Soloing over ii-V-I is usually associated with modes. Dorian-Myxolydian-Ionian. I'm trying to expand my soloing by playing "outside", so I wanted to find out what other scales can be played over Dorian in ii-V-I?

  • Have you looked at the answers? Do they make any sense to you? Basically, you're asking the wrong thing, you should have asked "what other things besides scales can I play over changes". And the other things are: chords and chord tones, melody licks, and chord licks. And you certainly don't want to use the same scale for very long over changes. Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 20:22

4 Answers 4


If you are following the standard mode-chord mapping you should use

Dorian over the ii

Mixolydian over the V7

Ionian over I

as your question alludes to. However this is not a useful approach to true improve. If you want to play "out" I find the blues (more specifically the minor blues) can be forced onto almost anything. You have the b5, b3, and b7. Even over the I chord blues phrases work. Especially if they are used to move gracefully into the diatonic mode. And with this comment I move on to different approaches to this. While it is completely true that the modes you mention fit over the chords you mention that usually does not lead to interesting melodic and harmonic ideas. At best these are the 7 notes that don't offend, and even then some of them DO OFFEND since you have the 4th of each chord and that is an avoid note. And it seems that you already know that these modes are really all in the same key. So for a ii->V->I in any key you can just use the I Ionian, or the ii Dorian and leave it at that. Rather than give a mode I'd list a few ways of thinking of the situation that may help get better solos in general.

  1. Think in terms of leading tones and chord tones. Rather than run across the mode stick to chord tones. This may seem like a step backwards since you've reduced your options from 7 to 3 or 4. However the chord tones are generally more meaningful and you can decorate them with out of key embellishments, Mordent, Gruppetto, Appoggiatura, etc. In fact I recall a standard exercise is to play up and down the modes using a turn like "mode note above followed by half tone below then up to the note", or "chord tone below and half tone above down to the note". This creates a beautiful progression that is very melodic, respects the key and is "out". But it's out in a meaningful and sensible way. In my opinion this is really just using the concept of a Leading Tone. You play "around" the note and "lead into" the note. Once you understand this you can eliminate the specific pattern and hear how to lead into the chord tones. I find this to be a way more useful exercise and improv approach than matching mode to chord. You can apply the same concept to arpeggios. One thing I do is to play off simple patterns and move them around the arpeggios making sure I land on key notes. As an example I would assert that C dorian works over the C maj7 chord. The basic idea is to accent the 9 and 6 of the C major scale to create a C maj13. Walk down {F, Eb, D} then {C, Bb, A}. This works for many reasons. Before you get the idea that this is the only lick I play, this is an example. When you use your ear and voice lead to solo rather than pattern you realize that you can really play ANYTHING. What counts is the context, how the notes move rather than if they are in the key of the progression.

  2. Listen to players like Pat Martino. He uses a lot of chromatics but with purpose, that is to say in a way the leads into diatonic patterns. This sounds very out and very cool. He also has a technique referred to as minorizing the progression. He lays diatonic minor ideas over the progressions and that adds a lot of color. Think of this instead of using relative Dorian, try relative Phrygian or using chord subs in the relative minor key. You can even treat the ii chord as a temporary I and play harmonic minor over it.

  3. Use some more exotic modes over the standard progressions. I mentioned the Blues but there is also a whole set of modes called BeBop scales which add passing chromaics in the usual diatonic modes. You could spice things up simply by practicing the bop scales rather than dorian-mixo-etc.

  4. Get away from scales altogether and build a collection of licks. This is the approach advocated in Jerry Coker's text Improvising Jazz. The idea is that we never build solos by mode matching. Rather we learn bits and pieces of tunes and take what we like, modify it and create something new out of it. Coker suggests keeping a manuscript book and writing 3 new licks a day. These do NOT have to be fit to a chord, just a simple melodic idea, 3 notes is fine. Then try to move them around in different ways through changes. Reverse them, turn them inside out. These like are the foundation of musical ideas, not the scales.

