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New JGT Lesson: Primary Progression



In this JGT lesson, jazz guitarist Leon Rodriguez discusses primary progression and why it’s the most used progression in all of music. 

In our last conversation we mentioned the primary progression. Let’s discuss that. While familiar to many, our newer or younger readers whom may be early in their theory insight will certainly benefit here. We want to address the global need in a welcoming spirit of inclusiveness. Jazz, being universal is for everyone and theory is simply the logic that glues it all together. We’ll endeavor that there be something in here for everyone. 

It is the most used progression in all of music. It’s the I IV V (1,4,5) progression made of all three major chords in a key. It is the familiar progression we hear often in all folk musics, earlier Country, country blues and many more. Simply said, it is the progression made of the primary chords of a key and the simplest of way to harmonize the notes of a key. We can harmonize any note in this major key with the I, IV, V which in this case is the C, F, and G major triads. We demonstrate in the key of C to avoid sharps and flats for clarity. 

We place the notes of the C major scale on the top row. For each major triad, we spell the triad in the rows directly below. Each note in the scale is a member of at least one of the primary chords. That note could be harmonized with that chord. We will harmonize the notes as the top note of the triads for the melody. Notice that the C and G notes, the tonic and dominant respectively, can each be harmonized by 2 triads because they are the link between the 2 tetra chords that comprise the C Major scale. 

Here is the Primary progression along the {432} stringset, our horizontal option. We’ve given our attention to the ‘top note’ where our scale resides. Because these are triads and we want a particular note on top, the way we stack the notes of the chord matters. We also remind ourselves that we guitarists are two dimensional. 

Let’s play it “in position” to illustrate a vertical option. We now list the name of each inversion. Look at the notation as visual reference that they are identical. Remember the inversion sequence with the top note. 

Even if you are not a ‘reader’, in the note stack, the 4th interval leaves a little ‘window’ upstairs or downstairs the root position is all 3rds so the ‘windows’ are closed because there are no 4ths. Let’s apply this to a familiar melody: America in the key of F in ¾ time. We’ll begin with the {321} stringset with a horizontal approach limiting ourselves to a stringset. 

Now let’s think more vertically, limiting ourselves to a fret range. 

Now we can combine our horizontal stringset discipline with some vertical shifting for a controlled flexibility. 

Any three adjacent Chords on the cycle of 4ths are a I – IV – V progression with the middle chord, ( C) being the I, the root/tonic. The chord to the right down the cycle (F) being the IV, the subdominant, and the Chord on the left up the cycle (G) being the 5th or Dominant. Remember that G going to C is a V-I cadence.  This justifies the physics that music wants to travel in the cycle. 

To be continued…Books and On-Line Private Lessons available at 

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