Published June 26th, 2011. © Chris Juergensen/ All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR COMPANION VOLUME 1. Info >>>

In this lesson we will practice improvising over changes that move in specific key cycles. Cycles are important practice and composition tools, and there are countless possible cycles. It helps if you have a good understanding of the circle of 5ths as cycles travel clockwise or counterclockwise around the circle. We will also focus in on one of the most common progressions for Jazz, the ii-V-I progression. It is important to remember that there are many possible cycles and I strongly suggest you use your math and creative sense to experiment and come up with your own.

Cycling in major 3rds - Although there are countless cycles, the cycle introduced in this lesson moves around the circle of 5ths in keys separated by major 3rds, one of John Coltrane’s favorites (“Giant Steps” for example). Progressions that modulate in major 3rd intervals complete after three key changes, in other words, return to the place (key) we started from. The following diagram illustrates the cycle. Starting from the key of C major, we modulate up a 3rd to the key of E and modulate once again up a 3rd to the key of Ab. The next and final modulation up a 3rd takes us back to the key of C major. Notice that we are moving around the circle of 5ths clockwise in major 3rd intervals:

This cycle can be played in four different combinations of keys: C-E-G, G-B-Eb, D-Gb-Bb and A-Db-F:



The following progression utilizes ii-V-Is from the keys of C, E and Ab major: 

Ex.1) The following progression is spread out over three keys separated by major 3rd intervals, C major, E major and Ab major. You will need to improvise over each key center using the proper major scale. Just as before, it is of the utmost importance that you target chord tones and even more so when the key changes. In order to do this, it helps if you stay in one position as this will make changing keys easier. I've highlighted the chord tones (root, 3rd and 5th) for each chord in the scale patters for you, try starting on one of these notes each time a chord changes. Let’s use major scale pattern 4 for the ii-V-I in C, pattern 2 for the ii-V-I in E and pattern 1 for the final ii-V-I in Ab:


Ex.2) Continue on by improvising over the same progression, this time using three different major scale patterns, pattern 3, pattern 1 and pattern 5. Gray notes are chord tones:


Ex.3) Continuing on, play the diatonic 7th arpeggio from the root and third of each chord. These arpeggios are from scale patterns 3, 1 and 4 in that order. Feel free to combine the arpeggios with scales if you want:

Ex.4) I've made the progression a little more musical (and challenging) by rearranging where the key changes happen. Use a combination of scales and arpeggios to get the job done:
This lesson can be as easy or difficult as you want to make it by simply changing the tempo. If you get it up to a decent tempo, you'll find yourself ready for Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Next, you should try making up your own progressions based on various cycles. Try moving around the circle of 5ths in minor 3rds or tritones, using ii-Vs, ii-V-is or even static chords for a modal approach.

Have a question or a suggestion for a lesson, e-mail chris.
Click here to get an e-mail everytime a new lesson is posted.

Rather than a donation, help support these free lessons by buying one of Chris' CDs, you'll be happy you did!

Information on the 266 page "THE INFINITE GUITAR" based on these lessons.
Information on the newly published, 224 page THE INFINITE GUITAR COMPANION VOLUME 1 based on these lessons.
Information on the "THE EMPOWERED MUSICIAN" based on these articles.