  5. Steal from the head. If you are playing over standards or other classic jazz and bop tunes realize that improv is variation on a theme. The goal is not to write a new tune but to respect the tune you are playing and elaborate on it. To that end just literally take the head and playing with some embellishment. Something as simple as playing the head in the relative minor key can sound really cool. Playing new licks but in the rhythm of the head works too.

  6. Learn chord substitutions and use ideas from the other chords to play "out" relative to the original progression. Understanding chord subs is very useful, you can completely rewrite a tune using them in such a way that it sounds very new but still respects the original harmonies. An obvious and simple sub is the relative minor. You can replace I with vi. This comes from the enharmonic equivalence of the chords I6 and vi-7 (just inversions of each other). This is no where near being "out". Things like the tri-tone sub will take you "out" of the comfort zone and out of the diatonics but still move correctly. Once you have a handle on this sub you can then superimpose the two keys that are related by the sub and create lines that move in and out of the two related keys.

Common threads in these approaches are (1) listen for the movement of the voices in the chords (use voice leading) and (2) understand the structure of music theory and how leading tones are used. Just fitting a new mode over the chords will put you in the same place you are in but with different notes.


You can play pretty much anything, depending on context and what has been established both melodically and harmonically.

All modes derived from the mayor scale are commonly used:

  • Lydian easily fits any mayor chord
  • Locrian can be played over V (VII m7b5 as diatonic substitution of V7)
  • Phrygian can easily fit any minor chord (using that b2 as leading tone is common)
  • Aeolian fits minor harmonies just as easily as Dorian or Phrygian

So, during minor chords and harmonies (ii, for example) you can go Aeolian, Phrygian, Dorian; but also Melodic Minor and Harmonic Minor. And both Melodic and Harmonic Minor can be harmonized upon, so now you have all the modes derived from Melodic and Harmonic Minor to choose from, some of them will better fit dominant, subdominant, or tonic functions, same as the modes derived from the mayor scale.

Diminished scales sound awesome on V7s. Pentatonics can fit almost anywhere. Scales are just one part of your melodic toolbox, arpeggios are as important to consider. A diminished 7 arpeggio can sound beautiful over V7s. Triads on melodic extensions can sound amazing too.

Instead of trying to gather a catalog of which scales play over which chords, try to learn the color, feel, and quality of each scale you learn, and apply them when you need that specific color, feel, or quality. Many teachers avoid teaching improvisation through "play Dorian over minor chords" because it promotes playing with your fingers and mechanically, rather than playing with your ear (head, imagination), from inspiration, while making a personal statement.

It's important to know your scales and arpeggios, but relating them to a specific chord has limited usefulness. A lot of the color comes from using notes that are outside of the "main" scale, chord, or harmony, and musicians do things that shouldn't sound good in theory that sound amazing in practice. This happens all the time.

Instead, build your scale and arpeggio pallete, relating them to specific colors, feels, and qualities, and use them when you feel like it. Any scale can be used over any chord, if it sounds good depends more on the harmonic and melodic context and the statement you are trying to convey, than if you are successfully applying some mechanical rules.



If I understood correctly, you'd play dorian on the ii, mixolydian on the V and ionian on the I? No wonder you want variety, because that's practically like playing the same scale all the time, because you don't have even a single out-of-scale note anywhere. :) In modal playing, things stay in the same harmonic posture for a long time, but in this case there is a progression, changes.

I suggest taking a different approach. Instead of trying to find a scale that you could pour (randomly?) over everything, think about what chords you're playing. Even if you play a single note, you're doing something harmonically. What are you doing, what picture are you painting? Do you know what you're implying with your notes? There's a whole world of things that can be done with the major scale, depending on what notes you select from it. You can't select randomly. When someone says they "play a scale" over something that's non-modal, I expect to hear chaotic rubbish - or they don't actually play the scale, they play chords from it. Or if it's a very quick run, it might work kind of like one thick chord.

