Technically speaking, the term 'jazz guitar scales' isn't really a correct description as there isn't really any such thing as a 'jazz guitar scale' per say. There are however certain scales and modes that are generally applied to various forms of jazz and are therefore often referred to as such. We will maintain this loose description for the purpose of discussion from now on...
Note: There are 3 or 4 charts for each scale type to offer some fingering variations, as we all tend to have preferences for whatever reason. The variations are;
1/ Three notes to each string with notes and finger positions, 2/box/cage style with notes, and 3/box/cage style with finger positions.
|The Major Scale||The Augmented Scale|
The study of jazz guitar in basic terms is the study of chords and scales, and what scales we should play over what chords. In musical terms, the study of chords relates to harmony and to some extent rhythm, and the study of scales relates to melody and what notes to play. The jazz guitarist should have a thorough knowledge of both scales and chords and also the interplay between the two. It is also true that there are many jazz guitarists that generally prefer to play and stick to one of these main branches of jazz guitar.
Consequently, there are good rhythm jazz guitarists that may not be quite as good at playing the lead as they are rhythm, and likewise, there are good lead jazz guitarists that may not be quite so good at playing fast rhythmic chord changes that often utilise difficult to play extended and altered chords, as a great rhythm jazz guitarist can. Let’s not forget, there are also many great jazz guitar players that can do both to a high standard.
I have said in various chapters on other pages that I wouldn't go into too much theory. This is a little difficult as you start to delve deeper into playing the guitar though, and particularly when it comes to playing jazz or various forms of jazz that include improvisation over extended or altered chords. I do think that things can in fact get a little more complicated than they actually sometimes need to be though.
For example, to me, improvising over a specific chord only requires you to know what scale you should play over that chord for it to sound good or relatively pleasing to the listener. For example, the Major Pentatonic Scale sounds particularly good (to me) when played over a Major 7 chord, while the regular Major Scale sounds better over a Major 9 Chord as just one example in my opinion.
Combining both the Major Scale and the Major Pentatonic Scale is also another very simple and effective approach to improvise over either or both of these nice sounding chords that are often played in certain forms of jazz, namely Major 7 and Major 9.
The above theoretical principle is in itself relatively straight forward and quite simple in its approach, so for me personally, there is no real need to get technical with those scales or those chords. Learn a certain scale to play over a certain chord and you are half way there, simple. Correct? Well yes and no, because becoming fluent, fast, clean, creative and interesting to the listener is the other half of playing jazz guitar and it is this second half that tends to be the hardest half of learning to play jazz guitar to any reasonable standard. Developing the art of jazz guitar is discussed further down.
Arpeggios or Scales?
An arpeggio is the notes of a chord played individually one after the other. There are many jazz guitarists that prefer to pick out arpeggios in and around the chord shapes as the chords change through their progression within the rhythm section. Others see this approach as ultimately being the same thing as using scales because chords themselves are actually nothing more than certain notes of a particular scale pattern strung together.
It is true however that playing arpeggios does offer a distinctively different sound to playing scales, but it does also depend upon how scales or arpeggios are actually played that gives them distinction.
Scales for example can be played in such a way that they can sound far more interesting than 'just a scale'. They can be played in a creative way that gets into the core of the music, its chords and their progression.
This is achieved by first of all having a thorough knowledge of the scale/s to be played as well as the chords that the scale/s are to be played over, and also when these chords change in the progression.
It's a matter of personal choice as to what approach you prefer to apply to your improvisation. Many jazz guitarists use a mixture of both arpeggios and scales. Many great guitarists use only the scale approach to improvisation.
Major or Minor?
Whether a major or a minor scale is played all depends upon the tune of course. It's also a matter of personal taste and opinion as to what sounds good and what does not. Some like 'moody', 'depressive' tunes with minor sounding chords and scales. Others prefer a more happy, upbeat and major quality to the music, as do I. That's not to say that minor keys don't sound good to me personally because they do. It all depends in what context and how something is played that determines its overall effect.
