The 251 is an essential chord progression for jazz guitar, or any instrument that wants to learn how to play jazz.
2 5 1 an essential turnaround that happens over and over through different jazz standards.
So if you're learning to play jazz guitar, there's simply no escaping the 251 progression.
Like many things on the guitar, there is a logical sequence of finger shapes you can use to play through 2 5 1 quickly and efficiently.
With a little practice these progressions will become simple to play and you won't even have to think about it.
251 progressions happen frequently throughout most jazz standards, and it's a good idea for you to have a couple of go to 251 patterns you can play anytime.
The more you practice these, the more you're going to get used to the way you move from chord to chord on the fretboard.
So as you're playing actual music, you'll be able to recognize a 251 when it happens, and your fingers will start to naturally go through some of these chord progressions.
You do want to make sure that at least a couple of patterns become second nature to you.
Because sometimes, depending on the speed of the song or how many beats each chord actually ends up getting, 2 5 1 progressions can happen so quickly that if you have to stop to think about where to put your fingers, you've probably already missed it.
In this lesson, we're gonna look at what a 2 5 1 progression is, a little bit about the theory behind the chords, and we'll give you a couple of solid 2 5 1 chord progression shapes for both major and minor keys.
With a little work, you'll be playing through 251 progressions without even having to think about it.
Let's get started.
What Is A 2 5 1 Progression?
The 2 5 1 progression is a common jazz chord progression for guitar.
2 5 1 progressions are made up of three chords:
What Does This All Mean?
In music, the chords within a key are all made up of the notes that come from a single scale.
From any note of the scale, you can build a chord by stacking every-other-note until you have four notes total.
To get to a 2 5 1 progression, there are a couple of other things we need to look at first.
Each note of the scale has a letter name, which is the normal note name people tend to think of, and it also has a number - which is called the scale tone number.
These numbers are going to be what's important for us right now.
The numbers basically label the interval in terms of how far away from the root (or starting point) of the scale it is.
After the root, the very next note is going to be a 2 because it's a second away from the root. The note after that is going to be a 3 because it's a third away from the root, and so on with 4, 5, 6, and 7.
These numbers make the theory a little bit easier to understand as a concept without having to be specific to any one key, because every major scale has the same make up as far as intervals go.
To build a 2 chord we use scale tones 2 4 6 1 from the major scale.
To build a 5 chord we use numbers 5 7 2 4 from the major scale.
To build a 1 chord, we use numbers 1 3 5 7 from the major scale.
I'm using these numbers directly from the major scale because it simplifies the process at first, and makes it easy to see how the chords are related to the source scale.
If you really want to dive into how chords are built, there is definitely more to it. Click here to learn more.
But with this method, it is a little bit simpler in that if you know the major scale you can build any of the chords within it (without diving too deeply into the theory behind the chords if you don’t want to).
You're building every other note from 2 to create a 2 chord, every other note from 5 to create a 5 chord, and every other note from 1 to create a 1 chord.
And that's why for chord construction purposes our method is purely looking at the notes of the major scale.
Now when we look at the chord diagrams themselves we're gonna look at the intervals a little bit differently. We're going to use the intervals of each individual chord, rather than coming from the major scale.
So a major seventh chord will be built 1 3 5 7, a minor seventh chord will be built 1 b3 5 b7 and a dominant 7th chord will be built 1 3 5 b7.
This is how these chords are commonly taught in theory classes, and if you click the link above you'll get more information specifically on chord construction.
It’s important to look at topics from different angles. Thinking in terms of the major scale tones like we did earlier is really helpful for keeping things simple as you’re playing.
But understanding the real interval makeup of each chord is really important for your understanding of music and how the pieces fit together.
Chord Qualities For Major 2 5 1 Progressions
The major 2 5 1 progression is made up of chords built off of the second, fifth and first notes of the major scale.
Building a chord off of the two gives you a minor seventh chord (min7).
Building a chord off of the five gives you a dominant seventh chord (7).
And building a chord off of the one gives you a major seventh chord (maj7).
Now if we start treating each of these notes as the root of the chord, we get to see different interval structures that are unique to the different chords.
The 2 chord is made up of the intervals 1, b3, 5, and b7. The 5 chord is made up of the intervals 1, 3, 5, and b7. And the 1 chord is made up of the intervals 1, 3, 5, and 7.
These interval numbers (not related back to the major scale) show a more traditional way of how chord construction is looked at.
In the previous section, I used pure major scale numbers of 2461 for the 2 chord, 5724 for the 5 chord, and 1357 for the 1 chord.
This makes it easier to see how the chord has come out of the scale without having too much information at first, but looking at the intervals of each individual chord is very helpful for you to see how the notes in each chord type relate to one another (and where to move your fingers to be able to alter chord qualities on your own).
These progressions are going to be easier to play if you know more chord shapes.
We can always use more ways to play your minor seventh, dominant seventh, and major seventh chords.
But to help you get started, it's best to know a shape with the root on the sixth string and a shape with the root on the fifth string for each chord type.
You can (and probably should) always learn more chords but this is a good place to start.
Imaginary Or Implied Roots
Some of these chords will show the root as an open circle, unlike the rest of the diagrams where each of the notes are filled in.
This is a root that's included for reference to help you get the right chord position, but it's not played.
And this is what I'm going to be calling an imaginary or an implied route.