Think about it this way: the major scale contains all of the chords in your ii-V-I progression. If you select random notes from the major scale, what are the chances that the notes outline a ii-V-I progression? Practically zero. Random = rubbish. There has to be some kind of control and a leading idea behind what you're doing.

The different approach is to think about chords first, and scales later if needed. If needed. What can you add to the chords? Can you alter the chords by playing different things on them? Can you glue and lead the chords together by inserting in-between steps? Here are some things to try. I'll assume the ii-V-I in C major: Dm, G, C.

  • On the Dm, play E major (by arpeggiating or "outlining")
  • On the Dm, play a strong B note, making it a Dm6.
  • On the Dm, play a line of notes D - C# - C ... which is supposed to lead nicely to the G major chord that has a B in it
  • On the G, play an F major, making it essentially a G11 chord
  • On the G, play an F minor, giving it some feeling of having been borrowed from the parallel minor key C minor
  • On the G, play a Bdim7
  • On the G, play a G13
  • On the G, play a G7+9
  • On the G, play an E major
  • On the G, play an E major and then a Db major
  • On the G, play a line of chords like F, Fm, E, Db
  • On the G, play a chromatically descending line of triads: G - F# - F - E - ...
  • On the G, play a whole-tone line G-A-B-C#-D#-F-...
  • On the G, play a half-whole diminished scale line starting from G
  • On the G, play "stacked thirds" selected from the G half-whole diminished scale (they're dim chords!)
  • On the C, play a strong A note, making it a C6
  • On the C, play a strong Bb note, making it a C7
  • On the C, play a G major, making it a Cmaj9
  • On the C, play a line of chords that moves us back to the Dm again, for example G major, G minor (think C7!), F# major (... which is one chromatic step away from F, which falls on the Dm perfectly, making it a Dm7)
  • On the C, play ... Em7-5 (i.e. Gm6) before diving into an A half-whole diminished scale bombing run (which is essentially a funny kind of a borrowed ii-V line going into the Dm)

What scales do some of these come from? You don't necessarily have to know! Some of them could potentially come from many scales. Don't play the whole scale, play just a few color notes or a coloring chord like the Fm over G major. Or if you play an entire scale like the whole-tone or diminished scale, OK why not, but make it sound like a chord.

The idea with the in-between-chords is, you have to think like a real-time arranger. How to move to, say, Dm? By using Dm's dominant ... and that doesn't have to be an actual A7, it can be a mutated substitution contraption like F# or the A half-whole diminished scale. Before any chord, insert the chord's dominant into your solo! This applies to many things, not just ii-V-I.

To practice this, use just a bass line as the ii-V-I backing, so you get more room to set the harmony. You're responsible for the harmony A really good soloist can create an entire harmony progression without any backing instruments. :)


Lots of complex answers here for a simple question! The first place to start making the ii chord more interesting is the 7th. Instead of the minor 7, use the major 7. So for Dm7, use C# in your approach. The scale created is D melodic minor. But it's easier at first to just hear the C# as a chromatic approach than it is to use the whole scale. So try the line E C# D E F A C D. I basically just inserted the C# into the Dorian scale, which some might call the Dorian bebop scale (8-tone scale).

As stated above, the V7 offers the most opportunity for chromatic motion away from the key center of C. If you aren't familiar with all the altered V7 possibilities, I recommend starting with just the flat 9. This gives you G, Ab, B, C, D, E, F (5th mode Harmonic Major, if that helps.) The next note to change would be the 13th or 6th. So flat 13 is Eb. Now you have G, Ab, B, C, D, Eb, F. Arrange those notes from C, and you'll see it's just C Harmonic Minor: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, B. If you have trouble negotiating that jump between Ab and B, just fill it in with a Bb, which is called the #9. You have an 8-tone scale that's very stable and easy to use, unlike the 7th mode of melodic minor or diminished scale (see above answers).

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