How to Practice and Apply Back Cycling

When listening to great Jazz improvisers, on guitar or other instruments, there are usually moments where you think, “Wow, what was that?” as the player navigates a slick sounding line in their solos. There are many ways to get that “Wow” reaction from a listener, to play a line that jumps out and catches their attention, and one of the most common is to use back cycling in your phrases.

Back cycling is the use of secondary dominant chords, V7 chords from other chords besides the Imaj7 or Im7 chord, to create tension and interest in your lines and comping that you eventually resolve after the tension has built to a climax.

In this lesson, you will learn the theory behind back cycling, how to apply this concept to various common jazz chord progressions, and study a sample solo using chord subs over a jazz blues situation.

Back cycling can be applied to both harmonic and melodic situations in your playing.

As you will see, the first groups of examples in this lesson are played as chords on the guitar. If you want to take those examples further in your playing, you can also work any of those chord subs with jazz guitar arpeggios, scales, patterns, or lines as you take these concepts to the single-note side of your playing.

What is Back Cycling?

Before you dive into applying this concept to your playing, let’s look at the theory behind this common chord substitution and how you can apply it to your playing.

Here is the basic definition of back cycling to check out before we dissect that theory further.

Back Cycling is when you take one chord progression, such as a ii-V-I, and you substitute a cycle of V7 changes over those chords, such as ii-II-V-I.

This may seem simple on paper, but it can pose a challenge to apply on the guitar, mostly because you are seeing one set of chords on the page, hearing that same set of chords in the band, but playing a completely different set of chords in your comping or soloing phrases.

The term back cycling is so labeled because you start at the resolution chord (such as the Imaj7 in a ii-V-I phrase) and you work back using the cycle of V7s to create your chord substitutions.

For example: playing  the progression Dm7-D7 G7-Cmaj7 over Dm7-G7-Cmaj7.

The reason this works is that the subs are dominant chords (V7s) of the next chord in the progression. D7 shouldn’t sound good over G7, but in the progression, it resolves to the next chord (G7) as it is the V7 of that chord.

This creates that cool, tension-and-release sound that you hear in many classic jazz solos, and one that can add a new level of interest to your comping and soloing performance.

To create more tension in your lines, you simply work back the cycle of V7s further, always adding the V7 of the chord you are on before that chord in the changes.

If you were to do this to a ii-V-I progression, which you will see in more detail in the next section of this lesson, you would get:

  • Dm7-G7-Cmaj7
  • Dm7-D7 G7-Cmaj7
  • Dm7 A7-D7 G7-Cmaj7
  • E7 A7-D7 G7-Cmaj7

As you can see, in each example I’ve added one more V7 chord before the V7 in the progression, which eventually creates a V7 of, V7 of, V7 of, V7 to Imaj7 progression.

The essence of back cycling is that you are creating tension, but the cycle of V7s is such a recognizable progression that these subs can be followed by the listener until you resolve the subs to an “inside” chord in the phrase.

It will take some time for your ears to become accustomed to this level of tension and release in your playing, so start today and over time you will begin to hear this kind of chord sub concept as normal in your comping and soloing.


Back Cycling ii-V-I Chords

Now that you know the theory behind back cycling, it is time to roll up your sleeves and dig into applying that theory to a musical situation, beginning with the classic ii-V-I chord progression.

To begin, here is a ii-V-I in C major that you can study in order to get the original changes under your fingers before spicing up these chords with back cycling substitutions.


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back cycling exercises 1


Back Cycling Substitution 1

Here is the first example of applying back cycling subs to bar 2 of a ii-V-I progression, over the V7 chord in those changes.

When doing so, you create a D7-G7 progression in that bar of the phrase, which then resolves down to the Imaj7 chord (Cmaj7) in bar 3 of the changes.


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back cycling exercises 2


Back Cycling Substitution 2

The next example adds one more chord to the mix as you play Dm7-A7-D7-G7-Cmaj7, creating a nice amount of tension along the way.


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back cycling exercises 3


Back Cycling Substitution 3

Taking it a step further, you can now add back cycling chords to the first two bars of the progression, with the chords E7-A7-D7-G7 now being heard over those two bars.


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back cycling exercises 4


Back Cycling Substitution 4

You are now going to take things further and delay the appearance of the Cmaj7 chord until the last bar of the phrase, starting the back cycle in the second half of the first bar and working down the changes from there.


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back cycling exercises 5


Back Cycling Substitution 5

To finish off your intro study to applying back cycling chords to a ii-V-I progression, you can begin the cycle in the first bar and work it all the way around the cycle until you resolve down to the Cmaj7 chord in the last bar of the phrase.


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back cycling exercises 6


Back Cycling Over Jazz Blues

As well as applying back cycling to ii-V-I chords, you can also use this concept to add tension and release to your jazz blues comping and soloing lines.

