Jazz Scales for Improvising

About Scales & Chords

When you are starting learn jazz impro, there is a great temptation to learn “the  scales that fit the chord changes,” as with the chord/scale method aka Scale Syllabus.  This approach has some merits. It can be a “kickstart” to improvisation, as long as you realise that when thinking about scales that fit the chord there is little else to concentrate on.

But this approach also has plenty of pitfalls. If you’re not careful you will end up with a soloing style that just consists of running up and down scales without ever stopping to consider the more musical approach that necessarily involves knowing the chord notes. This is necessary to make your solos interesting.

So you need to be aware very early on that there is a lot more to improvising. Ideally the scales should help you to construct interesting and melodic solos, you can use them as a pool of notes to choose from out of which to construct your solo, rather than relying on them to be the solo. So you also need to know the chords themselves. In fact I recommend that you really should learn the chords on your instrument (arpeggios) before you learn the scales to fit the chords.

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It’s important to understand how basic harmony works, see Chord progressions and once you know how chords are derived from a scale, you can use our chord reference chart:

to see not just which scales can be used with which chords, but more importantly how each chord root relates to the scale using the standard roman numeral system (I, II, III etc.), as well as how each degree of the chord relates to its own root using arabic numerals. (1, 3, 5, 7). I believe this system is much better than some approaches to improvisation which use a system whereby scales are described as modes.

I find this method confusing, as it does not encourage you to think of the chord tones and how they relate back to the key centre. It is also quite complicated to have to think of a different mode for each chord.

With the system here, for all the chords in a certain key centre, there is only one scale, i.e. the scale built on the tonic of the key centre. For example Dm7, Em7, G7, Am7 are all chords in the key of C, and can all use the C major scale.

chord scales

As soon as you can, learn to listen, transcribe and analyse saxophone solos. Transcribing the solos yourself is much better than buying transcriptions if you have the time, it is extremely good ear training as well as informative.

“Wrong notes or right notes?”

What constitutes a wrong note in jazz improvisation is often subjective. As jazz has evolved the harmony has in some cases become more complex or abstract. When bebop musicians started to use #11ths (or b5ths) in the 40s, the more traditional players and critics considered these to be “wrong” notes. Similarly avant garde players of the 50s and 60s shocked the jazz establishment with their use of atonality.

It is almost impossible to provide a complete set of rules regarding what sounds “good” or “bad”. The following are conventionally considered to be wrong notes (sometimes called “avoid” notes), unless used as passing notes.

  • A 4th over any major chord (unless it is an 11th or sus 4 see ex. 4e)
  • A major 3rd on a minor chord
  • A minor 3rd (#9th) or minor 7th on a major 7th chord
  • A root note as a sustained note over a major 7th chord
  • A b9th on a major 7 or minor chord
  • A b6th on a major 7 or minor chord
  • A major 7th on a minor 7th or (dominant) 7th chord

These rules may not apply to certain ornaments (ex 11a),

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ex 11a: The Db is used on a C chord as part of an “enclosure”.

There are cases where unresolved dissonance is useful for dramatic or emotional effect. There are no rules in this case, only subjective (good or bad) taste.

The most obvious way of ensuring that you don’t play any wrong notes is to play only the chord notes, i.e. a series of arpeggios. While this is a very good exercise it can become boring and unmusical. Unless you are immediately inspired by great spontaneous melodic phrases, the second most obvious way is to play scales that fit the chords. This can also become tedious if your solos end up being a constant string of scales. Ultimately one could aim to combine arpeggios, scales, passing notes, melodic phrases and riffs into a coherent improvised composition complete with tension, release, surprise, humour, climax, menace, pathos, irony or whatever musical devices are appropriate to the style.

Further application of scales to improvisation over chord changes

In chapter 5 we discussed how modal scales can be applied to a II-V-I progression. This is a very good starting point: basic major, minor and modal scales can be used to supply the diatonic notes implied by the chords on which we are basing our improvisation. To begin with it is very important to become fluent in the use of these basic scales and modes, but there are many complex and interesting scales used by jazz musicians to add chromatic notes.

This section of this chapter will deal with some of these scales and analyse their effects.

Bebop scales

A bebop scale is created by adding either:

  • a major 7th to a Mixolydian mode
  • a major 3rd to a Dorian mode
  • a #5th or b6th to a tonic scale

Because bebop scales are made up of eight notes it is likely that if you start a typical 8th note run on a downbeat with a chord note (root, 3rd, 5th or 7th) the other chord notes will also fall on strong beats. This obviously means that notes to be avoided such as the 4th (see above: wrong notes) become passing notes. (Ex 11b). Bebop scales should only be used as scales, not to construct melodic phrases otherwise the added chromatic notes will no longer be passing notes and will not fit the chord.

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ex 11b: Bebop scale

As the Mixolydian and Dorian bebop scales contain identical notes, the same scale can be used across a IIm7-V7-I sequence, as with the modal method (chapter 5).

