Getting Started with Jazz Scales on the Guitar

A Poor Man’s Guide to Jazz Guitar Scales

A Guest Post by Marc-Andre Seguin

Hello and welcome to a little “crash course” on jazz guitar scales, and many thanks to Michael, who has had an big impact on my life and my playing (more than he knows!)

The whole point of this lesson is to:

  • learn scales;
  • apply them on the guitar fretboard;
  • … in a jazz context. (Yikes!)

Improvising blues licks and rock solos can be done relatively easy on the guitar (“Hey, look at that 5th fret pentatonic fierce AC/DC lead!”) … but trying to make sense of scales as chords go by (fast) in a jazz context is a totally different ball game.

Remember your first jam session, the moment the bandleader pointed to you and went “Guitar solo!” on a blues in F or even Autumn Leaves?!? Yeah, me too. I was embarrassed enough already, struggling through complicated chords for strumming, I didn’t need the spotlight!

Ok, enough with the bad memories: let’s cover the M.E.D (minimum effective dose) so you can start walking before you run, without getting inundated with music theory. At the end of this post you’ll know exactly which scales to practice and how to master them.

Materials: Three Scales

To make things simple here, we will focus on three types of scales to fit with the three most common chord types in jazz. Our scales of choice are the major scale, the Dorian mode and the Mixolydian mode. The fit the major chords (or maj7), the minor chords (or min7) and the dominant chords (“plain” 7th) respectively.

For now, each scale will only be conceived of on the fretboard with one fingering. No need to stress out with positions and alternative “boxes” on the instrument. You’ll learn that *one* fingering and then go up on the next string with the same fingering. This will yield more or less the same digits patterns (which is very practical for playing without thinking later on).

It goes without saying, anything and everything you learn here can (and should) be applied in different keys. The guitar is wonderful this way: just learned something in C major and want to play it in D major instead? No problem! Move up two frets!

The Major Scale

Here’s the fingering for the major scale, in the key of C. Notice how we are starting with the 2nd (middle) finger of our fretting hand.

For now, only play the scale up to the 7th degree (sounding: DO RE MI FA SOL LA TI) and back down slowly until it sounds good. Repeat with the three starting string we’ve provided in the TABS, always starting the C note with your 2nd finger. Then see if you can play around in different keys.

It is extremely important that you only play to the 7th degree and NOT attempt to relate this back to any known scale position. You can always do that later.

Theory note: the C major scale contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B. Or all the white keys on the piano if you prefer. To generalize, we refer to the major scale with numbers like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. Of course, C is 1, D is 2, and so on.

The Mixolydian Mode

Now, let’s learn the scale to use over dominant 7th chords. They’re easy to identify on charts and lead sheets: dominant chords have a number only. For instance F13, or A9 or even G7.

The trick is to make sure the chord symbol DOES NOT have a little m, a capital M, or a minus sign, or a little triangle. Dominant chords have a plain number.

The Mixolydian mode is the scale of choice for dominant chords. Here it is, in the key of G, starting with the 2nd finger.

Please proceed the same way as you did when learning the major scale above. Up to the 7th only, then back down. Then try other starting strings. And lastly try different keys.

Theory note: the G mixolydian scale is spelled G, A, B, C, D, E and F. Notice, those are still the same 7 notes as the key of C major. Why is that? When compared to the major scale, the Mixolydian mode has a flat 7th degree. See for yourself, the F natural note is considered “the flat seven”. We always relate back to the major scale construction.

G major scale: G A B C D E F# or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

G Mixolydian: G A B C D E F or 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

The Dorian Mode

Finally, let’s learn the scale to use on minor chords. For now, assume that whenever you see chords sur as Fm7 or even Am (*or worse Ebm9*), you can play the Dorian mode. We’re starting with the 4th finger (pinky) this time, so be careful.


