The II, V Progression
One of the most common progressions that you will encounter in music is the II, V progression. Learning to recognize and to be able to improvise over this progression is vital to your development as an improviser. We will take a look at this progression and cover both of these issues in this and other articles. This month we will start with the Major II, V progression.
First, let’s look at how to recognize this progression. If you remember from a past article, the II chord in a Major scale is a Minor Seventh chord, so when looking for a II, V progression that is where you will want to start. When you find a Minor Seventh chord, then look to see if it is followed by a Dominant Seventh chord. Remember from the past article on the Major scale, that the V chord is a Dominant Seventh chord. The root of the Dominant Seventh chord will be a perfect fourth up from the root of the Minor Seventh chord. If this is the case, you have a II, V progression. So, to summarize, you are looking for a Minor Seventh chord, followed by a Dominant Seventh chord whose root is a perfect fourth higher, (or perfect fifth lower). For example, take an Fm7 chord. In a II, V progression, this would be followed by Bb7, the Dominant Seventh chord a perfect fourth up. Try this with other II chords, until you can do it in any key from memory without any hesitation.
The next step is to determine the key that you are in, so that you know what scale to use. Let’s start with the basic scale and then move on to some other variations. Take the root of the II chord and go down a whole step to get the Major scale that you want to use. Using our example of Fm7, going down a whole step takes us to Eb, so that would be your starting point for your improvisation. This will aid you in locating key centers much quicker, allowing you to improvise better on they fly, and be more creative when playing through something you have not seen or heard before.
The next step is to take your ideas beyond just using the Major scale. When improvising over this progression, you can use the Major scale from the key you are in to improvise over the II chord, but you have some further options over the V chord. It is common with Dominant Seventh chords to play alterations over them when improvising. One example would be to use the Harmonic Minor starting on the same root as the Major key you are in. Once again, taking our example in Eb, use the Eb Harmonic Minor scale over the Bb7 chord. This will give you the sound of Bb7#5b9.
Another example, more "outside", would be to use a Melodic Minor scale whose root is a half step above the root of the Dominant Seventh chord that you are improvising over. In this case you would use a B Melodic Minor scale over the Bb Dominant Seventh chord. This would give you both the sharped and flatted fifth, and the sharped and flatted ninth of the chord in your improvised line. Obviously you need to work the line into this kind of outside playing in order for it to sound right, but you need to experiment with both inside and outside playing to grow as an improviser.
The examples above are just a starting point. In future articles we will go into more detail on improvising over the dominant seventh chord, as there are many possibilities that are open to you. Start first by being able to recognize this progression and the key associated with it. Work on building good lines using the Major scale first, before going on to the more outside variations. As always, experiment and do not be afraid to take chances. That is the only way you can find those really good and original ideas that will help you to develop a sound of your own. This will also help develop your ear, so that you can start hearing those outside ideas.