#78 How To Play Jazz On II-V-I (Two-Five-One) Chord Sequences

improvising Jul 12, 2020

In today's free online saxophone lesson for beginners on sax (or beginners to jazz), you'll learn what a "two-five-one" chord sequence is, why we use it and what to play over it when you're improvising. This is only a very basic introduction though. You could and should spend the rest of your musical life exploring all this stuff. The purpose of this video is to fill you in on the essentials that maybe nobody has ever explained!

Don't forget to pick up your free PDF for this lesson, which covers all the points from the lesson, has II-V-Is in every key and has five great II-V-I licks written out. If you want to learn more about improvising you can go to my Improvising Playlist and you should watch part 1 and part 2 of my harmony series before this lesson as they will give you a firm foundation on keys, chords and scales. 

Here are the Q&A topics covered in this lesson, with video time stamps (min:sec). Clicking on the time stamp will take you straight to that portion of the video on YouTube (in a separate tab). Full Time stamps for the video and a complete transcript are at the bottom of the blog.


What is a "two five one" chord sequence? (2:01)

  • first of all - yes - a "two five one" IS a chord sequence! lol
  • a two five one (or 2-5-1 or II-V-I) simply means building chords on the second, fifth and first notes of the major scale of your home key
  • the chord notes (root, 3rd, fifth and seventh) of each of these chords are found within that same major scale
  • the II chord (we usually use roman numerals) is a minor seven, the V chord is a dominant seven and the I chord is a major seven
  • for example, a II-V-I in F major would be Gm7 - C7 - Fmaj7


Why do we use II-V-I chords and why are they important? (5:06)

  • II-V-I chords create tension and release
  • The "two" chord sets up the tension of the dominant "five" chord, which wants to pull home to the major seven "one" chord
  • this dynamic tension and release gives shape to melodies and harmonic structures and forms the basis of all western music
  • by contrast, modal music such as Indian classical music, uses only one scale and tension is built rhythmically and melodically within the one chord/scale


What standard jazz songs use II-V-I chords? (7:11)

  • virtually EVERY standard "Tin Pan Alley" jazz song is chock full of two five ones
  • it's usually easier to find the chords that AREN'T II-V-Is in fact! lol
  • those II-V-Is are usually in a variety of keys, so you have to familiarise yourself to spot them in any key. The free PDF for this lesson has every II-V-I listed


Are there different types of II-V-I in jazz? 

  • we've covered the "major" variety of II-V-I, but you'll also find "minor" II-V-Is. In a minor II-V-I the II chord has a flattened fifth and the V chord usually has (at least) a flattened ninth, so a minor II-V-I in C minor would be Dm7b5 (aka D half-diminished) - G7b9 - Cm
  • you can also do a II-V into another II-V. In the key of C this would be Em7 A7 Dm7 G7 Cmaj7. In this context we call this a III-VI-II-V-I. Often, the III chord will be a minor seven flat five
  • another cadence variety is the "inside out" II-V-I. In C this would be Fm7 Bb7 Cmaj7
  • a variety of extensions can be added to the chords of II-Vs as well


How do I improvise on a II-V-I? (7:30)

  • it can be as complicated or simple as you like, but to get you started you can get to grips with these three approaches...
  • #1 use chord tones (8:10). Just improvise by jumbling up the notes of each chord. I demonstrate this here
  • #2 use chord scales (9:00). Link up your chord tones using the major scale of your home key. I demonstrate this here
  • #3 use enclosures (9:51). This is the thing that will transform your jazz playing the most, but it's a bit more tricky, and you must be familiar with the first two approaches first. You surround, or "enclose" a chord tone with one or two notes each side, which converge onto that chord tone. These enclosing notes can be from the scale of the key (diatonic) or chromatic (chromatic enclosures). I demonstrate this here
  • by far the best way of learning enclosures is to transcribe solos of great hard bop players


How do I learn some great II-V-I licks? (12:04)

  • the best thing to do is to transcribe some great hard bop saxophonists like Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley or late 50s John Coltrane
  • I've given you five great licks to get you started here, here, here, here and here
  • all these licks are written out in the free PDF and you should start transposing them into every key


None of this stuff comes instantly. Take your time, get to know what the chords are, what the notes of those chords are, what the scale of the home key is, how to use enclosures and most of all, transcribe something easy and analyse it to see what the greats did. I hope you enjoyed this week's lesson, and I'll see you next week for a classic solo breakdown - Michael Brecker on Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years".