Yes, it is all about personal taste, but, musical principles suggest, that generally speaking, a major scale or mode is played over a major chord, just as a minor scale or mode is played over a minor chord. This is a basic principle of music theory.
You will see this in each chart's descriptive header of all the jazz guitar scales and modes that follow, where it clearly states what chords each of these scales and modes are specific too, and therefore, what chords they are played over and hopefully what sounds the best!
At the heart of jazz music, and that of playing jazz guitar, lies the principle concept of improvisation. Improvisation, as most people know, is basically the method of 'making it up as you go'. This is not entirely correct though. In my opinion, it would be more correct to say 'playing around with something already known' which would hopefully result in a 'creative improvement' on an already structured theme. Of course this does involve a certain amount of 'making it up as you go' but only once you have certain 'things' already in place that you know well. These 'things' are certain chords, scales and modes that are specific to a particular tune, whether it's a well-known tune, or one that you've made up yourself.
The versatility of the guitar for improvising cannot really be matched other than by similar stringed instruments or the piano. Jazz guitar improvisation can be expressed in the rhythm, the melody and also the harmony of the music. These three concepts collectively cover pretty much every aspect of any tune that exists.
Rhythmic improvisation is expressed through the guitarist's stress on specific beats with chords or notes.
Melodic improvisation is expressed through the guitarist's choice of notes while soloing.
Harmonic improvisation is expressed through the guitarist's choice of chords, chord voicing and chord substitutions.
These three individual musical concepts are also intertwined. The rhythmic play consists of chords that are also related to harmony. The melodic play would have a certain amount of rhythm to a greater or lesser degree depending on the tune. The harmonic play (choice of chords) will also have a certain amount of rhythm, again, depending on the tune being played.
Where to Start
What may seem over-whelming, and another aspect that could be seen as 'too much technical theory', is the sheer amount of possible chord substitutions available and also the large number of different scales and modes that are on offer. When we add to this, the fact that there are also twelve keys, the potential level of fret board knowledge, skill and musicianship to play jazz guitar seems staggering.
This can often put people off of learning to play jazz guitar which is unfortunate. First of all, you don't need to know everything in all twelve keys. If you learn the major scale in the key of C let's say, and it takes you 10 hours, then learning it in another key may take you 5 hours for example and so on. Once you become fluent with any scale, it becomes much easier to move it around to other keys.
Also, time does pass and if you slowly learn the chords and scales required, you will slowly but surely develop the ear and dexterity to enjoy the rewards of playing jazz guitar, whether at a professional level, with friends or just for fun to music on your own.
Listen to the Music
One of the best ways to learn jazz guitar is in your own time playing along to music. This is a great training aid whatever style of guitar you want to learn and highly recommended. This is probably more important for jazz guitar than any other style though, as there is a certain feel and rhythm to jazz that can't really be taught. It has to be felt. Listen to as many jazz guitarists and jazz style songs and tunes as you possibly can and try to play along.
Enjoy it, even the mistakes! This type of training will undoubtedly develop your ear, technique and rhythm, and give you a great sense of feel for jazz music and what jazz guitar is all about and supposed to be. This is in general terms of course, because jazz is all about letting go and expressing yourself, so you too can put your own stamp on the music you are playing with.
To be able to start playing along to jazz means you will of course need to be able to play the guitar to some reasonable standard. We have determined that to play jazz guitar specifically from a soloing point of view, as opposed to playing rhythm jazz guitar, requires a good understanding and technical ability of certain scales and modes depending on the chords that are being played.
There is one scale in particular though that has special importance above all others. It is the major scale.
The Major Scale and its Related Modes
The importance of learning the major scale in general, but especially in jazz guitar can't be emphasized enough. The major scale truly is the cornerstone of Western music and many other forms of music too. All other scales, modes and chords are derived from, and therefore related to the major scale, so if you learn it well, it only makes sense that these other scales and modes in particular will be much easier to learn in the long-run.
The Dorian mode for example, which is used a lot in jazz and jazz blues, is the major scale with its third and seventh notes lowered a semi-tone. A semi-tone is also known as a 'half step' and covers one fret. This is covered in more detail in 'working out notes' in the guitar lessons for beginners.
