Love them or hate them, scales are an important tool in the improvisational vocabulary of jazz guitarists in any stage of their development.
Learning to play scales and applying them to chord progressions will allow you to comfortably navigate common jazz chord changes, helping to build confidence and encourage you to explore more complex concepts in your studies along the way.
Soloing in a jazz context and with a convincing jazz vocabulary requires an
understanding of scales, arpeggios, vocabulary and chord substitutions, all of which come together to provide the tools needed to create lines that build tension and resolve that tension over the course of your soloing lines and phrases.
In this introductory guide to jazz guitar scales, you will learn how to build, play and apply these important melodic sounds over common jazz chords and chord progressions.
So, let’s dive in and start by learning how scales are built and how scales and modes are similar and different in their construction and application.
What Are Scales and Modes?
Before we begin exploring each jazz guitar scale on the fretboard, let’s take a bit of a look at what scales and modes are exactly so you can understand these concepts as well as refresh any of these theoretical ideas if it’s been a while since you’ve looked at them.
The term Scale is used to describe any parent system that either produces modes, or stands on it’s own as a unique melodic sound without any modes being built from it’s parent structure.
An example of a Scale that derives modes is the major scale. When you play a major scale from the 2nd note to the 2nd note you are creating a Dorian Mode, which contains the same note names as the parent scale, but has a different sound due to it’s unique interval structure.
Other scales that produce modes are the Melodic Minor Scale, Harmonic Minor Scale and Harmonic Major Scale Systems.
Scales that stand on their own, and don’t produce modes, are often referred to as “symmetrical scales” and include the Half-Whole Diminished, Whole-Half Diminished, Whole Tone, Tritone and Chromatic Scale. When you play any of these scales from other notes besides the root, you produce the same scale just starting on a new note, as opposed to creating a mode from that scale.
Modes, as was mentioned above, are built by taking parent scales, such as Major or Melodic Minor, and start on other notes besides the root note to produce a new sound that contains the same notes as the parent scale, but that has a sound all it’s own.
An example of this is the Major and Dorian idea that we looked at earlier. If you look at both from a note standpoint they look the same.
C Major = C D E F G A B C
D Dorian = D E F G A B C D
So they share the same notes, but from an interval standpoint they are completely different as one produces a major sound and the other a minor sound.
C Major = R-M2-M3-P4-P5-M6-M7
D Dorian = R-M2-m3-P4-P5-M6-m7
Though scales and modes are different on paper, in speaking with other musicians we do tend to use the word “scale” to cover both. So, if you read in this article, or hear another musician say Dorian Scale rather than Dorian Mode they aren’t incorrect, just using a bit of slang in their description.
When talking about scales and modes, we use two different descriptions, numbers and number-letter combinations. To help you get started with these, as you’ll see them throughout this lesson, here is a quick legend for those terms to use as a reference.
P = Perfect Interval – Roots, 4ths and 5ths
M = Major Interval – 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths
m = Minor Interval (Also written as a b symbol) 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths
A = Augmented Interval (Also written as a # symbol) Roots, 4ths and 5ths
D = Diminished Interval (Also sometimes written as a b symbol) Roots, 4ths and 5ths
So, if you have a Dorian Mode, you can write it in two common ways from an interval standpoint.
Both work fine, and so it’s good to get used to seeing and understanding both as they are used almost equally when writing or talking about intervals with scales.
Now that you’ve looked at what scales and modes are, here’s an example of a scale written out in tab and notation in both one and two octaves.
Learning scales in one and two octaves is effective when playing jazz as it allows you to easily solo over slow and fast-moving chord progressions, and so we’ll explore both throughout this article.
In this first sample, you can see the intervals represented as M2 M3 etc. To show you how it would also look with the b3, b7 interval symbols, here is a one-octave Dorian and Mixolydian Modes with those symbols underneath each note.
There is a third way that you can think and write about scales and modes, one that is more common in classical music than jazz but one that’s worth looking at nonetheless.
This method uses Whole and Half-Steps to describe the distance between each note in a scale or mode.
For example, you can write out the C major scale as in the tab below, and use the symbols W and H to describe the Whole and Half-Step structure of the scale.
If you are comfortable with this system, you can use it to understand and write out/talk about any scale or mode that you are working on or know on the fretboard.
With a basic understanding of what scales and modes are, and how they are explained with intervals and written on the page, let’s dive in to taking this theory to the fretboard.
As well, you can play these scales in two-octave shapes on the fretboard. Here are a few examples to help get you started, but feel free to experiment with any other two-octave Minor Pentatonic Scale shapes that you know or are working on in the woodshed.
After you have learned just one of these scale shapes on the guitar, put on a C7 or Cm7 backing track and practice soloing over that chord using the C Minor Pentatonic Scale to build your lines and phrases.
When you can do that comfortably, move on to other keys with the backing track, as well as mix in other scale shapes to your improvised ideas over these chords.
Soloing over a one-chord vamp is a great way to both learn new scale shapes, as well as improve your ability to improvise over changes at the same time.