Today we’re going to talk about the 1-6-2-5 chord progression. Sometimes you will see it written as “I-vi-ii-V” with Roman numerals, where lowercase indicates a minor chord and uppercase indicates a major chord. Remember the song “Look For The Silver Lining” which we covered in the lesson Playing The Roots – Part 1? The first four bars of that song are a 1-6-2-5 progression. The progression is also used in the first four bars of “Cheek To Cheek” and countless other standards.
These chords, and variations of them, are a common form of “turnaround” in jazz. They can be used as the intro or the ending of a song. Here is the progression in the key of C:
In the above diagram I’ve chosen to play the C major chord as a C6 chord, which has the same notes as the Am7 chord. In other words, you can’t hear the difference between the two on the ukulele alone. In order to hear the harmonic movement, you have to hear the chords played against the bass (or another instrument that plays the roots) playing the C root and then the A.
And here is the same chord progression in the key of F:
Since the V chord at the end leads our ear back to the I chord, you can loop this pattern to form an intro sequence and it’s a bit like a plane circling the airport… You can play it for quite some time (though, like a plane, it’s best to not cycle through it for too long or you’ll run out of gas). You will often hear it used when bands have to come up with an impromptu intro for tunes in a major key, especially if the first few bars of the song are made up of the this progression.
In the video below, I’ll play a turnaround as an intro and later, as an ending, for the song “Cheek To Cheek” by Irving Berlin. The turnaround is in the key of F, the same key as the previous video example, so if you’d like to follow along, you can look at the chord diagrams further up the page.
On a side note, if this progression is sounding very familiar to you beyond just the world of jazz standards, it’s probably because it is a close cousin of the 1-6-4-5 chord sequence, also known as the 50s Progression. It was ubiquitous in doo-wop songs and you’ll have heard it in songs like Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” as well as in more recent songs like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” By the way, in the key of F, a I-6-4-5 would be F6 – Dm7 – Bb6 – C7.
If you want to play through another example of a 1-6-2-5 in a jazz standard, check out the next post on “Blue Moon – a 1-6-2-5 example.“
Here’s a fun listening exercise you can do to tune your ear to this chord progression: have a listen to the album “Ella and Louis”, one of three albums that Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded together. (The entire album can be streamed for on YouTube). Other than Cheek To Cheek, see if you can identify another song that uses the 1-6-2-5 progression at the beginning. Here’s something to think about: the pattern doesn’t always repeat, sometimes it only occurs once and then the chords move on. Put your guess(es) in the comment section below and we can compare notes!