jam session with percussionists, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist etc

Easy 2-Chord Progressions for Jam Sessions

Jam sessions are a great way to practice, experiment, and connect with other musicians. Many jam sessions stick to one chord, which can be both a blessing and a curse. While it simplifies things and allows everyone to get comfortable, it can also get monotonous quickly. But what if I told you that adding just one more chord can make your jams exponentially more fun and interesting? With minimal extra effort, you can unlock a whole new level of musical exploration.

Adding a Second Chord to a Jam Progression

In this article, we’ll explore how adding a single chord to your jam session can provide fresh possibilities for creativity and interaction. We’ll start with the I to IV chord progression, a classic move that’s simple yet powerful. Whether in a major or minor key, or even using a dominant seventh chord, this progression can be used in various ways to elevate your jam session.

To keep things interesting, you can vary the rhythm and duration of each chord in the progression. For instance, you might play each chord for four beats, eight beats, or even just two beats. These variations can dramatically change the feel of the jam, making it more dynamic and less predictable.

While we will be referencing famous songs to illustrate these progressions, it’s important to note that these examples are just starting points. You don’t need to match the song exactly. Feel free to take these progressions to any key and play them at any tempo, time signature, feel, or groove. The beauty of these chord changes lies in their versatility and adaptability. Whether you want to slow it down for a laid-back vibe or speed it up for an energetic jam, the I to IV progression can be molded to fit your musical vision.

Common 2-Chord Progressions

All the categories outlined below are also presented in this video.

Part 1: The I to IV Chord Progression

The I to IV chord progression is one of the most fundamental and versatile tools in a musician’s repertoire. It involves moving from the tonic chord (I) to the subdominant chord (IV). This progression creates a sense of movement and resolution that can add depth to any jam. Here are a few examples to illustrate how effective this simple addition can be:

Example A: Major Key (||: C | F :||)

One of the most famous songs that uses a I to IV progression is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones. In this example, the chords C and F are played in a repeating cycle. This progression is straightforward, but it creates a dynamic shift that makes the music more engaging.

Example B: Dominant Seventh Chords (||: D7 | G7 :||)

The song “Feelin’ Alright” by Traffic showcases how dominant seventh chords can be used in a I to IV progression. Here, D7 moves to G7, providing a bluesy feel and a strong sense of forward momentum. This variation adds a layer of complexity and richness to the jam without requiring much additional effort from the players.

Example C: Minor Key (||: Gm | Cm | Gm | % :||)

In a minor key, the I to IV progression can sound particularly soulful and intense. “I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley uses this progression effectively. The chords Gm and Cm are played in a pattern that gives the song its distinctive reggae groove. This example shows how a minor key progression can evoke a completely different mood compared to its major counterpart.

Example D: Mixed Chord Qualities (||: Am | D7 :||)

Another way to use the I to IV progression is by mixing chord qualities, as demonstrated in the song “Oye Como Va” by Santana. In this example, the chords Am and D7 are used, blending minor and dominant seventh chords. This creates a unique and exciting sound, which, for those familiar with modes, is classic Dorian. The use of modal progressions can allow for even more creative expression in your jams.

Part 2: The I to V Chord Progression

The I to V chord progression is another powerful tool that can significantly enhance your jam sessions. At the heart of music lies the concept of tension and release, and the V chord plays a crucial role in this dynamic. As part of the dominant category of chords (along with the VII chord), the V chord produces a lot of tension, making it a super-easy way to create a compelling chord progression. This tension, when resolved back to the I chord, provides a satisfying sense of release that keeps the music engaging and dynamic. Here are several examples of how the I to V progression can be used effectively in various musical contexts:

Example A: Latin Vamp (||: G | % | D7 | % :||)

In the song “Compadre Pedro Juan” by Luis Alberti, transposed to the key of G for simplicity, Latin tunes often rely on harmonically simple progressions because the focus is on the rhythm. During a jam session featuring percussion instruments like African djembes, this type of progression provides just enough tension and release without detracting from the rhythmic complexity of the session.

Example B: Latin Vamp Variation (||: G | D7 | % | G :||)

Interestingly, in the sheet music for “Compadre Pedro Juan,” the vamp section is presented as above. My Latin Jazz band Salsa Ithacana likes to play this arrangement of the tune, which can be heard from about the 1-minute mark to the end. This demonstrates how the tension-resolution of V to I cycles can be manipulated more interestingly as in I V V I. This simple yet effective pattern allows for rhythmic freedom while maintaining harmonic interest.

Example C: New Orleans Groove (||: F | % | % | C7 | % | % | % | F :||)

The famous New Orleans groove “Iko Iko” extends the I to V approach from the previous example to a longer duration per bar and mixes it up symmetrically but a little more unevenly. The key listed here is from the version by the Dixie Cups. Notice that each half is a 3 to 1 ratio, i.e., the first half is I I I V, and the second half is V V V I. This progression is also used in Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.”

Example D: Asymmetrical Tension-Resolution (||: C | % | % | % | % | % | G7 | % | C | % | % | % | % | G7 | C | % :||)

“Nails in My Coffin” by Ernest Tubb features an extended I and V progression that builds tension by breaking any symmetry in the tension-resolution cycle. The first half is I to V in a 3:1 ratio, while the second half includes 5 bars of I, 1 bar of V, and 2 bars of I.

Example E: Minor Key (||: Bm | F#m :||)

The I to V progression doesn’t have to be in a major key; it can be in a minor one, such as in “Jam III” from Derek and the Dominoes’ “The Layla Sessions.” This progression, jammed on during the recording sessions of this landmark album, shows that even a simple I to V pattern can be a powerful foundation for improvisation and exploration.