In the following examples you will apply back cycling to two sections of a Bb jazz blues chord progression, beginning with the first four bars of the tune.

To begin, here are the original changes in the first four bars of a Bb jazz blues progression to get under your fingers and in your ears before adding in the cycle subs.


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back cycling exercises 7


Blues Back Cycling Substitution 1

Now that you have the original chords down, you can begin by adding a back cycle in the last bar of the phrase, creating the progression F7-Bb7 as you do.


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back cycling exercises 8


Blues Back Cycling Substitution 2

Taking it a step further, you can also bring the cycle chords to the third bar in the progression, which now produces a G7-C7-F7-Bb7 run of chord subs over those changes


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back cycling exercises 9


Blues Back Cycling Substitution 3

To keep things progressing, you can now add two more chords in the cycle to bar two of the first four bars in a Bb blues tune, producing the chords A7-D7-G7-C7-F7-Bb7.


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back cycling exercises 10


Blues Back Cycling Substitution 4

That last example brings back cycling changes to the entire first four bars of the tune, as you now have the chords B7-E7-A7-D7-G7-C7-F7-Bb7.

When using this many subs, as was the case with the ii-V-I changes, you will create a lot of tension before resolving to the final bar in the phrase.

Because of this, you can freely use these subs in your solos, but make sure you either discuss these subs with your bandmates or know their playing inside and out and how they will react to a group of chord subs such as these before dropping them on the bandstand.


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back cycling exercises 11


Blues Back Cycling Substitution 5

The final example in this section involves applying a back cycle to bars 7 and 8 of a jazz blues progression, a common place to add these chord subs when comping or soloing over a blues tune.

When doing so you will create the changes Bb7-Eb7-Ab7-Db7, which then resolves down to the iim7 chord in bar 9 of the progression, Cm7 in this key.


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back cycling exercises 12


Back Cycling Over Rhythm Changes

The final group of back cycling substitutions that you will explore in this lesson involves applying the concept to a rhythm changes chord progression in the key of Bb, in this case focusing on the first four bars of the tune.

Before digging into those examples, one thing to notice about rhythm changes is that the bridge is already a back cycling progression, III7-VI7-II7-V7 (D7-G7-C7-F7 in the key of Bb).


Rhythm Changes Back Cycling Substitution 1

The first example shows how you can apply back cycling to bars 3 and 4 of the A section, where you are starting on the final chord, F7, and working back three chords to form a D7-G7-C7-F7 progression.

This ends up being the same changes as the bridge section, which is a cool coincidence.


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back cycling exercises 13


Rhythm Changes Back Cycling Substitution 2

The next example adds another bar of back cycling to the progression as you start the cycle in bar 2 and work your way down to the F7 at the end of bar 4, producing an E7-A7-D7-G7-C7-F7 progression along the way.


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back cycling exercises 14


Rhythm Changes Back Cycling Substitution 3

To finish up your study of applying back cycling to a rhythm changes, you will now begin the subs in bar 1 of the tune, running them down to the last chord in bar 4 of the progression.

When doing so, you are now subbing all of the chords in the first four bars, creating the chord progression F#7-B7-E7-A7-D7-G7-C7-F7 as you do.

This run of V7 chords was a popular group of chord subs used in the bebop era and is a progression that any developing jazz guitarist should have under his fingers.

Don’t forget to practice soloing over these chord subs as well, one example at a time, using arpeggios, scales, and lines to outline the back cycles in your playing.


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back cycling exercises 15


Back Cycling Sample Solo on a Bb Jazz Blues

As I mentioned at the start of the lesson, you can apply back cycling to your playing with both chords and single-note phrases.

To help you bring this chord substitution technique to your soloing lines, here is a sample solo over a Bb jazz blues chord progression.

If it is too challenging to learn the whole solo at once, take it one phrase at a time and work up from there.

After you have learned this sample solo, try writing out one of your own and studying it in your practice routine, applying back cycling to different sections of the progression as you take those subs to a musical situation.


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back cycling exercises 1612345


The Easy Guide to Jazz Guitar Chords

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22 thoughts on “How to Practice and Apply Back Cycling”

  1. marco

    great lesson, I have a question on this regarding scale choices example, D7, G7, C7.
    which scales would fit over that. Would you think of mixolydian in each or is it something else?

    1. Matt Warnock

      Yes I would start with Mixolydian

  2. Mike C.

    This is write regulated to Coltrane Changes, no? Wouldn’t that be back cycling in major thirds?

    1. Matt Warnock

      Hi Mike. Kind of. I think it’s better to separate the two in your head when soloing, but they are both cycles that can be applied to subs. Trane used a major 3rd cycle, is this one uses the cycle of 5ths (4ths). That’s all.