See ya! Jamie :-)


Video Timestamps


0:19 - Intro and titles

1:14 - how to get your free one hour saxophone success masterclass

1:43 - how to get your free PDF

2:01 - what is a 2-5-1?

4:42 - 2-5-1 recap

5:06 - why do we use 2-5-1s?

7:11 - A Weaver Of Dreams: chock full of 2-5-1s

7:30 - what do I play on 2-5-1s?

8:10 - #1 use chord notes


9:00 - #2 use chord scales


9:51 - #3 use enclosures


11:31 - recap on how to play on 2-5-1s

12:04 - bonus 2-5-1 licks

12:30 - Lick #1

12:43 - Lick #2

12:55 - Lick #3

13:06 - Lick #4

13:17 - Lick #5

13:29 - sign off

14:09 - end titles and blooper reel


Video Transcript


Hi I’m Jamie Anderson, and you’re watching Get Your Sax Together. I sax up every Sunday for you, with free online saxophone lessons to help you improve your technique, improvise great solos and learn your favourite songs. On this week’s show, you’re gonna learn what a two five one chord sequence is and how to get started improvising on it.


Last year, I didn’t cover much jazz on the channel as I mistakenly thought that most people would be interested in other stuff. However, after all you generous people filled in my quiz recently (you know who you are, and thank you) I realised that the majority of my audience IS interested in jazz. If you’re NOT interested in playing jazz, fear not, there’s still gonna be loads of funk, soul, pop and rock stuff as usual, it’s just that I’m gonna throw in more jazz on top, which is GREAT, cos amongst other things, I’m a TOTAL jazz head! lol

If you’re new to the channel, make sure you go and pick up my special free gift to you, which is a one hour Saxophone Success Masterclass - jam packed with everything I know about sax that I could fit into sixty minutes. It’s a totally insane give away, suitable for beginners on saxophone right up to advanced players. Just click the link in the description for this video, or go to double-u double-u double-u dot get your sax together dot com, forward slash masterclass. Also, there’s a free PDF cheat sheet for this lesson covering everything you’re gonna learn today and you can get that  the link in the description as well. All good in the hood, let’s crack on with the lesson now, and make sure you keep watching to the end cos I’ve got a great bonus for you…ooooh!!


Today’s goal is learn the basics of two five ones, so the first question is - what IS a two five one? To answer this, I’m gonna jump behind the screen for this lesson…


First of all, if you haven’t already, you DEFINITELY need to go and watch at LEAST the first two videos in my four part series on basic music harmony. These videos will explain all about scales, keys and chords. The card for that playlist is above now. If you haven’t watched them, even if you think you already know what you’re talking about, pause this video now, go and watch them, then come back.

So - now that you’re up to speed on the basics - here’s a C major scale. If we call C number one, D number two, E number three, and so on, we get this…

But in music we use roman numerals to label each degree of the scale. This makes it look like this…

These roman numerals are the numbers we’re talking about when we say “two, five” and “one”. The two, five and one just means the second, fifth and first degree of the major scale of the key you’re in. 

Next, only using notes from the C major scale, we stack up seventh chords on each scale degree. This just means we make a chord going up in thirds on each scale note. It looks, and sounds, like this…

Let’s now take away all the chords apart from the two, five and one chords. Seeing as you’ve already watched the first two lessons from my harmony series you’ll now know that the chords we are left with are D minor seven, G seven and C major seven. That, my friend is a two five one chord sequence in C major and, with the chords just played in root position, it sounds like this…

If we re-distribute those exact same notes across different octaves it sounds like this…

So, to recap then, a two five one chord sequence uses chords built on the second, fifth and first note of the major scale of the key you’re using, with all the chord notes coming from that home major scale. The two chord is a minor seven, the five chord is a dominant seven and the one chord is a major seven. Simple as that.


So now we know what a two five one IS, but why do we use it?

The answer is explained in part three of my music harmony series (linked on the card above), so the easiest thing to do is to go and watch that video now. However, just to quickly summarise it here - chord one of the home key always sounds very final and doesn’t want to go anywhere, whereas chord five of the key feels like it wants to resolve to chord one. That creates tension. You can almost feel it physically in your body. Those dissonant notes just LONG to resolve, and when they do you can breathe a sigh of relief and all’s well in the world. This tension and release is the basis of all western music harmony.

