Understanding the Minor ii V I Progression

Playing the minor ii V i progression is an essential skill for any jazz guitarist to have, and this progression is often seen by jazz guitarists as being derived solely from the Harmonic Minor Scale.

However, as with many musical concepts, there are standard alterations that are often used to make things sound sweeter to Western ears.

If you’ve read up on your music theory, then you will know that this chord progression is called a ‘ii V i’ because you are using the 2nd, 5th and 1st chords from the underlying scale in the given key you’re playing in.

In the case of a minor ii V i progression, you use the harmonised Harmonic Minor scale to build these chords; hence the term, “Minor ii V i.”

Minor ii V I Progression – Chords

To explain this concept further, and make the idea a bit clearer, let’s take a look at the chord theory behind the minor ii V i progression in terms of the Harmonic Minor scale.

To begin, here is the D Harmonic Minor Scale to check out on the fretboard, which uses the interval pattern R-2-b3-4-5-b6-7.

 

Minor ii V I Progression 1.1

Play through this scale on the guitar to get a feel for how it sounds, as it’s the basis for the minor  ii V i progression.

Now that you have checked out the scale on it’s own, you can harmonise the 2nd, 5th and 1st notes of the scale like so: 

 

Minor ii V I Progression 2

 Minor ii V I Progression – Voicings

The harmonised 2nd (ii) degree of the D Harmonic Minor scale, the note E, forms a minor 7b5 chord, which can be played like this on the guitar.

 

Em7b5 copy

The chord built on the first (i) note (degree) of the scale is a mMaj7 chord. You may not have been familiar with this chord until now, but you can think of it as a three note minor triad (D F A) with a major 7th added (C#) on top of that triad.

Here is an example of that chord on the guitar to check out: (Finger bass to top 1, 4, 2, 3.)

 

DminMaj7 copy

 

The V chord, otherwise known as the Dominant 7th Chord, is A7. To begin, check out this useful barre chord form on the fingerboard.

 

A7 copy

When we use these chords in the minor ii V i progression we get the chord sequence shown shown and heard below.

 

 

Minor ii V I Progression 3

 Minor ii V I Progression – Chord Names

This is a minor ii V i progression in its purest form. To give it its full description in detail for each chord, the chord progression is –  ii(m7b5) – V(7) – i(min/maj7).

This is quite a mouthful, so you normally just use the phrase “Minor ii V i” to describe the above sequence of chords.

Notice that for ii and i we use lower case roman numerals. It is convention in music to use lower case to denote minor-type chords and upper case to denote major type chords, hence ‘V7’ not ‘v7’.

When you play through this chord progression, do you notice that the DmMaj7 chord sounds tense and quite unresolved?

Normally the tonic chord in a progression acts as a kind of musical full stop, but this inherent tension in the mMaj7 chord does not really allow for that.

Often musicians do not use the mMaj chord as a resolution point in a chord progression. You do see the mMaj7 chord used, but if I were to guess I’d say that it is only used about 20% of the time.

The majority of minor ii V i chord progressions will normally substitute a ‘straight’ minor or minor 7 chord for the tonic mMaj7 chord.

This presents us with a couple of small soloing challenges which will be discussed in later lessons, but for now the minor ii V i chord progression we will study in this lesson is this:

 

 

Minor ii V I Progression 4

 

One notable composition that does use the mMaj7 chord as a resolution to a minor ii V i progression is Solar, by Miles Davies.

The voicing of the D minor 7 chord in the above example is this:

 

Dmin7 copy

Minor ii V I Progression – Exercises

The soloing challenges over the minor ii V i progression that I have mentioned, all revolve around the fact that the final Dm7 chord does not come from the same ‘parent’ D Harmonic Minor scale that the ii and V chords derived from. (If you remember, we were expecting a mMaj7 chord).

This means that we may have to adjust our thinking slightly when we are soloing over the Dm7 chord.

All this will be covered in later lessons and it is an important part of the minor ii V i sound.

For now, make sure you are able to play the chords along with a backing track.

 

  • Play each chord on the downbeat of the measure.
  • Next, play the chords on beat 1 and 3 of each measure.
  • From there, play the chords on beat 2 and 4 of the bar.
  • Lastly, try the Charleston rhythm from the example below to spice things up a bit.

 


Minor ii V I Progression 5

 

Before checking out the next lesson in this series, make sure you can change cleanly between the chords in time with a slow, medium and fast backing track.

What do you think about this minor ii V i progression lesson? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Further Reading

Minor ii V I Arpeggios Lines For Guitar

Minor ii V I Chromatic Approach Notes

Minor ii V I Soloing Basics

Minor 3 to 9 Arpeggios Part 1

Minor 3 to 9 Soloing

Phrygian Dominant Soloing Techniques

Combining 7b9 Scale and Arpeggios

About the Author

Joseph Alexander is the author of Minor ii V I Mastery for Guitar. A professional guitar teacher for over 15 years, Joseph graduated from The Guitar Institute in London with a Diploma in Popular Music Performance. He continued his education at the prestigious Leeds College of Music achieving a BA (Hons) in Jazz Studies in 2002. After graduation, music has taken Joseph all over the world.  He is currently living back in Thailand and is busy teaching a new wave of upcoming guitarists via Skype Lessons, and running the online Guitar Resource Site, Fundamental Changes




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  1. RobNov 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Hi Matt, in the D harmonic minor (1st diagram) scale you have a C instead of a C#

    • Matt WarnockNov 29, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      Hi Rob, that was a typo that I had fixed. If you saw the article before I fixed the typo, you might just have to clear your browser cache so that the new version of the scale shows up for you. Cheers.

  2. RobNov 29, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks!

  3. Sharon Kathleen JohnsonDec 1, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    I tweaked this progression a little in my new piano composition. I’ve learned a lot from you about jazz and I appreciate your simple and enlightening explanations.
    http://www.noteflight.com/scores/view/1cd373a0d2cc19589348664ad0d86a16b9ab40a0

  4. David PriceJan 31, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    I found this all very interesting. I understand your explanation of how the minor ii V 1 comes from the harmonic minor scale but, as you say the i chord sounds more like an augmented, unresolved chord more allied to a V7.

    Why does the minor ii V I derivate from the harmonic minor scale and not the Dorian for instance? This would give us Em7 A7 (OK we’d have to add C#) and Dm7.

    Thanks,

    • Dirk LaukensJan 31, 2014 at 3:41 pm

      Hey David, the C# is the reason a minor ii V comes from the Harmonic scale. There is no C# in D Dorian or D Aeolian, so there’s no dominant chord on the V, but a minor chord.

  5. DaveJun 1, 2014 at 8:48 am

    I have just started to read Joseph Alexander’ book on minor ii v I. As you know it states this progresion comes from the Harmonic minor scale. But in Mark Levine’s book ( The jazz theory book) he states on page 75 the three chords in the minor ii v I come from three different melodic minor scales. Can you please explain this. Thanks Dave

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