William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

So How Do I... Play Over Minor ii-Vs?

One thing I’ve learned through interacting with my students is that there is a lot of confusion surrounding minor ii-V-i progressions. Oftentimes, students get hung-up on the harmonies that make-up the progression. Minor ii-V-i’s are rife with minor 7 (b5) chords, altered dominants, and minor chords with major 7ths on them. These chords look—and more importantly, sound—completely different than the harmonies found in a standard major ii-V-I progression, and students are often confused as to how to approach these strange new chords. Additionally, the nomenclature surrounding the minor ii-V-i is much thornier than that of the good ol’ major ii-V-I. Terms like “half-diminished”, “super locrian”, and “diminished whole-tone” all reside in the world of the minor ii-V-i and often create mass confusion in the minds of the developing jazz improviser. To make matters worse, Western music theory teaches that the minor scale comes in three different forms: natural, melodic, and harmonic. Phew! How is anyone supposed to wrap their heads around all this stuff? In this post I’ll attempt to shed a little light on the subject of minor ii-V-i’s and outline a couple basic approaches that you can take to improvising over them.

A Crash Course in the Minor ii-V-i Progression

Just like the major ii-V-I progression, the minor ii-V-i progression consists of three chords: subdominant (ii), dominant (V), and tonic (i). However, as mentioned above, the qualities of the chords in the minor progression are much different than those in the major progression. In a minor key, the subdominant chord is half-diminished, the dominant chord contains altered extensions, and the tonic chord is either a minor-major 7 or minor 6. Why the difference in chord qualities? Good question. Essentially, the chord qualities in a minor ii-V-i are as such in order to establish the minor tonality. For example, the key of C minor contains A-flats, so the fifth of the ii chord in a minor ii-V-i must contain a flat five. It is for this same reason that altered extensions must be used on the dominant chord in a minor key. Using a natural 9th and natural 13th over a dominant chord in a minor key does not effectively prepare a minor tonic, whereas using a b9th and b13th does.[divider]

Approaching the Minor ii-V-i Progression

Outlined below are two basic ways to approach the minor ii-V-i progression.

1. Using the Natural, Harmonic, & Melodic Minor Scales

The first approach uses the three forms of the minor scale in the tonic key as scales from which to draw melodic material for the ii, V, & i chords. For example, if we were in the key of C minor, the three forms of the minor scale in our tonic key would be C natural minor, C harmonic minor, and C melodic minor--each of which would respectively work well over the Dm7(b5), G7(b9), and C-6 chords in the ii-V-i progression. C natural minor contains the same pitches as D locrian, which is a commonly-used scale over half-diminished chords. C harmonic minor, when played from the 5th scale degree, is essentially a Mixolydian scale with a flatted 9th and 13th--an effective scale that not only contains the most important tones of the G7 sound (root, 3, b7), but also includes two altered extensions (b9 & b13). Lastly, the melodic minor scale is an ideal scale to use over minor 6th and minor-major 7 chords (tonic minor chords), as it contains both a major 6 and major 7. The following example illustrates this approach.

2. Using Modes of the Melodic Minor Scale

The second approach uses the 6th, 7th, & 1st modes of the melodic minor scale over the ii, V, & i chords. The 6th mode of the melodic minor scale, also referred to as the Locrian #2 scale, is a colorful option over a half-diminished chord in that it contains a natural 2nd/9th, which is a chromatic note within the minor tonality. Playing this scale over a Dm7(b5) chord would involve using the same pitches as found in F melodic minor. The 7th mode of the melodic minor scale is commonly referred to by three different names: 1) the diminished whole-tone scale, 2) the altered scale, and 3) the super locrian scale. It is an ideal scale to use over a dominant chord in a minor key because along with containing the root, 3, and b7 of the dominant chord, the scale contains all the possible altered extensions: b9, #9, b5, & #5. Playing this scale over a G7(b9) would involve using the same pitches as found in Ab melodic minor. Lastly, this approach involves using the melodic minor scale over the i chord, the effectiveness of which was explained above in the first approach. The following example illustrates this approach.

Be aware that taking this approach to a minor ii-V-i progression involves cycling through three different keys, often rather quickly. As stated above, if we were in C minor we would essentially be using F melodic minor, Ab melodic minor, and C melodic minor--all within the span of a few bars. Transitioning between different melodic minor scales this quickly can be a difficult concept for developing improvisers to wrap their heads around.

Hopefully this clears up some of the common confusion surrounding the minor ii-V-i progression. To get the most out of this post, be sure to practice the above musical examples in all keys, octaves, and registers. Then, compose your own minor ii-V-i ideas using the same principles. And as always, transcribing solos of the jazz masters is an excellent way to generate new ideas for your playing. Some great tunes with minor ii-V-i's in them are: "Along Together", "Beautiful Love", "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise", & "Autumn Leaves".

So what are your thoughts on the minor ii-V-i progression? Do you have a particular way you like to approach it or play over it? Leave your comments below!