Part 3: The I to II Chord Progression

The I to II chord progression introduces a subtler sense of tension and release compared to the I to V progression. The II chord falls into the subdominant category, along with the IV chord, and while it doesn’t create as much tension as the V chord, it still provides a significant lift compared to a one-chord vamp. Here are some examples of how the I to II progression can be used effectively:

Example A: Dorian Vamp (||: Am Bm :||)

“Moondance” by Van Morrison is a classic example of a Dorian vamp using the progression ||: Am | Bm :||. This progression creates a smooth and engaging groove, perfect for extended improvisation and jamming. The minor I to minor II relationship gives the music a sophisticated and slightly jazzy feel.

Example B: 12/8 Blues (||: A | Bm | % | A :||)

“I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James uses the progression ||: A | Bm | % | A :|| in a 12/8 time signature. This progression, which is also used in “Tennessee Whiskey,” offers a soulful and bluesy feel, allowing for expressive vocal and instrumental performances. The II chord adds just enough movement to keep the listener engaged.

Example C: Rock Ballad (||: F#m | % | E | % :||)

“Don’t Let Me Down” by The Beatles features the progression ||: F#m | % | E | % :||. While the bass hits the root B in the last two beats of the second bar (technically making it F#m/B), the progression still maintains the I to II movement. This progression adds depth and emotional weight to the song, showcasing the versatility of the I to II progression in different genres.

Example D: Minor Key Vamp (||: Dm | Em7b5 :||)

A simple vamp like ||: Dm | Em7b5 :|| can create a mysterious and tension-filled atmosphere, perfect for improvisation in a minor key. This progression is especially effective in jazz and modal music, where extended harmonic exploration is encouraged. The half-diminished II chord adds a unique flavor to the vamp, making it both intriguing and harmonically rich.

Part 4: Other Chord Combinations

In addition to the previously discussed I to IV, I to V, and I to II progressions, there are other diatonic chord combinations that can add depth and variety to your music. These include progressions involving the VI, bVII, and bVI chords. Let’s explore some examples:

Example A: I to VI

The I to VI progression can create a smooth, flowing sound that is both uplifting and melancholic. It is commonly used in various musical genres.

  • “The Locomotion” (Little Eva version)
    • In the key of Eb, the progression ||: Eb | Cm :|| can be heard. This progression moves from the tonic major chord to the relative minor, creating a pleasing contrast.
  • “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd
    • In the key of Em, the progression ||: Em | G :|| could be analyzed as VI to I in key of G, although it is part of a longer chord cycle: ||: Em | G | Em | G | Em | A7sus4 | Em | A7sus4 | G | % :||. This sequence provides a mix of melancholy and resolve, characteristic of the song’s reflective mood.

Example B: I to bVII

The bVIImaj chord is diatonic to minor keys, providing a sense of resolution and stability. It is also frequently used in major keys to introduce a mixolydian flavor.

  • “Night Nurse” by Gregory Isaacs
    • In the key of Am, the progression ||: Am | G :|| uses the bVII chord to create a smooth, reggae-inspired groove.
  • “I’m So Glad” by Cream (originally by Skip James)
    • In the key of E, the progression ||: E | D | E D | E :|| showcases the use of the bVII chord (D) in a major key. This asymmetrical pattern can be considered diatonic in the E mixolydian mode, adding a bluesy, rock feel to the song.

Example C: I to bVI

The bVImaj chord is diatonic to minor keys, offering a dramatic and poignant contrast. It is also used in major keys for a striking, unexpected harmonic shift.

  • “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac
    • In the key of Am, the progression ||: Am | % | F | % :|| features the bVI chord (F), adding a haunting and mystical quality to the song.
  • “I Talk to the Wind” by King Crimson
    • In the key of E major, the progression || E | C | Gmaj7 | B7sus4 B7 :|| uses the bVI chord (C). While this progression ventures into non-diatonic territory, it illustrates how the bVI chord can be effectively used in major keys for a rich and complex sound.


The very last progression mentioned above is an example of a non-diatonic chord progression, where the chords do not share a common scale. There are infinite combinations of such progressions, but we have tried to avoid these because we are focusing on contexts with a variety of levels of musicianship. The goal is to keep the harmony simple so that the emphasis can be on the rhythmic unity of the group, especially when there are many percussion instruments involved, such as in the jam session I attended. Similarly, we could exponentially expand the possibilities by adding a third or fourth chord to diatonic progressions. Adding just one more chord to a progression can be done in many ways, requiring very little extra mental effort while enormously enhancing a progression that can be jammed on for 10 minutes or more.

Addendum: Practical Application with Students

I recently taught this lesson to a group of two students. I gave them different two-chord progressions and the following parameters to experiment with:

  1. I IV
  2. I V
  3. I II
  4. I VI
  5. I bVIImaj
  6. I bVImaj

We varied keys (major or minor), tempos, time signatures, styles, etc. We also varied the duration of chords (4, 8, or 2 beats per chord), the direction and symmetry of the progression, and whether the rhythm was straight or swung. Here are the progressions they came up with and we jammed on:

  1. Medium 4/4: | Abmaj7 | Dbmaj7 |
  2. Medium-fast 4/4: | Bm | F#m | Bm | % |
  3. Medium 6/8: | Cm | % | Dm7b5 | % |
  4. Medium slow 4/4: | Dmaj7 | % | Bm7 | Dmaj7 |
  5. Medium-slow 12/8: | F | Eb |
  6. Medium 4/4: | Gmaj7 | % | Ebmaj7 | % |

This exercise was great fun and highly useful for the students. It helped them with their theory, improvisation skills, rhythmic vocabulary in chord strumming, and even in transitioning between chords and single note lines.  If you want to jam along with us, the recording of it is here.


To start your free trial lesson, available online or in-person, just fill out this form and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours.