Backdoor Lines for Improv
The goal of this series is to have you do some “hands-on” playing. All too often, we intellectualise the process of learning jazz. We’d like to change that, so we are here to work on both playing and learning. Today we will discuss re-targeting your favorite ii-V licks to get hipper, more modern sounds. These are often referred to as backdoor jazz guitar licks.
Today’s line can be found in our October 2015 issue of our Tune of The Month Club, “Stella By Starlight”. The line is over a common chord progression — but it’s not a typical ii-V-I. We’ll look closely at the lick, then get to work using it a few different ways to enhance our playing.
How It Works
Today’s concept involves an alternate ii-V chord progression. Look closely at the lick, and the accompanying chords on your screen. You may recognise the chord sequence in the first measure — it’s a iim7-V7. There’s a difference, however. Normally the V7 chord resolves to the relevant IMaj7 chord. In this case, it does not.
This is because we’re looking at an “alternate” use for a ii-V progression. The FMaj7 chord is still the “one” chord, but the Eb7 before is best described as a “Flat 7 dominant”. The Bbm7? Well it’s simply the partner iim7 chord to the dominant Eb7 chord. It creates a “ii-V” sound, then changes course toward the Fmaj7, our “one” chord.
We have a nice little lick that fits the changes nicely! But there’s more to it that this. We’ll show you in a moment.
Re-Targeting the Lick
Now I’d like to show you three new ways to use this idea in your playing.
In this example, we’ll start the approach towards the Fmaj7 from a different chord tone of the Eb7 chord. On our original example, the approach starts from the root of Eb7, and here it starts from the 3rd instead.
For Example B, we’ll take a similar approach to Example A, but reverse the direction of the line.
Finally, here’s the really hip stuff. I think it’s really cool. Example C takes us back to the original lick, with a twist. Look at the chords — the lick actually fits very well with a standard ii-V-I chord progression! In fact, it sounds even hipper, as it accentuates chord extensions. Suddenly, the #9 and the b9 extensions appear in the lick. We did not change the lick, but we change the context in which we use the lick instead.
Substituting a lick based upon the “flat 7”dominant chord can provide a great avenue for hip sounds. Try it sometime! Next time you see Gm7-C7, slip in some Bbm7-Eb7 instead, and see how it sounds. And then do the reverse! It’s got a pretty hip vibe to it.
Now we have four ideas to use when improvising! And it’s really just the beginning. Imagine taking all four of these examples and using them over a common ii-V progression. Then imagine using them over the b7 dominant progression, as found in Stella By Starlight. Every new idea you create can be tested in these two scenarios.
Now it’s time for you to try your hand at improvising. Jump in, and “wing it! You just play, that’s it. No need to play these ideas — although you can try! Your main goal here is to improvise.
Remember, if you’re feeling like this is a little bit much, there’s no worry. You can learn the fundamentals of jazz improvisation on your guitar with our “Jazz Improv 101” course.
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.