The bebop scale leads nicely to the 3rd of the repeated IIm7 to end up with a very satisfying jazz (bebop) style. (Ex 11c)

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ex 11c: Bebop scale covering a repeated IIm7-V7 progression.

Pentatonic scales

These are 5 note scales, of which there are many, however only two are common in jazz and I will refer to them as the major and minor pentatonic.

The major pentatonic is the same as the major scale but without the 4th or 7th (ex 11d-1). It is common in western folk music and is often used by composers to impart a traditional flavour (Amazing Grace, Auld Lang Syne)

The minor pentatonic is the same as the Aeolian or Dorian scale but without the 2nd or 6th (Ex 11d-2). This scale is sometimes used by composers to give an oriental feel.

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ex 11d: Pentatonic scale

These scales can be very easy to use as they can be fitted over many chords without “wrong” notes, but they can become monotonous. Used very effectively by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

Chromatic scale

The chromatic scale consists of all twelve notes available in conventional western music, i.e. all the white notes and black notes of the keyboard

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ex 11e: Chromatic scale

We saw that with the bebop scale that chromatic notes can be inserted into a scale so that chord notes fall on strong beats. We can take this one stage further and insert part of the chromatic scale to achieve the same end (ex 11f).

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ex 11f: A typical bebop phrase using the chromatic scale

Diminished scale

This scale consists of alternating intervals of a tone and a semitone (ex 11g-1). Another way of looking at it is to imagine two diminished chords, one a whole tone higher than the other one superimposed on top of it (ex 11g-2)

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ex 11g: Diminished scale

This is a very useful scale to apply to a dominant 7th chord. If the diminished scale based on the b9th of a chord is used it will not only include the chord notes (root, 3rd, 5th and 7th) but also supply some interesting altered notes and extensions (b9th, b10th, #11th and 13th – ex 11h).It is useful to always think of the diminished scale based on the note a semitone above the root note of the (dominant 7th) chord. This may appear complex but has the advantage that there are only three different scales to learn. Diminished scales built on the roots C, Eb, F# and A are identical (ex 11j), as are the scales built on Db, E, G and Bb and D, F, Ab and B. As with diminished chords correct enharmonic spells should be used, however in practice it is common to break this rule, especially when writing parts to avoid double flats etc.

The scale in ex 11g fits chords B7, D7, F7 and Ab7.

This scale was commonly used by jazz improvisers of the late bebop era, e.g. John Coltrane and Oliver Nelson. (See Saxophone Exercise 7)

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ex 11h: Diminished scale built on root Db (b9 of C7)

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ex 11j: diminished scales C, Eb, F#, A. Note that the notes are identical.

Whole tone scale

As the name implies this scale consists of whole tones (ex 11k). It is useful over a dominant 7th, especially a dominant 7th with an augmented 5th. (same note as b13th). The fact that the scale contains the augmented 5th or b13th does not stop it from being used when there is a perfect 5th in the chord, although a sustained note may sound too dissonant.

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ex 11k: whole tone scale

“Arabic scale”

There are many Arabic scales but one in particular is used by western composers to imply a middle eastern flavour. This scale can be thought of as a “relative mode” of the harmonic minor, ie it has the same notes but based around the fifth degree of the scale. It is very useful over a dominant 7th chord as it adds two colourful chromatic notes – the b13th and b9th (ex 11m, 11n)

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ex 11m: “Arabic scale” – harmonic minor starting on 5th degree of scale.

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ex 11n : “Arabic scale” used over a II-V-I sequence (or simply V-I)

Another way to think of this (a better way in my opinion) is to use the harmonic minor scale with the same root as the tonic chord that the V7 is leading to, so G7 uses a C harmonic minor but be careful not to emphasise the note C, which works best as a passing note or suspension. In other words we use the harmonic minor of the key centre.

Used over a major V7 -I cadence the scale implies the modal interchange of the minor tonic for the major tonic, even though the minor tonic never materialises.The resolution to the major 3rd of the tonic is very satisfying after the “bluesy” minor feel of the scale. This scale is obviously also very useful over a minor II-V-I.

Lydian Dominant (Melodic minor starting on 4th degree of the scale)

On a dominant 7th chord the sharpened 11th is supplied by using the melodic minor scale whose root is the 5th of the chord (ex 11q). This scale is also clled the Lydian dominant as it is the same as a Lydian scale but with the 7th flattened.

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ex 11q: Lydian dominant (D melodic minor) to supply a #11th to a G7

Diminished Whole Tone (Altered Scale)

Using the notes of the D melodic minor scale, make C# the root and view the scale as an altered Mixolydian.

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This scale is often called the altered scale as it supplies many of the notes that are possible to alter on a dominant 7 chord. In addition to the basic diatonic notes of C#7 this scale adds D (b9), E (b10), G (#11 or b5) and A (b13 or +5).

Another way of looking at this would be to use the melodic minor scale based on the b9th degree of the dominant 7 chord, in the same way we would use a diminished scale. Note that the first half of this scale is identical to the way a D diminished scale fits the chord, the second half is a whole tone scale. This is a very popular scale in modern jazz due to the interestingly high degree of chromaticism.


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