If you have the major scale mastered you only have to change a couple of notes in that scale and you have a completely new jazz guitar scale for playing over minor, minor seventh and minor ninth chords.
There are other modes that are also used by jazz musicians such as the Lydian mode and Locrian mode for example. These modes, like Dorian, are nothing more than a variation of the major scale. By learning the major scale well, you will effectively open up additional jazz guitar scales in the form of modes, not to mention the major scale itself being an invaluable jazz scale in its own right. The major scale should therefore be the first scale to master if you want to play jazz guitar.
Scales with Three Notes to Each String
Apart from the pentatonic scales, these 'jazz guitar scales' show both the traditional 'box style' method as well as the 'three notes to each string' method. Playing scales with 'three notes to a string' offers a greater musical range as most of them contain two octaves and therefore two root notes too. This will give you more notes within the scale to act as an anchor to bring you back to the home key that you'll be playing along to. This is a great advantage when you want to know where you are on the fret board by using the top E and B strings as a notational reference point. You'll be able to play nice long melodic lines up and down a scale from the higher notes within that scale found on these two strings.
Ultimately, learning scales with 'three notes to a string' encourages more movement along the neck too as each scale effectively covers six frets as it moves higher up the neck. I personally think this generally offers a slightly more melodic way of playing instead of the more traditional method of playing scales within a 'box' or 'cage' type structure. At the end of the day it is an individual thing though and the option is there for both methods as you please and what you prefer.
The two main points to remember regarding all scales and all improvisation are; the style of music and the chords that it contains determines the choice of scale and/or mode, as well as the way that you play that particular scale and/or mode. A major scale for example can be played in pop music as well as jazz but it needs to be played in a different way for both genres for the solo to be in context with the music and therefore sound pleasing to the ear of the listener. This is what good improvisation is all about, playing in key, playing in time and playing in the context of the surrounding music. This can only be accomplished with experience that comes from a lot of practice playing along to tunes, with a lot of listening while you are playing, and a lot of listening when you are not playing.
Many of the guitar scales that follow, if not all of them, you may already know. In fact many of them are on other pages on this site which highlights the simple fact mentioned above, that they are indeed used for other styles of music other than jazz. As we have already established though, it all depends upon the chords that these scales are being played over, and the way that the scales are played, which affects and determines the overall sound and atmosphere that these individual scales create.
Jazz guitar, at its best, is the pinnacle of guitar playing and when played well, to me, sounds wonderful. It has a mixture of both freedom and structure that is combined with a toe-tapping swing quality that not everybody truly appreciates, and therefore, jazz guitar, and jazz music in general, often remains somewhat of an acquired taste.
Thankfully it is now becoming more widely accepted as various forms of jazz and jazz guitar are becoming more interesting to players like you and me. I think this is largely due to the internet and the great jazz artists like George Benson, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery and many, many, others now being more widely seen and heard as a result.
The major scale is not only one of the most important jazz guitar scales, but probably THE most important scale of all. The major scale forms the basic building material for all chords and of course those chords that are commonly used in jazz too. All the modes are also formed from the major scale and are therefore related to it. As we know, modes are commonly used in jazz, and by thoroughly learning the major scale, these modes will be a breeze as modes are nothing more than the major scale being started from a different point, which is easy once you know the major scale well.
The major scale has an upbeat, happy quality to its overall sound.
The melodic minor scale is often referred to as the Jazz Minor Scale. It reduces the interval (space) between the 6th and 7th notes of the harmonic minor scale by raising the 6th note of that scale by a semi-tone (1 fret). This gives the melodic minor a smoother melodic flow than the harmonic minor hence its name. The melodic minor is probably one of the most important minor jazz guitar scales due to this reason and given the fact that it has both major and minor qualities which makes it ideal for expressing a wide range of emotions.
The diminished scale is another on the list of important jazz guitar scales as it works well with altered seventh chords and chord extensions that are commonly used in jazz.
