier example that featured only R-3-7 closed shells.

C Major 2-5-1 Progression – Form 1: ABA

2-5-1 Chord Progression Form 1 (ABA) - jazz chord exercise
Voice leading with ABA format on 2-5-1 in C Major.

Voice Leading & Pattern Recognition

It’s important to notice in the example above how each of the guide tones moves. For example, as you transition from chord-to-chord, the 7th resolves downward while the 3rd is retained as a common tone. Recognizing this pattern is extremely important for beginner students learning to play 2-5-1 chord progressions in all 12 keys. In fact, it is even recommended that you sing these resolutions. For example, play through the example above and sing the upper line: C→B→B. Then, repeat the example and sing the middle line: F→F→E.

You may be wondering, “If there is an ABA format, then is there also a a BAB format?” Absolutely! When playing jazz tunes, you may be required to start on a B Voicing. Therefore, it’s important to be able to play the following BAB example also.

C Major 2-5-1 Progression – Form 2: BAB

2-5-1 Chord Progression Form 1 (BAB) - jazz chord exercise
Voice leading with BAB format on 2-5-1 in C Major.

Great job! At this point of the lesson, it should be clear to the student that playing 2-5-1 chord progressions using chord shells with proper voice leading results in a substantially preferable sound as compared to root position 7th chords. Therefore, learning to play ABA and BAB 2-5-1 progressions in all keys is an essential jazz piano skill. In fact, it’s The Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise.

Playing The Ultimate Jazz Chord Exercise on Piano

At this point in today’s lesson, you’ve learned to play a 2-5-1 progression in C major using chord shells with proper voice leading. Now, it’s time to play these voicings in every key. Keep in mind that it is important to practice both ABA format and BAB format. However, it is not necessary for beginners to focus on both skills concurrently. For example, you could alternate formats daily or weekly. As you play in each key, remember to visualize the voice leading: the 7th resolves downward while the 3rd is retained as a common tone.

The great thing about practicing 2-5-1 progressions in descending whole steps is that when you finish a progression on major 7th chord, all you have to do is covert this chord to a minor 7th chord and you have the IIm7 chord for the next key. For example, a 2-5-1 in C major ends on C▵7, and Cm7 is the first chord for a 2-5-1 in B♭ major.

Alright, you’re ready to play the. following Ultimate Jazz Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise using the ABA voicing format.

Form 1: ABA

2-5-1 Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise—ABA Format

Great job! Remember, today’s lesson includes backing tracks for you to play along with at 3 different tempi (that’s the plural form of “tempo”).

Now, here’s The Ultimate Jazz Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise using the BAB voicing format.

Form 2: BAB

2-5-1 Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise—BAB Format

Well done! If you have made it this far, you deserve a big pat on the back. That’s because you’ve played 72 unique chord shells! (3 chord types x 2 shells each x 12 roots = 72 chord shells)

Conclusion & Additional Jazz Chord Exercise Lessons

Congratulations on completing today’s lesson. If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll love the following PWJ resources:


Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.


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¹ Aebersold Jamey. Jazz Handbook. Jamey Aebersold Jazz 2013, pp. 3, 50.

² Steinel Mike. Building a Jazz Vocabulary : A Resource for Learning Jazz Improvisation. Hal Leonard 1995, p. 169.

³ Valerio, John. Jazz Piano: Concepts and Techniques, Hal Leonard, Milwaukee, 1998, pp. 18–19.

⁴ Richards Tim. Exploring Jazz Piano : Harmony Technique Improvisation. 1. Schott 2005, p. 162.

⁵ Siskind Jeremy and Gail Lew. Jazz Piano Fundamentals : Explanations Exercises Listening Guides and Practice Plans : Book 1 Months 1-6. Jeremy Siskind Music Publishing 2021, pp. 40, 90–93.

⁶ Ibid., p. 36.

Michael LaDisa

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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