Jazz Guitar Lesson: ii-V-I Improvisation using Pentatonic Scales

Here is an added jazz guitar lesson relating to the recent series of blog posts and video lessons on the pentatonic scales for Jazz guitar.

In summary, we’ll discover three different “solutions” to improvising on the ii-V-I cadence (in C major) using nothing but pentatonic scales. Note that the materials in this lesson can be applied on any instrument. See video above. Enjoy! 🙂

And here is the backing track to practice. Simply 8 x 4 bars of Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7.

First Solution: Ascending Pentatonics a Half-Step Appart

As described in the video, simply use Am, Bbm and Bm pentatonics on the progression Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7. Here’s the analysis of chord degrees:

pentatonics on II-V-I - First solution

Special attention must be given to the last pentatonic scale: applying Bm pentatonic on a C major chord means that we well hear the #11 note, making the line sounding like the Lydian mode. Please do resolve that note (in our case an F#) to the 5th of the chord (in our case, the G note) if you hear it. 🙂

Second Solution: Pentatonics “up and down” a Half-step

Another simple, elegant and “modern” solution here: on Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7 chord use Em, Eb7 and Em pentatonics. Analysis:

Jazz guitar pentatonics

Third Solution: the Tritone Sub!

This is my favorite, and it is quite similar to our first solution above. We simply change the pentatonic scale choice for the V chord. On G7, we use the dominant 7th pentatonic a tritone away. Simply put: on G7, use Db7 pentatonic.

Jazz guitar pentatonics

The tritone substitution is an infamous one! We can hear these types of sound throughout recorded Jazz history, but especially since the Bebop era. The beauty of this simple and effective sub is that both chords share their tritone (i.e. 3rd and 7th, the guide-tones are the same).

When examined closely, we can even go as far as saying that the altered chord (or scale) is simply a tritone substitution. Also see this jazz guitar lesson page for interesting chord subs…

Once again, be careful with the Bm pentatonic on Cmaj7 chord. We have the F# note (#11), which might steer you to resolve to G if needed.

Jazz Guitar Lesson: Pentatonics Wrap Up

That’s it! Shed those ideas and see what works for you. Examine where and when you could apply the pentatonic scales on tunes and progressions … and don’t forget to check out the Pentatonic Series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 …)

22 thoughts on “Jazz Guitar Lesson: ii-V-I Improvisation using Pentatonic Scales

  1. your backing track? is a text file that makes no sense.. love this .. fun stuff.. but can you direct me to the correct link for a backing track?

  2. I’m having a real problem with this. I know the pentatonic scales very well. In the first example where you play an Am pent. over the Dm, it sounds fine. When the chord changes to the G7 and I start with the Bp note and go up the scale, it sounds terrible. The same with the C chord playing a Bm bass note to start the scale just doesn’t sound right. Where am I going wrong?

    • Try starting in a higher register (not too “bass” on the guitar). Start on the top strings and sing along your lines.

      • I’m still having a real problem with this. If I stay on the Am pent. thru the entire 2 5 1 it sounds fine. Once I switch to the Bbm pent, I can’t find a note that sounds correct. In the Bm pent I can find a note or two that fits, but that’s about it. Where am I going wrong?

  3. Thanks again for this great material to work on. These are clever easy-to-remember applications of the ubiquitous Pentatonic Scale, especially with the Tritone substitution.

    You mention several times in the videos that the 7th Pentatonic scale (used in a typical IIm -V7 progression) is essentially a IIm-6th Pentatonic scale. I also think of it as an “Almost Pretty Woman” 7th Riff!

    Similarly, the major (not 7th) pentatonic scale is the “My Girl” riff…right !

    My two cents worth from a ‘young’ guy who grew up in the 60s!


    • ABSOLUTELY: I did not mention this in the videos, but every time I play the pentatonic scales up or down, I think of those two tunes! 🙂

    • Mike, this lesson on how to use ii-V-I is not really related to playing “outside” no. The pentatonic choices described in the video and blog are more or less “inside”. M-A

  4. Because its a long time i’m having this question,
    “How to play outside?”
    How to make that sound??
    What to practice??
    In how many ways you can do that….
    It must be a big Topic.

    Would you please make a video about “Playing outside”

    Thanx in advanced.

    • Hello Mike … it’s a rather complicated question, yes. To get started, my whole perspective on “outside” playing is learn to play inside first!!! Other than that, please listen to Podcast #4 and #5 on the JazzGuitarLessons.net website. And I’ll be keeping this in mind for future lessons. 🙂

  5. Thanx again Marc, I listened to them.
    Great stuff. I’m working on them.
    But if you ever decided to make that video, please talk about the “arpeggio approach” you mention in Podcast #4.

  6. I’m having trouble finding any links here to PDFs of the material I could print out.. I thought you referred to them in the video but I can’t find them anywhere.

    • Hello Scott: for this lesson, the info (scales, chords, analysis) is found in the picture on the blog post. There is no PDF. 🙂

    • Initially, through trial and error and a little bit of creativity! In the examples above, I was looking for different pentatonic scales that give you interesting extensions on each of the original chords, while simultaneously looking for pentatonic scales that link together in easy to remember ways. For example, that first example (Ascending Pentatonics a Half-Step Apart) starts with the relative minor pentatonic of the key (Am pentatonic in C major key), and then rises a half step for each chord, creating altered scale extensions over the G7 and then a lydian sound over the Cmaj7.

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