On the theory side, you might notice (again) that all notes of D Dorian still belong to C major! But now this scale contains both a b7 and a b3. Here’s how to think of it:

D major D E F# G A B C# or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

D Dorian D E F G A B C or 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

Three Scales Recap

Taking a quick moment to review what we’ve learned, here’s the gist of it:

  • The major scale is just 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (think C major, all white keys)
  • The Mixolydian mode is the same, but with a b7
  • The Dorian mode has both b3 and b7

To put this in perspective, let’s spell out C major, C mixolydian and C dorian here:

C major: C D E F G A B or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

C Mixolydian: C D E F G A Bb or 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

C Dorian: C D Eb F G A Bb or 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

Shedding the Scales

I’ve devised a few straightforward ways to put these scales under your fingers (and in your ears), in all keys with little drama or effort. This is super-efficient, especially if you’re shaky on a few weird keys like Ab and F#.

Before you get going, please get a little refresher on chord cycles here. We will be using the cycle of 4ths exclusively. Not related to Star Wars. In short, if you start in the key of C, your next key is F, then Bb, and Eb and so on…

Exercise #12-bar Cycles

Play the C major scale up to the 7th degree and back down to the root in 8th notes.

  • This means: the chord you’re playing on lasts 2 bars (total of 8 beats).
  • Repeat with the major scale up a fourth, that is in the key of F.
  • Repeat “up a fourth” several times (playing through all keys!) until you find yourself back in the key of C.

Here’s what your first two bars will look like:

Keep in mind, you should be able to play this using the ONE fingering (with three starting strings) we’ve shown you above! Don’t lose yourself in alternative positions until you can nail this one down perfectly!

For now, answer this important question: Can I play the major scale, up and down, in all 12 keys, through the cycle of fourths?

DO NOT confuse this with this other question: Can I play the major scale(s) in all positions? This is not necessary for now.

 

Exercise #2: repeat #1 with the Mixolydian mode. A little help? Ok, you can also use this alternative fingering, starting with the pinky, if it simplifies your life (but you don’t have to):

Exercise #3: repeat #1 with the Dorian mode. Enough said.

Exercises #4-5-6: 1-bar Cycles

Basically, this is a repeat of #1-2-3, except use chords that last only four beats each (that is one full bar of 4/4). This means that you only have enough time to climb to the 7th of the scale, then you’re onto the next scale.

Challenge yourself, this is fun! The caveat is that it will be NO FUN at all if you didn’t master the first three exercises first!

Here’s what your first bar or C major will look like:

Exercise #7: *Advanced* Up to the 9th!

For the brave, see if you can take the stencil for scales we’ve provided you and play up to the ninth of the scale. For instance, climbing up the C major, you would go C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D. You can do this in Mixolydian and in Dorian, of course.

Challenge yourself to repeat the first six exercises in this fashion. Because we’ve trying to fit more notes into the same amount of space, you will be contrived to play scales in 16th-notes (instead of 8th-notes) … which is effectively twice as fast! Guitarists always love to play fast, so no complaints please. 😉

Exercise #8: The Infamous II-V-I

Finally, your ultimate goal in applying jazz guitar scales is to be able to improvise solos on jazz standard songs. One of the main harmonic devices of such tunes is the II-V-I chord progression. In the key of C, the II-V-I progression goes Dm7, G7 then Cmaj7. And did you notice, we guided you to learn these all along through this lesson?

I’ll leave it to you to explore and master applying scales on the II-V-I, since you now have all the necessary building blocks to do the legwork. The goal is to have this at the tip of your fingers in all keys. Start slowly, with keys such as C major, F major and G major.

Here’s how to apply scales on the II-V-I in the key of C major to get you started:


If you’re interested, this is exactly the kind of stuff we cover in the online course Jazz Guitar Improv 101. Not only can you learn scales, but you can also “trade solos phrases” with your instructor, and much more.

Best of luck on your jazz guitar journey, and I’ll see you soon on my website.

About our Guest Author

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.

 

 

Author: Michael Berard

Michael Berard was a part-time music professor for over 25 years at Concordia University in Montreal Canada. There he taught jazz guitar, jazz arranging, jazz composition as well as other jazz related courses. He has worked over the years as a jazz musician playing jazz clubs, concerts and studio sessions. Michael has played on numerous recordings including 3 of his own: "It's Autumn," "Little Voices" and "Good News." Michael is also the author of "Jazz Guitar Elements," a comprehensive jazz guitar method and "Jazz Reading Elements," a new jazz sight reading book geared towards jazz guitarists.