  3. rizky diansyah

    Amazing lesson……thank you mr.laukens.

    1. Dirk Laukens

      You’re welcome Rizky, Matt is the author though…

  4. Gordon Hooper

    Hi Matt. Thanks for the very interesting insight. Maybe you can give me some advice …

    I am working on Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower”. As you will probably be aware, this modal tune comprises of a section A (eight bars of Dm7), and a section B (four bars of EbMaj7, four bars of DMaj7). The arrangement is AABBA. In section A especially, 14 consecutive bars of Dm7 can become monotonous. Your lesson gave me an idea that one could use back cycling principles to add a touch of tension to connect the various sections. Can you provide any tips as to how to do this tastefully. In particular, I’m not too clear on how to add tension using back cycling as an approach to a m7 chord.

    Much appreciated.

    1. Matt Warnock

      Thanks. You can try to target the start of a new phrase, so bars 5 and 9 if you want to use back cycling.

      In bar 4 play E7-A7 then resolve to bar 5 Dm7, or continue back from there.

      Dm7/Dm7/F#7 B7/E7 A7/ etc.

      That will help get those changes in there and target important parts of the form.

      1. Gordon Hooper

        Thank you Matt. This is great advice.

  5. martial

    Clear, efficient, great musical job as usual thank tou very much MR laukens

  6. jay

    I commend you for not using just tab (illiterate) but notation that’s not necessary to play well but we wouldn’t have walked on the moon “playing by ear.” Ray Charles learned theory from Quincy Jones, whom I was fortunate to work with in Miami. He had theory done in Braille for the best of the best-in my opinion. I recorded lessons I took from Joe Pass & lots of scary 4th to 3rds licks (fast) while he yawned, but no notation or continuity to the lesson. Glad I taped-ha. Y’all are a lot more cerebral with your stuff. Not to blaspheme Joe: cleanest, fastest, most innovative (play like a great pianist). Sorry for the long post and closing now but happy to have smart writers to post stuff that’s not hackneyed, cliche….but fresh ideas! Thanx again.

  7. D. Aguilar

    Hi Matt,

    On the last exercise (sample solo) I couldn’t figure why you started bar 2 with E7 and ended the cycle on bar 5 with Eb7. Because the F7 on bar 4 would resolve to Bb7 in my head, not to Eb7, as you did. Could you help me?

    The same with the progression on bars 7 and 8. Why this progression Bb7 – Eb7 – Ab7 – Db7 resolving to D7?

    Thanks for your great lesson!

    1. Matt Warnock

      Hey, I was looping a few cycles over those changes, I’ve fixed it up a bit to make it less confusing, thanks for the heads up!

  8. Don

    Excellent lesson … clears up a lot of mystery…more…more…more.

  9. Tom Jones

    Enjoyed seeing and hearing this. When Howard Roberts was starting GTI, he held seminars , i attended 2 that he had, and then helped and attended the begining of GTI.I mention this , because, in one of the classes, he had us do this same thing. He started a jazz line beginning chord and the last chord, and would ask us which chord would we like first, from the end; and then work to the beginning, it was great the sounds that we came up with. One thing he taught us , was that you could always go backwards in chromatics. What a gas, sure miss him.

    Tom Jones

    1. rudy wuertz

      Hi, Tom…
      you are the first who really appreciates the role and importances of HR as ateacher and musician. I only met him as a teacher on a course directed by J.Aebersold here in Germany when he was already over the zenith of his work. As a very autodidactic beginner in the ealy 60 I stumbled over his LP with a BigBand and ordered all the rest of his Capitol LPs though I was a fanatic Beatles, Stones and BeachBoys! fan with not the faintest idea of jazz. But his incredible guitar style did not let me sleep after the first listening. How could a man play like that and nobody knew him?
      Especially the Brazilian LP with 4-part-single-line voicings in overdubbing style fascinated me because of all the clearness and theory that I did not understand. I decided that there had to be a way to learn that and I finally left my remote hometown near the French border to stydy classical guitar and jazz at the “real” places in Germany (in the 70s&80s) So I owe a lot to HR though I only had 1week of instruction by him in my whole lifetime. Tom, YOU were luckier … studying at GIT.

  10. KennyH

    Outstanding Lesson!

    I have been looking for this kind of a lesson for quite a while.

    I always wondered how jazz guitarists were able to add so many chords rhythmically to a song and yet be in the domain of the key.

    Thanks again for your generous sharing of the how to do it with back cycling.

  11. Al B.

    Why are you showing a Dm7 configuration in the TAB notation but indicating a BbMaj7 chord? Are they the same?

    1. Matt Warnock

      Hi Al. Yes, Dm7 is like Bbmaj9 with no root. So you can play Dm7 over any Bbmaj7 chord. As a general rule, you can play a iiim7 over any Imaj7 chord. Cheers.

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