What's a II-V-I Chord Progression

What's a II-V-I chord progressionThe II-V-I sequence is the most common chord progression used in jazz music but also in a whole number of styles of music as pop, rock, blues, country. This theoretical element is a must know for any guitarist who wants to learn the jazz language because. It is present in many jazz standards (Summertime, Autumn leaves, Blue bossa, All the things you are and many more). The mastery of this harmonic cadence will open up many perspectives in your guitar practice, whether in composition, in improvisation or more in the practical and theoretical learning of your instrument. Notice that this post is focused on major II-V-I cadence. 

How to built a II-V-I progression

The II-V-I chord progression is made up of three basic chords constructed from the first, second and fifth degree of the major scale. First of all, you need to understand a fundamental theoretical element : The harmonization of the major scale. Indeed, when you stack thirds starting on each degree of the major scale, you produce seven different chords. In other words, each degree of the major scale corresponds to a chord. Please take a look at the following link if you don't know how to harmonize the major scale.

What are the chords of a II-V-I progression ?

Let's take example in C major :

  • The four note chord corresponding to the first degree (I) of the C major scale is a major seventh chord (CM7).
  • The four note chord corresponding to the second degree (II) is a minor seventh chord (Dm7).
  • The four note chord corresponding to the fifth degree (V) is a dominant seventh chord (G7).

These chords (in their unaltered forms) are fundamental for a first approach. When they are grouped together they form the II-V-I progression.

Dm7 | G7 | CM7 | % |

Four note chords harmonization of the I, II and V degree of the C major scale.

II-V-I chords

This giving the following II-V-I  sequence

II V I chord progression

II-V-I in twelve keys

Any jazz guitar player must be able to fin and play quickly a II-V-I in any key. Here they are in twelve keys.

  II V I
Key of C Dm7 G7 Cmaj7
Key of F Gm7 C7 Fmaj7
Key of Bb Cm7 F7 Bbmaj7
Key of Eb Fm7 Bb7 Ebmaj7
Key of Ab Bbm7 Eb7 Abmaj7
Key of Db Ebm7 Ab7 Dbmaj7
Key of Gb Abm7 Db7 Gbmaj7
Key of B C#m7 F#7 Bmaj7
Key of E F#m7 B7 Emaj7
Key of A Bm7 E7 Amaj7
Key of D Em7 A7 Dmaj7
Key of G Am7 D7 Gmaj7

How to improvise over a II-V-I ?

Guide tones

When you want to improvise over a II-V-I cadence, The first step is to play guide tones. What are guide tones ? They are notes that establish the identity, the color of a chord. These notes are the thirds and seventh, they guide the movement of the harmony from chord to chord. Let's take an example with a C major II-V-I sequence (Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7) .

  • The guide tones of the Dm7 are the minor third (b3) which is F and the minor seventh (b7) that is C.
  • The guide tones of G7 are B (3) and F (b7).
  • The guide tones of Cmaj7 are E (3) and B (7).

II V I guide tones

In this example, we can see that the guide tones of Dm7, G7 and Cmaj7 are connected to create a fluid line.

Using arpeggios over II-V-I sequences 

After understanding and playing II-V-I sequences in twelve keys using guide tones as shown in the previous example, you have now to create more elaborate jazz lines using arpeggios. What's an arpeggio ? This is a chord whose notes are played one by one, this way you will create fluid lines and play the most important notes.

In this first example, we will play a minor seventh arpeggio (D-F-A-C) over Dm7. This minor seventh (b7) of this arpeggio is connected with the third (3) of G7 and the b7 of G7 is connected with the third of Cmaj7. (remember the guide tones).

Guide tones jazz guitar lick 3

In this example, we will use two arpeggios : Dm7 (D-F-A-C) and G7 (G-B-D-F). These two arpeggios are connected with guide tones once again.

II V I jazz guitar lick


What scales to play over a II-V-I sequence

Here are the three modes to play generated from tones of the C major scale. These three scales are used for a basic approach of the II-V-I improvisation.

  • The scale starting with the first step of the C major is called Ionian mode (major scale). It will be used to play over the major chord (I) (CM7).
  • The scale starting with the second step of the C major is called D Dorian mode. It's a minor type scale because of its b3. It will be used to play over the minor (II) chord (Dm7).
  • The scale starting with the fifth step of the C major is called G Mixolydian mode. It's a dominant  type scale, it contains a major third (3) and a b7. It will be used to play over the dominant (V) chord (G7).

Modes of the II-V-I sequence

Bebop scales 

Bebop scales are a nice alternative when you want to add a bebop touch to your playing. They are made up of eight notes, including a chromatic passing tone.

  • The minor bebop scale (also called "Dorian bebop scale") is the same scale as the Dorian mode but with a major third (3) between the minor third (b3) and the fourth (4th). There are two versions of this scale, one with a passing tone (3) between the b3 and the 4th and one with a passing tone (7) between the b7 and the root (this one has the same intervals as the dominant bebop scale shown below). This one can be used over minor seventh chords, so over the II of the II-V-I cadence.
  • ​The dominant bebop scale is also made up of eight notes with a passing tone (7) between the b7 and the root. It can be played over dominant seventh chords (V).

Altered and half-diminished scales 

Playing the Mixolydian mode or the bebop scale over the dominant 7th chord will be boring at the long run, that's why you can add tensions in your jazz lines by using the altered and the half-whole diminished scales (including some passing tones).

Here are these two fundamental scales that will bring interesting altered lines in your playing.

  • The first one is called "Altered scale" (also called "super Locrian mode"). It is the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale.
  • The second one is called "Half-whole diminished scale". It contains eight notes (octatonic scale).

Here is a short II-V-I line, still in the key of D minor, built with the D Dorian bebop scale (D-E-F-Gb-G-A-B-C-) and the G dominant bebop scale (G-A-B-C-D-E-F-Gb-G). Notice that these two scales are connected with two guide tones, namely b7 and b3. You can see a C major seventh arpeggio (C-E-G-B) at the end.

II V I jazz guitar lick bebop scales


II-V-I progressions are present in many jazz standards, check out the realbooks and try to locate them into your favorite tunes. It's quite easy, generally when a m7 chord is followed by a 7th chord and even a Maj7 chord it is probably a II-V-I sequence. Notice that II-V are also often seen without the I chord resolution and that they may be several II-V sequences in different keys.

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