We can preempt the extreme tension of the five chord by using a two chord. This sets up the five chord. In rock and roll and classical music this two chord is usually a four chord. This works because the notes of the four chord are almost all the same as the notes of the two chord. Again, this is covered in more detail in that harmony part three video.

So that’s why we use two five one chord sequences. This particular combination of chords creates a BIT of tension with the minor seven “two” chord, then A LOT of tension with the dominant seven “five” chord, which then resolves in a satisfying way to the home major seven chord of the key.

This incremental tension and release gives shape and structure to almost every melody in the jazz standard repertoire and much more besides. To understand and recognise two five ones is to hold the keys to the kingdom of jazz standards. Make sure you get familiar with this stuff in all twelve keys, plus the two five ones in minor keys as well. Then suddenly, instead of seeing a sea of disconnected chords you’ll see clusters of two five ones in various keys. 

For example, here’s a jazz standard, A Weaver Of Dreams. I’ve highlighted the chords that DON’T fit into some variety of two five one. As you can see, there’s only two chords in the whole thirty-two bar sequence that don’t fit into some form of major or minor two five one.

[STING: Ok, But What Do I Play On II-V-Is?]

We’ll cover more advanced two five one stuff, like minor two five ones and three six two five ones, in a later lesson, but today is all about the basics. And what you REALLY need to know is what to play on this chord sequence when you’re improvising.

As you can imagine, you could spend the rest of your life exploring what to play on two fives, but let’s just cover three tips that will give you the biggest bang for buck, and they are…

Number one - use the notes of each chord. 

Number two - join up the notes of the chords with the major scale of the key, 

and number three - use enclosures to frame chord notes.

So first up, tip number one - use chord notes. 

This is as easy as pie. 

You just use the four notes from each chord of the sequence and jumble them up to create a new line. 

For example, if you’re in C, you would use D, F, A and C for the D minor seven chord, 

G, B, D and F for the G seven chord 

and C, E, G and B for the C major seven chord. 

I’ll give you a quick demo of that now…


Next, tip number two, you can start on one of those chord notes and use the notes of the home major scale to travel to other chord notes. 

Here’s an example of that…


Finally, tip three - using enclosures. 

This is what really gets you sounding like a jazz musician, but it’s a bit more complicated. 

In a nut shell, you choose a chord note, but before you hit that note, you play the scale note above and below, or vice versa. This would be called a diatonic enclosure, which means enclosing the chord tone with notes from the home major scale. 

A variation on this is to use the CHROMATIC notes above and below the chord note. This is known as a chromatic enclosure. Finally, you can enclose your chosen chord note with TWO notes above and below, again, either diatonically or chromatically.

Doing all this in theory is fine, but to really use enclosures well you need to transcribe great bebop and hard bop players. Go to the card linked above to learn how to transcribe. They’ve done the hard work of sifting through all the various combinations of diatonic and chromatic enclosures to get the best ones, so I’d just copy them if I were you!

Here’s an example of using enclosures.



Here’s what to do if you wanna learn how to improvise on two fives ones then…

First - learn what the chords are for two five ones in all the keys, or at least most of the main ones.

Second - get super familiar with the chord notes for each of those two fives. It’s important to target the right chord notes if you wanna sound convincing.

Finally - transcribe some hard bop players and see what THEY do, to get familiar with how to use enclosures etc.


I promised you there would be a great bonus, and here it is. I’m gonna give you five great two five one licks to get you started. To make it simple they’re all played on tenor, in C, but make sure you learn the licks and start transposing them through every key. Each example emphasises one of the tips we’ve learned. Remember to go into the description and click the link to get your PDF, which has everything from the lesson as well as these licks. Here we go…



So that’s it for this week. I hope I’ve helped you clear some of the fog surrounding two five ones. I can’t do any of the hard practice for you, but at least I can show you the way! Don’t forget to watch my free Saxophone Success Masterclass linked in the description and pick up your free PDF for this lesson.  I really appreciate you watching this channel and you can continue to support me by leaving me a comment, like and subscribe, ring the bell icon and visit my socials - Insta and Facebook. Next week it’s back to a solo breakdown - Michael Brecker’s iconic solo on Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon. Until then, enjoy your two five ones, and I’ll see ya later!


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