Since the guitar is a potentially complicated instrument, it's always helpful to kind of have a good reference point.
So sometimes even if we don’t actually play it, it's easiest to keep a root in our chord diagram to help us stay in the right spot.
6th String 2 5 1 Option 1
6th String 2 5 1 Option 2
5th String 2 5 1 Option 2
Chord Qualities For Minor 2 5 1 Progressions
A minor 251 is built off of the second, fifth and first notes of the harmonic minor scale.
The 2 is going to give you a minor seven flat five (min7b5), also called half diminished (ø7).
The 5 is going to give you a dominant seventh chord (b7) which will be altered in some way (7alt).
And the 1 is going to give you a minor seventh (min7) or a minor, major seventh chord (min/maj7 or min∆7).
Be Flexible With Music Theory
The harmonic minor scale is the easiest way to generate the chord progression in a diatonic way, meaning having a scale you can point to that gives you the progression.
But it's important not to be too dogmatic about it by assuming everything has to fit exactly within that Harmonic Minor Scale framework.
The harmonic minor scale gives you the correct to 2 chord option and the correct altered 5 chord option. So that’s a good thing.
In real playing however, the 1 chord of a minor 2 5 1 is not always going to be a minor major seventh chord (min/maj7) like it would be in the harmonic minor scale.
So it's important to be a little bit flexible in your thinking and use the parts of the theory that help you without getting hung up on trying to force the theory to work in every situation.
Or assuming that you're missing something or need to learn more just because the theory doesn't fit the progression you're playing 100%.
It's not always going to go to a minor major seventh chord; often the progression will just go to a normal minor seventh chord (min7).
So in our case, because I want to give you as practical of advice as possible, we're going to be using a normal minor seventh chord as the one of our minor 2 5 1.
6th String Minor 2 5 1 Option 1
6th String Minor 2 5 1 Option 2
5th String Minor 2 5 1 Option 1
5th String Minor 2 5 1 Option 2
Practicing 2 5 1 Progressions
Knowing these 251 patterns exist and having them printed out is one thing and being able to play them there's another.
You have to put in some time practicing these patterns if you're going to be able to use them in songs.
So there's a couple of things you can do. I like to practice these separately and those around the cycle of fourths, because this gives us more reps moving through the finger patterns, and more keys than if you just move straight to plugging these into songs.
Don't get me wrong. Use these 2 5 1 chord progressions in songs that you're playing.
But sometimes it's important to build up some of your skills in isolation. Meaning without the baggage that comes with learning a song and wanting to make it go right.
Practicing through the cycle of fourths gives you a way to put your 2 5 1 finger patterns through every situation that exists on your fretboard so that when you see this in a song, you can just play it and you don't have to think about it.
And the better you get at recognizing and playing these 251 patterns and all keys all over the fretboard, songs just get easier and easier to play.
The standard I was given by one of my first jazz guitar teachers was that if I'm just reading chord changes for a song, I shouldn't have to practice reading through that song in order to make that happen.
All of the work behind knowing how to play the chords and being able to find them quickly should have already been done, and I should be able to just pick up the guitar and play.
Note - this particular teacher was preparing me specifically for reading big band charts.
I was being trained to be able to sight read just about anything with chord changes so I could play 4 hour long dance band gigs, pit orchestras for musicals, and things like that.
Practicing his exercises meant I rarely had to practice my actual jazz band music in high school, because I already knew where all of the chords were and could recall them pretty much instantly.
That's what going through drills like the cycle of fourths will help you get because you'll start to recognize where your fingers need to go as soon as you see the pattern.
I mean, it is also a good idea to start using these in songs as soon as possible.
Both the major and the minor 251 patterns will pop up often as you play. Just try to focus on mastering the finger patterns and plugging them in whenever appropriate.
Remember to use the 251 cycles to build up the physical and mechanical side because once that is easy, the theory and understanding and plugging it into your playing will get more solid as well.
Wrapping It Up
By now, you know how to build 251 progressions out of the major and the harmonic minor scales (even though we didn't really look at harmonic minor, we talked about it).
And more importantly for guitar players, a couple of solid finger patterns that you can pull out whenever you need them to play these progressions.
The real magic here is going to be after you've spent some time with these 251 progressions under your fingers.
Like with anything in jazz guitar, with time and experience, you're going to be able to play these chords a little bit better and will be easier.
Maybe you'll be able to play with leaving the roots off or replacing them with a ninth.
Maybe you can experiment with different alterations on the 5 chord or you can make sure you have a nice melody on top of the chords.
The more familiar you get with these chord shapes and progressions, the easier it will be to become creative with your jazz chord playing.
So we get more familiar with these shapes and then all kinds of different chord opportunities and possibilities are gonna pop up under your fingers, making your chord playing just as creative as your single note improvisation.
This only happens though, if you keep thinking or listening, practicing and trying things.
Click the links below to learn more:
Step By Step Guide
Our course Jazz Guitar Survival Guide: Chords and Comping is going to be your step by step guide to building your own jazz guitar chords on the fly and creating good sounding accompaniment patterns.
We really try to put the power in your hands as far as being able to construct any jazz guitar chord you need on the spot without thinking too hard about it.
This way you’ll be able to just read and play music without having to practice 1000s of different variations of different jazz guitar chords.
You'll learn how to build some basic chord shapes and then how to add on to them to create more complicated jazz guitar sounds using extensions and alterations.
Click here to check it out today.