Rhythm Changes is (are?) a really popular chord progression referring to the I7 VI7 | ii7 V7 progression derived from George Gershwin’s song “I Got Rhythm”. This is a really popular progression in a variety of styles and has a lot of cool variations to explore. If you want to play jazz, this is a must know progression. PS I’ll be doing a song breakdown on I’ve Got Rhythm in the near future
So with that in mind, today we’ll dive a little more into Rhythm Changes. Here’s a basic chord progression chart with variations on the main progression. I left some spaces open in case you wanted to write out your own.
Listen to Rhyhtm Changes
Like everything else, listening is the first step to playing. So here’s a few tunes that use Rhythm Changes to some degree
- I Got Rhythm – George Gershwin (of course)
- Salty Dog Blues – Flatt & Scruggs
- Swing 42 – Grisman and Rice
- Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down
- Oscar Myer theme song
Rhythm Change Chord Tone Review
First, let’s dive into the notes in each chord. The below chart shows the notes in each chord using a standard I VI ii V progression.
Looking closely at these notes, a few things might pop out. For example, there’s a chromatic movement from C7 to Dmin7 using the C – C# – D notes. Also, the B – Bb – A movement from G7 to A7 is another chromatic run (and you could play the Dmin7b5 here to add the Ab). These note movements can be fun to exploit by highlighting them in your chord voicing and solo breaks.
Rhythm Changes and Chord Voicing
The chords in the below graphic are one of many different ways to play this progression – but a good starting point. Need some suggestions for the voicings? Check out my Mandolin Chord Shape Series here.
Below are snippets from the full chart I’ve posted earlier. These are mostly written “in position” meaning these chords are all close by each other on the fretboard. Learning any progression “in position” can be helpful as it requires less movement – making it easier to play at faster tempos.
That said, this chart isn’t necessarily meant to be read strictly in order all the time. After practicing them “in position”, try mixing and matching the different voicings to create movement in your rhythm. For example, take the C from the first progression, then use the A7 from the second progression, followed by the Dm9 in the third and etc. I suggest getting a few “personal standard” voicings of these progression that you can easily gravitate towards when needed on the fly (like at a jam etc).
Common Alterations and Substitutions to the Standard Rhythm Changes
As I mentioned earlier, Rhythm Changes is based on I Got Rhythm which is a I VI ii V progression. While that works great, there are TONS of alternations substitutions you can use for this progression. I’ve created a basic chart that has some chord shape ideas for the key of C, but below is a generalized list of substitutions that can be fun to play with – note all the below are 7th chords, but I figured it’d be cleaner to remove the 7th.
- I VI ii V – Standard
- I vi ii V – minor 6 (Swing 42)
- I VI II V – All major (Salty Dog)
- I I#o ii V – Sub VI for I#o
- iii VI ii V – Sub iii for I (Swing 42)
- I I6 ii V – Sub the VI for a I6
- III IIIb II IIb – Tritone sub
- I VI II IIb – Tritone Sub
There’s plenty more variations of these types of progressions with many different voicing options. So, while the concept may be simple, there’s virtually no limit to the number of variations you can create both in chord qualities and voicing.
The reasons you may choose one substitution over another vary by the situation. Most often, the choice will boil down to what’s going on the with the melody and what’s going on with the other instruments (especially the bass). Using the right substitution, you can highlight the melody, “off” color notes (like alterations and etc), and pretty much anything else you want.
Rhythm Changes is such a versatile progression that it’s really worth diving into for a while. Work up a few “personal standards” that work for you at high speeds and you’ll be fine at most jams. Pay close attention to the melody notes in the song you’re playing and play around with substitutions for some cool new ideas.
If you are liking the song breakdowns and want to learn more, check out my personal coaching page. Feel free to leave a comment below as well.
If you like this content, consider donating to my site. If you’d like to be notified when I post new content, subscribe below. Generally, you’ll get about 1 email a week