August 31, 2022

About the Author: Cameron Hayes

Cameron Hayes is a guitar educator at the London Guitar Institute, teaching a wide range of styles such as rock, metal, blues, jazz, folk, RnB, acoustic, and many more! He teaches a large volume of students on a weekly basis and always looks to provide outstanding value in each and every lesson!

Play In One Position

One thing that will prevent you from playing smooth lines through ii V I’s is having to jump all around to different positions on the neck because you’re only comfortable in certain positions for different arpeggios. Before you start trying anything too crazy with your ii V I’s, spend the time to get super familiar with playing all arpeggios in one position on the neck both for if you have the root note on the low E string or the A string. Once you have learned the minor 7th, dominant 7th, and major 7th arpeggios in this position, try to connect these to each other, playing constant 8th notes (quavers) and allocating one bar per chord. This is a great exercise for learning to connect the arpeggios in time to create ii V I lines on the guitar.

When teaching yourself these arpeggios, try to avoid visualising them as fret numbers or shapes, rather think about what degree of the arpeggio (1 – 3 – 5 – 7) you are on at all times to understand at what point in the arpeggio you will be connecting to the next chord. This will not only allow you to understand what exactly you are playing in relation to the chord, but will also allow you to transpose these arpeggios into other keys much easier.

jazz guitar close up

Don’t Start On The Tonic!

A sound that we all know is a minor 7th arpeggio ascending starting on the tonic, which although is a great place to start if you are new to ii V I’s, may be something that you are trying to break away from if you are looking to spice up your ii V I licks! As an exercise, try playing arpeggios through the ii V I progression but avoid starting on the tonic for any of the chords! A great alternative is starting on or connecting to the 3rd (more on this below!) for that feeling of resolution when landing on this note. Also try starting on/landing on the 5ths and 7ths as an exercise!

Connect To The 3rd

Another sound that we’ve all probably heard many times through ii V I’s is the sound of connecting from one arpeggio to the next via the tonic, but as we have said already this may be a sound that you are trying to break out of. The great thing about the 3rd of each chord is that because it is such a defining note in the chord, this gives a great sense of resolution when it is targeted in a ii V I lick. This may be the trick that you are looking for as you still want that resolve when targeting the new chord, but you also don’t want to stay in your comfort zone of always playing off of the tonic which gives that more predictable sound.

man playing the guitar

Descend – Ascend

Another sound that we are expecting to hear when we think of a ii V I is ascending through the first arpeggio. Well, why not go against the grain and try it the opposite way! Try starting your arpeggio from a high root note of the chord, to then descend down the arpeggio of the iim7, ascend through the V7, and then descend down the Ima7. This may make for a great way to respond to a first line, playing in a more typical fashion, or just a great way to kick things off if you are trying to grab the listeners attention with some sounds that they don’t hear as often!

Surround Technique

A trick that I often like to use is the ‘surround technique’, which although is nothing new always works to break up the arpeggio a little more and to give a great sense of resolution when the target note is reached. The way that the surround technique works is: you pick your target note (e.g. the 3rd of the next chord), you play above then below that note using notes in the previous arpeggio (or below – above!) to then finish on the target note. This gives a cool effect and really resolves the line nicely. For example, a ii V I in the key of G major (Am7, D7, Gma7):

  • We will be targeting the 3rd of the D7 chord (F#)
  • Play through 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 of the Am7 chord
  • The last two notes (E and G) will surround our target note first from above, then below the target note
  • Land on the F# for that feeling of resolution!
  • *Tip: add in some chromatics for some extra spice! (more on this below).

hands playing the jazz guitar


If you’re still looking for that extra bit of spice that will really take things out of the comfort zone of the average listener, then chromatics are that ingredient that you have probably been looking for! Chromatics are when several notes are played in a row ascending or descending by the interval of a semi-tone, e.g. if you go up one fret at a time on the guitar this is chromatic. This will cause notes that are non-diatonic to the key to be played in-between diatonic notes, which creates more tension. By creating more tension, this is also building up more opportunity for resolution once a target note has been reached. Try the following to a ii V I in the key of G major:

  • We will be targeting the 3rd of the D7 chord (F#)
  • Play through 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 1 – 3 – 5 of Am7
  • After the 5th in the second octave, play a #5 (F). This will create a chromatic pass between the 5th of the Am7 chord (E) and the 3rd of the D7 chord (F#)

Don’t Change On The Downbeat

Another typical thing to do through ii V I lines is to change chords on the downbeat of the new bar, so how can we break out of this? (see the pattern yet?). Anticipation will be a great tool for again, creating more tension. Anticipation is when you present the next chord tone slightly earlier than when the chord itself actually changes, usually by an 8th note (quaver). When targeting the next chord change through any of the tricks that we have mentioned above, try hitting this target note on the 4+ (“four and”) of the previous bar to then hold or tie that target note into the next bar. For example, for a ii V I in the key of G major:

  • We will be targeting the 3rd of the D7 chord (F#)
  • Play through 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 1 – 3 – 5 of the Am7 chord in constant 8th notes
  • On the 4+ of this same bar, play the F# and hold this until the 1+ of the next bar, when you can then continue playing through the D7 arpeggio.

This again will create tension since we are playing our target note earlier than expected so it surprises the listener, whilst at the same time creating release as we are carrying the target note on into the next bar.
You can also try the following concept with a ‘suspension’, which is the opposite to an anticipation, waiting an 8th note longer into the next bar before changing to the next chord.

guitarist with black jazz guitar

Tritone Substitution

One way to introduce completely different chords into your ii V I lines is through the usage of tritone substitution. Tritone substitution is where you substitute the chord that you were going to play with a chord a tritone away. For ii V I’s we usually do this on the V chord for a few reasons. By placing the tritone sub in the middle of the progression, we can start and finish with the regular chords, meaning the tension in the middle of the progression is resolved by the tonic. This will also create a chromatic (there’s that word again!) descend down the root notes of each chord, which again creates tension and release. Try this in the key of G major:

  • We will be tritone substituting the D7 to an Ab7 chord, since Ab is a tritone away from D
  • Play the following progression: Am7, Ab7, Gma7. Hear that tension and release through the descending bass notes?
  • Play your arpeggios through these chords to compose a ii V I line using tritone substitution.

The cool thing about tritone substitution is that the chordal players don’t actually have to be playing the Ab7 chord for you to outline this in your ii V I line. In fact it will actually create more tension and release if you play the tritone sub over the regular ii V I!

Tags: Guitar advice, Guitar technique, Guitar tips, Guitar wisdom

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Tags: Guitar advice, Guitar technique, Guitar tips, Guitar wisdom