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How to Play Major ii V I Triads For Guitar

One of the most common chord progressions we encounter when learning how to play jazz guitar is the major key ii-V-I progression.

When learning how to build comping patterns and chord-soloing ideas over major key ii-V-I’s, we often look for large 4, 5 and 6-note chords, or shapes with big stretches in them to navigate this common progression.

But, you don’t always have to go bigger or harder when it comes to properly voice-leading a ii V I progression in a major key. In fact, often times it sounds better, and is much easier on your hands, when you use triads and other 3-note chords in your ii V I comping and soloing ideas on the guitar.

In today’s lesson we’ll be looking at ways that you can apply triads and voice-leading guidelines to your major ii-V-I comping and chord soloing ideas on each of the four string-sets on the guitar.

These shapes and patterns will give you more than enough material needed to convincingly and easily get through any ii-V-I progression, in any key and over any tune you are jamming on or shedding in the practice room.

Click to download the PDF for this lesson.



Major ii V I Triad Construction


Before we begin checking out these triads on the guitar, let’s look at how they work from a theoretical standpoint, in order to fully understand how and why we apply these shapes to our chord soloing and comping ideas over a major key ii-V-I chord progression.

The idea stems from the inner spelling of any 7th chord. With a four-note chord, if you remove the root note, you are left with a triad, which will be the building block of our chord ideas throughout this lesson.

Here is how this works for each of the chords in a ii V I chord progression, written out in the key of C major as an example.


Dm7 – D F A C = F A C  (F major triad when root is removed)

Cmaj7 – C E G B = E G B (E minor triad when root is removed)


There you have the two triads build from the iim7 and Imaj7 chords in a ii V I. But what about the V7 chord?

Here, we are going to apply a bit of voice leading to make things move smoothly from one chord to the next, as well as make it easy for you to remember how to apply these chords on the fly when bringing them to a musical situation.

To produce the V7, or to be more specific V9, chord that you will see in the examples below, we simply take the iim7 chord and lower the 7th by 1 fret.

So, if you have Dm7 (F A C to spell our F triad), and you lower the 7 by one fret you get a G9 chord (F A B or b7-9-3).

This is a great way to outline a V9 sound in your comping, while moving smoothly and easily from the iim7 chord at the same time.

Though it is not strictly a triad, this three-note shape has been used by countless players such as Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Ed Bickert and many more to bring a V9 sound to their comping and chord soloing ideas throughout the years.

As well, you will notice that when you apply these different triads to the major key ii V I chord progression, the iim7 and Imaj7 chord always share the same inversion.

This can help you when memorizing and applying these shapes to your playing, as you know that whatever inversion you start your progression with on the iim7 chord, you will use that same inversion when it comes to resolving to the Imaj7 chord at the end of the phrase.

If you need a refresher on triads and triad fingerings, check out my “Triads for Jazz Guitar Page” for more information.

Now that you have some theory behind how we are going to build these triads and apply them to a ii V I progression, it’s time to put this knowledge to action and learn how to comp through major ii-V-I chord progressions using triads and proper voice leading on each possible string-set on the guitar.



Major ii V I Triads Top Strings


The first string set that we will explore features these ii-V-I triads on the top 3 strings of the guitar.

After you have memorized these shapes in the key of C major, practice taking them to other keys around the neck, before applying them to a tune you know or are working on in your practice routine.

Since these triads are on the thinnest strings of the guitar, they tend to cut through better than some of the other, lower string-sets.

Because of this, they sound great in a chord soloing situation where they rise above the other instruments in the band, and are fairly easy to grab on the fly when creating chord-soloing ideas on the guitar.


Click to hear the audio for this example


major ii V I Triads



Major ii V I Triads 4-2 Strings


This is my favorite string-set to use when applying triads to the major-key ii-V-I chord progression.

On the 4-3-2 string set, the triads seem to ring clearly and each note comes out with clarity and solid tone on the guitar, and therefore this is the set of strings that I use the most when applying triads to my ii V I comping and chord soloing ideas.

For this reason, if I am to only work out one string set for these triads, and apply them to my major ii-V-I ideas on the guitar, it would be this one. So, this is a good place to start if you are looking to explore this idea for the first time in the woodshed.