As its name suggests, the whole tone scale is constructed entirely of intervals of one whole tone. The scale therefore goes up its range in jumps of one whole step (two frets) between each note. This means it isn't anchored to any one tonal centre which gives the scale a floating type of quality and feel.
The pentatonic scale is very old to say the least. Chinese music is based around the pentatonic scale which dates back thousands of years. Although strongly used in country and blues music, both the major and the minor pentatonic are often used as 'jazz guitar scales' too and remain the most popular and commonly used scales in music today.
The major pentatonic has a bright, jubilant quality when played over appropriate chords.
The pentatonic scale dates back thousands of years and is the most commonly used scale in blues & rock as well as jazz & fusion too. The pentatonic scale remains one of the most popular and commonly used scales today.
The major blues scale is similar to the minor blues scale in the same way that the major pentatonic is similar to the minor pentatonic. The major blues scale looks the same as the minor blues scale but it is played in a different place on the fret board and its root note is in a different place within the scale.
The main difference from an improvisational point of view is that the major blues and major pentatonic scales are both played over major and major seventh chords, while the minor blues and minor pentatonic scales are both played over minor and minor seventh chords, with both the minor and major versions of both types of scale being played over dominant seven chords.
The major blues scale is the major pentatonic with the addition of one extra note, the b3 (flat 3), also called the 'blue note'.
The major blues scale, like the minor blues scale and their pentatonic relations, are great jazz guitar scales that offer another option for improvisation over a jazz or jazz-blues chord progression. The major blues scale is an easy scale to learn once you've mastered the pentatonic equivalent and added the 'blue note'.
This chart is also in the key of 'G'. The blues scale as seen here adds the #4/b5 to the pentatonic scale. This 'blue note' is great for fast chromatic runs in jazz solos.
The Minor blues scale is often referred to as just the 'blues scale'. Like the major blues scale, it's an easy scale to learn once you've mastered its pentatonic equivalent and added the 'blue note'.
The Dorian mode is one of the nicest sounding jazz guitar scales for certain minor chords. It has a very bluesy, soulful and almost sophisticated sound. This mode is commonly used for jazz and jazz-blues over minor seventh and minor ninth chords. This mode can be played by starting a major scale on its second note and continuing that major scale fingering pattern as if you had started it from the beginning. This is another way of learning modes that allows quick access to new ones. That's why it's important to make sure you learn the major scale well, so all other scales and modes are made easier to access just by raising or lowering certain notes.
This mode is the result of raising the fourth note of a major scale by a semi-tone (one fret). This gives the scale a slightly airy type of atmosphere and sound.
The Mixolydian Mode is a scale that is formed when the seventh note of the major scale is lowered one semi-tone (1 fret). The Mixolydian mode is often played in jazz-blues over dominant sevenths and dominant ninth chords.
Note; This chart shows the Mixolydian mode in the key of 'G'. I'm sure you probably know what to do by now to change it to 'F' or any other key, but just in case you don't, you just slide the whole pattern along the fret board to locate a different root note. The new root note is now the new key. Just remember to keep the finger pattern exactly the same.
The key of 'G' is a more common key for jazz-blues which is what this mode is mostly used for.
Note; The first chord on the left above is in fact a multi-function chord. These types of chords are often used in jazz. It has no root note and can therefore be used for more than one type of guitar chord. The root note of this chord would be played by the bass player to anchor the chord to the appropriate key at the time. The chord seen here is also BMaj7b5 (b major 7 flat 5) where the root note would be played by the 1st finger on the 5th string (A string). There will be more on this in the chord section coming soon.
These charts attempt to group together the most common 'jazz guitar scales' and modes that are generally used for this great style of guitar playing. There are various styles of jazz guitar and a variety of scales and modes used for its expression. Hopefully, this list will at least help you to get started on this wonderful journey of jazz and jazz guitar improvisation whether you choose to play rhythm, lead or both.
I hope you found these 'jazz guitar scales' helpful and valuable. Please return to this site as I will continue to add more charts and videos over time.
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