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How to Master Improvising on ii-V-Is

There are a ton of different chord progressions out there, most are diatonic, some used borrowed chords, sus chords, and plenty of other variations to make things interesting. Still, there are some progressions that come up time and time again. In pop and rock, it’s generally the I-IV-V and the I-V-vi-IV progressions. But in jazz, there’s one that shows up in almost every standard, and that’s the ii-V-I.

Jazz ii-V-I phrase in C major
ii-V-I phrase in C major

We’ve talked a bit before about ii-V-I progressions, both in major and minor forms, but it is essentially the backbone of jazz because it allows for quick tonicization (that’s a fancy word for establishing a key or “home base”) and can be an easy way to drive the tune into new keys.

So if the ii-V-I appears in most jazz music in some way shape or form, it’s really helpful for you to have this progression mastered so that you’re able to move freely over it. We’re going to go through a couple techniques for how you can play over a ii-V-I, but if you really want to master this concept, you’ll want to check out Chad LB's accompanying video and PDF package 50 Major ii-V-I Phrases, which takes you through these phrase exercises in all 12 keys.

Now let’s get playing!


Diatonic soloing

The most logical place to start when you’re getting up to speed on ii-V-I progressions is with diatonic soloing. This means that you’re going to play totally within the scale, nothing outside.

Before you even start with this, it’s helpful to be comfortable playing the arpeggios of each chord in a ii-V-I.

That means in C, you’ll want to know the arpeggios for Dm7 (D, F, A, C) G7 (G, B, D, F), and Cmaj7 (C, E, G, B). Once you have the arpeggios firmly under you, you’ll be able to move clearly through the scale on the progression. We cover this in our PDF package 4 Tune Learning Exercises on 20 Standard Chord Progressions, which covers arpeggios, playing diatonically, 2-note approaches, and 3-note approaches.

What you have to be careful of with ii-V-I progressions, is thinking “oh, well, it’s all in C, so maybe I’ll just play around C major?” and you start pushing buttons. This might sound ok, and for some note/chord combinations, it might even sound good—but the problem is you’re not quite sure why some things sound good while others don’t.

So how do you control the sound to make it sound intentional? Well, the best way to do it is with voice leading. This means that we’re going to be moving from chord to chord and measure to measure with step-wise motion, or stepping around the notes and landing on chord tones.

This is something you’ll see in this first phrase, which is from the PDF 50 Major ii-V-I phrases. You’ll notice that there are no chromatic notes, it’s all just notes in the C major scale. But here’s why it works—we’re not just pushing buttons and stumbling around C major.

Example of diatonic jazz solo on ii-V-I progression
Example of diatonic solo on ii-V-I

We’re starting on the root, which is easy and logical enough. Then we’re doing a 1, 2, 3, 5 shape, which is really common. After that, we’re wrapping around the minor third. From there we’re dipping down to the fifth, and we’re going to kind of delay that resolution into the three and create like a sus sound by landing on the four. Then we’ll arpeggiate up 3, 5, 7, 9, before landing nicely on the fifth. We’ll go around the third, then give a nice diatonic trail off to the phrase.