I frequently see "incomplete" ii V I sequences in standards (like Satin Doll for example) where only the ii and the V are played and I'm always wondering what I can play there, since I find most of the stuff I play comes not sounding very convincing. Any idea what I can do besides taking usual ii V I patterns and getting rid of the last part ? Also do you guys have any way to deal with succession of dominant chords (dominant chords that are played as the fifth degree of another dominant chord) like let's say : | C-7 | F7 | Bb7 | ?

  • 4
    Those "fake" progressions are called interpolated ii-V progressions. I'm not sure why what you are playing isn't convincing, but there are lots of ways to approach this. Learning patterns to play over progressions is okay to start, but won't get you very far, and I suspect the problem is that you are trying to shoehorn the patterns you know into place. The best thing to do would be to transcribe some melodies and solos from recordings that you admire. Then try to understand how those phrases work, and see if you can use that.
    – ex nihilo
    May 1 '19 at 22:23
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    Note that lifting phrases from recordings is different than reading about "usual patterns." When you take these off of recordings by ear, you hear them in context. It is critical to spend time trying to understand how the phrases work; try to figure out where the chord tones are in the phrases. How does a phrase connect the chords of the progression? How are the notes accented in the recording? How does the phrase cross bar lines? You will learn a lot that you can use with this kind of work.
    – ex nihilo
    May 1 '19 at 22:28
  • Perhaps you could be more specific about what you have tried and not tried. Off the top of my head, bebop scales would seem like an important tool explore for both of the situations you bring up.
    – Max
    May 2 '19 at 1:08
  • Can you post a transcription of an unconvincing line? May 2 '19 at 9:37
  • You're all right I should have been more precise, I will post an example of a bad line as soon as i can get my hands on a guitar. In the mean time, do you hve any idea how to proceed with successions of dominant chords (like in doxy for instance) ? I usually play the corresponding mixolydian scale over each chord but i find it super boring, and I have difficulties to find convincing lines with diminished scales
    – Johncowk
    May 2 '19 at 19:22

For ii-V chords that don't resolve to I, the most straightforward scale to improvise on is the major key of the I. This is because the local key for those two chords is the tonic, whether or not you play the tonic chord next.

So in your example of Satin Doll, the first four measures would be:

  • dm7 G7 / dm7 G7 (improvise in local key of C major)
  • em7 A7 / em7 A7 (improvise in local key of D major)

DISCLAIMER: When I say the 'most straightforward' scale voice, that is understood to be a starting point and safe zone. If you only stick with those notes, it won't sound very inspired in the end.

The same a principle applies for a succession of dominant seven chords. Improvise using the major scale of the relative tonic.

  • C7 (F major scale)
  • F7 (Bb major scale)
  • Bb (Eb major scale)

The same disclaimer from above applies to. But even if you do just use major scales, there are some fun and creative ways to move from scale to scale as the chords progress underneath your improvisation line.

THAT BEING SAID: I hope I addressed the question, though in some senses what I said is just dropping the I chord and playing as usual which you stated that you are trying to avoid. But don't think about those ii-Vs as "fake" - they simply don't resolve to their tonic - or they don't resolve at all! But that's very much intentional and can serve an important harmonic purpose.

In the case of Satin Doll, the first ii-Vs build the expectation that you will land in C, but then you move up to the ii-V of D. Note, however, that this is also the iii-iv of C, so it plays naturally back to C anyway. (As in iii-vi ii-V I)

But a ii-V can also resolve really well to the tritone its tonic, which we see at the end of the A section. The seemingly random ii-V in Gb, Abmin7-Db7, actually resolves back to its tonic's tritone - C major. The key that the whole song has been building towards but avoiding until now! So simple, yet powerful and rich.


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