Don’t Be Boring!
You don’t want to sound boring! Sometimes the obvious thing to play is a II V I, maybe you are playing an intro for a song setting it up when performing solo, or maybe jamming with a vocalist. But You still want to make the chords interesting and surprising to the listener without sounding weird or random.
In this video, I will show you 10 simple ways to interpret a II V I that will help you add passing chords, play fills, and suspensions, so that you can add some interesting sounds to this important and common progression, the stuff that makes it a lot more fun to play and helps you be a lot more creative with the harmony.
#1 Make It Move Around More
Let’s start with some solid extra chords before moving into fills and more advanced stuff, like dim chords.
The great thing about the II V I is that it has direction and it is giving us the sound of the key.
The II V I progression is named after the scale degrees, so in C major it is Dm7 G7 to Cmaj7, and the point is to have a progression that moves forward to the resolution on the I chord, which is then also the tonic of the key in this case.
The problem is that this also makes it predictable, but a little detour is often enough to freshen it up.
A simple one is to add an A7 as a new sound and in that way delay the G7 a bit:
When I play this I add a lot of movement and the melody to the chords, which is what I would usually do if I was playing an intro to a ballad, but don’t think this doesn’t work with more basic chord voicings as well.
The A7 is a secondary dominant, I have a video talking about that which I will link to in the description. The next option is a more advanced take on this concept:
#2 A Bluesy Detour
A Tritone substitution is a version of a dominant that resolves down a half step, and check out how great that sounds in this example with the Ab7 moving down to the G7
The Ab7 and G7 almost sound a bit bluesy with the Eb and the Bb notes in the melody, the is because both of those notes are also a part of the Cm pentatonic scale.
Instead of adding chords, you can also change the sound of the chords in the II V I, so let’s move to some variations of the II chord Dm7, after that, I’ll show you some beautiful tricks for fills.
#3 The’s not the II chord?
The Dø is a II chord that is borrowed from C minor, but that also makes it nice and dark plus that the resolution to the Cmaj7 becomes even more bright and clear. And I think that point is often overlooked: What is important is how these chords sound in the context, an F major triad is maybe boring in C major but at the same time exotic in A major.
Let’s try another borrowed chord. This one I usually refer to as the most beautiful chord in C major.
#4 The Most Beautiful Chord In C Major
Maj7 chords are always great to use as reharmonizations because we hear them as already resolved, similar to how the Cmaj7 sounds in the II V I, it wants to sound like a I chord, but when they are not resolved and a part of a moving progression then that is a little bit confusing and in that way, a great sound. Here’s my favorite example of that:
I have another video that covers the theory behind minor subdominant chords that you can explore, but first, check out this other multi-functional maj7 chord!
#5 Italians Have Good Taste In Chords
As you all know, then Italian harmony is almost as good as Italian food. The next chord is often referred to as the Neapolitan subdominant, and it can be used in many ways, here I am inserting it as a minor subdominant instead of the dominant chord:
But you can also use it as a suspension instead of the tonic chord so that the listener expects the I chord and gets a different but beautiful chord, again using the maj7 trick:
And, this is, of course, also the type of progression that sounds great if you play it with 3-note Shell-voicings
Let’s get to some chord fills and then later I’ll throw in a nice diminished chord as well.
#6 The Coolest Chord Fills!
The best scale in the world for chord tricks is probably not what you think… it’s the pentatonic scale, at least for guitar, nothing beats that! Simply because it is so practical, let me show you some of the things you can do.
It is easier to start with the II chord.
If you play Dm7 here
Then it is not a stretch to see that this Dm pentatonic scale fits that chord well
And you can play some stuff that is easy but sounds surprisingly complicated with that! Just play the pentatonic scale 3-strings at the time, in that position. Something like this:
I am doing that in this next example and then something similar that sounds even more difficult on the Cmaj7, and that is easy too:
The trick on the Cmaj7 is almost the same. I am using Em Pentatonic, and the reason why that sounds good is pretty simple if you look at the notes of Cmaj7: C E G B and the notes of Em pentatonic: E G A B D then they have a lot of notes in common and the notes that are in Em pentatonic that are not in Cmaj7 are a 9th, D, and a 13th, A, both notes that sound great over the chord.
Since I am playing CMaj7 here:
Then this position of Em pentatonic is practical:
and of course, you can play that scale as 3-note chords as well:
But I play them in this pattern which is essentially still the same simple chords, just arpeggiated in a more interesting way:
I’ll put this to use in later examples as well, let’s look at some beautiful diatonic passing chords!
#7 Country Chords?
Often Jazz musicians make fun of pop music as being just I IV V chords all the time, but in this case, it is actually nice to turn the II V I into more of a IV V I progression. This one is incredibly simple and works on pretty much any II V I.
There’s a slightly more complicated but equally nice version of this that borrows some sounds as well.
#8 Walking into Minor
In this one I also use the pentatonic scale fills on the Cmaj7
But you don’t always need to change the chords, you can also just change a note in the chord and have a melody in there.
#9 Stairway To Heaven
A classic progression that you don’t usually associate with a II V I progression is this line-cliche. Again a progression that is fairly easy to fit into a song and that you can pretty much throw in everywhere. It is beautiful how this chromatic melody just spells out the II V movement.
The next one is a great sound, but also a little more complicated to throw in at random.
#10 Diminishing Returns
People keep telling me in the comments that this chord doesn’t exist. Luckily it doesn’t care and it still sounds great! Diminished suspensions are a great way to have a chord progression make a surprising twist
The suspension will only work if the melody fits with the dim chord, mostly it will be a 7th, but the root or the 6th can work as well.
Fix Your Thinking About Chords
Making Jazz harmony sound great is not about knowing 1000s of chord grips. It is about knowing some grips really well, and being able to get them to flow in the music and be creative with them. There are exercises that are essential for developing your comping and chord skills and also getting stuff like this into your playing, and that is what I talk about in this video which will help you level up your skills with chords and also teach you to think about voicings in the right way, so you get rid of all the isolated grips that are impossible to remember.
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