From here, you can branch out to the other string sets, working these ideas fully across the neck in various keys and octaves as you explore these triads further in your jazz guitar practice routine.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


major ii V I Triads 2


Major ii V I Triads 5-3 Strings


The next string set we will explore is the 5-4-3 string set, which is commonly used in jazz guitar as you can get a nice low, full sound on these strings, but they tend to be less boomy/muddy than the lowest three strings on the guitar.

I always think of jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery’s tone and texture when I play these chords. Not sure why, but they bring to mind the sound that Wes got when he played chords on the lower string-sets in his comping and soloing ideas.

Memorize these shapes in the key of C major to begin, and then take them to other keys around the neck before applying them to a tune you know or are checking out in the woodshed.


Click to hear the audio for this example


major ii V I Triads 3



Major ii V I Triads Low Strings


To finish up our study of voice-leading triads through major key ii V I progressions, here is how those chords would line up on the low-3 strings.

Though we don’t use this string set as often as the other three, mostly due to the sometimes muddy sound we get on the low strings when using triads, they are worth working out and trying to find places to apply them to your comping and chord soloing ideas.

Again, work on these triads as written at various tempos, then take them around the different key centers before applying them to a tune you know or are working on in the practice room.


Click to hear the audio for this example


major ii V I Triads 4



Tune Up Triads Study


To sum things up, and apply what we’ve learned to a practical situation, here is a one-chorus comping study using triads on various string groups to outline the chord changes to the Miles Davis tune “Tune Up.”

I have worked in various inversions and string sets for each triad, even in the span of one bar on occasion, but kept the sense of strong voice leading between each chord in the progression.

Once you have worked this study out in the woodshed, try writing a chorus or two of your own over this tune, or any other you know or are currently working on.

Then, try applying these triads to your comping, or chord soloing ideas, in real time as you play along with a backing track, jam with a friend or bring these triads to your jazz group playing.

They are small, easy to play shapes, but they can have a big effect on your comping and chord soloing ideas, so they are well worth spending time on in the practice room to get them under your fingers, into your ears and into your jazz guitar playing.


Click to hear the audio for this example


major ii V I Triads Tune Up



Sometimes learning how to play effective comping and chord soloing lines on guitar doesn’t mean learning big, stretchy chords. In fact, it can be just the opposite.

By working out triads and applying them to ii V I chord progressions, you are not only developing a proper approach to voice leading this common and important chord progression, but you won’t have to learn any big or difficult chord voicings to do so.


Do you have a question or comment about this lesson, triads or voice leading? Post it in the Major ii V I Triads thread in the MWG Forum.

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  1. manjee, April 29, 2013:

    Hi Matt,

    Great lesson! Very instructive and well illustrated.
    While reading I noticed a small mistake (the voicings are OK but they are written an octave too low) in the last bar of the 4-6 strings figure.

    Thank you very much for all the fantastic material and work advices you give to us.

  2. Matt Warnock, April 29, 2013:

    Thanks for checking out the article glad you dug it. Not sure what you mean by too low, maybe I’m missing something but they all look good to me.

  3. manjee, April 29, 2013:

    You’re right, my mistake :) I thought the inversions would continue to go up till 15th fret because of the muddy sound of the first frets but I checked and you actually followed the same pattern as before. I simply wasn’t bothered by the sound of it before ;)

    PS: please forgive my English…

  4. Matt Warnock, April 29, 2013:

    No worries. I agree they are muddy in that range, but they are worth learning as in other keys those chords are easier to play and hear.

  5. richaed vandyne, May 9, 2013:

    Matt- just a quick question-when applying this theory when reading a lead sheet: when I come upon any chord that isn,t a 7th chord -can I just play a chord like say Bbm like a 3rd and 7th tone or would you play a chord like it is written.

  6. Matt Warnock, May 9, 2013:

    You can do that, or you can use other inner 3-note chords. So if you want to play C6 you could play 3-5-6, or E-G-A. If you want to play Fm6 you could play Ab-C-D. that sort of thing.

  7. richard vandyne, May 10, 2013:

    Thanks Matt -Just wanted to make sure!!

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