More on the II Chord
Now we will take a further look at the II chord as we did last month with the V chord, focusing on some other choices that you have when improvising on the II chord. Like the V chord, the II chord does not always occur in only a II, V progression, so we need to be able to deal with these other possibilities.
First, remember that the II chord is a Minor Seventh chord, which occurs at two other positions in the major scale. It can also be either a III chord, or a VI chord. When you have an isolated minor seventh chord, you have to first determine how it is functioning in the progression, and then make your scale choice. When it is a II chord, you just follow the instructions in the article on the II, V progression. If not you will have to determine whether you are dealing with a II or VI chord.
Start by looking at the key you are currently in, and see if the chord would function as a III or VI in this key. The best way to demonstrate this is with some examples. Look at the following progression:
Fmaj7 - Gm7 - Am7 - Dm7 - Gm7 - C7 - Fmaj7
The Key signature in this case would be one flat, or the key of F Major. Fmaj7 is the I chord in this case, so Gm7 would be our II chord. This is followed by Am7, which is still in the key of F Major, and is the III chord. The Dm7 is also in the key of F Major, and is our VI chord, followed by a II, V progression, finishing up with the I chord. In this case, everything fits the key signature, so there is no adjustment needed as far as the scale goes.
Another common progression to learn to recognize is the following:
Dm7 - Gm7 - C7 - Fmaj7
This is a VI, II, V, I progression, again all in the same key, in this case, F Major. Learning to recognize these common patterns will make your scale choice easier and allow you to improvise more freely.
But what about a case where it is not so clear what the function of the Minor Seventh chord is? Take this example:
Em7 - Gm7
Here, you do not have a common key, so the above examples are of no help. The general rule is first, check the key signature and see if that helps. Next, treat each as a II chord and use the appropriate scale. From there try the scale the chord is the III or VI of, and let your ear be your guide. You can use any combination of any of these scales, based on what sounds right to you. There is no real right or wrong here other than how does it sound. In the end, your ear should always be the ultimate arbiter in these situations. Remember that you want to play what you hear, rather than restrict yourself to musical rules. For instance, try the Minor Pentatonic scale of the same name. The more you experiment, the more possibilities you open up for yourself, as well as train your ear to hear new sounds.