Mastering basic jazz guitar scales

Mastering the basic jazz scales on the guitar

Mastering basic jazz guitar scalesWhen you want to master the jazz language, one of the first thing to do is to learn scales and modes. Memorize the fingerings on the fretboard. Memorize their names, their compositions. Make the difference between a major, a minor, an augmented or a diminished scale. How many tones in this one, how many half-tones in this other one. Knowing which scales work with which chords. In the long run the practice of scales can be confusing and seems a never ending. Here are some tricks and tips to work out on scales while developing your musical ear, your guitar technique and your theoretical knowledges.


To begin with learning scales, no need to memorize 20 of them. Try to practice the most important, the most used related to the common jazz progressions. That's the secret. Scales are important, but chord sequences are important too. The question you must ask yourself is: What are the most used jazz sequences that are played in jazz standards ? Those are major II-V-I and minor II-V-I,  that implies minor, dominant and major chords related to minor, major and dominant scales and modes. Basically, it's simple to understand, over minor chords you play with minor scales, over major chords you will apply major scales and over dominant chords you will play notes from dominant scales.

Major II-V-I scales

  • In a first time the dorian mode will be a good choice to improvise over minor chords. This is the first mode of the major scale and surely the most used to practice minor improvisations on II-V-I sequence.
  • The mixolydian mode will be played over the V. This is just a basis. There are many other devices to play over dominant chords, depending on whether you want to play altered or not. 
  • The ionian mode, also known as the major scale, will obviously be used over major chords.

Minor II-V-I scales

  • Over the II of a minor II-V-I we will use the locrian mode. This a basic choice among many others.
  • The half whole diminished scale or the altered scale sounds great over the V7.
  • The harmonic minor mode or the melodic minor modes are good options to play over the I.

To sum up, in a first time, the basic scales to know are : The dorian mode, the mixolydian mode, the ionian mode, the locrian mode, the altered scale, the half whole diminished scale, the melodic minor scale and the harmonic minor scale. Making a total of 8 scales to practice in all the ways.

How to work out ?

There are many ways to work out on the scales. Generally, when you learn a scale for the first time, you play all the notes in the order, one by one, starting from the lowest root to the highest. This is a first approach to hear the sound of a scale. But this way you will never enrich and develop your playing. To simplify learning and understanding, all the following examples are based on the major scale (ionian mode). Notice that you will have to apply these working tricks below to the 8 scales set out above.

4 directions

4 directions jazz techniqueThe "4 direction" technique consists of playing ascending and descending scales and mixing these two directions together. The first direction is to play the scales in the twelve keys in ascending movement (up & up). From the lowest to the highest note of the guitar. The second direction is down and down, just play the twelve keys starting from the lowest to the highest note. The two other directions are a mix of the two previous movements: Up & down and of course down and up.

Up & up

Major scale up & up direction

Down & down

Major scale down and down direction

Up & down

Major scale up and down

Down & up

Major scale down and up movements

Circle of fourths

Circle of fourths The circle of fourths provides the possibility to play all the notes of the western music. Every note resolves to another note a fourth above it. In other words, by following the circle of fourths, you play all the notes separated from each other by five semitones (a fourth). 

Playing scales following the circle of fourths should be a part of your daily training. It is a great way to known your guitar fretboard. Keep in mind that each note of the circle of fourths can be the root of a scale. Referring to the picture on the left, you must play any scale following this order :

C - F - Bb - Eb - Ab - Db - F# - B - E - A - D - G

You can even apply the four directions to any scale you want to learn (dorian, mixolydian, diminished, etc.) following the circle of fourths. For example, with the major scale : C (up), F (down), Bb (up), Eb (down), etc.


In music theory an interval is the distance between two notes. Without going into details, the main intervals are named : seconds (2 notes), thirds (3 notes), fourths (4 notes), fifths (5 notes), sixths (6 notes), sevenths (7 notes) and octaves (8 notes). They can be qualified using the terms "perfect" (P), "minor" (m), "major" (M), "augmented" (A) and "diminished" (d). All this to say that you can practice scales by playing intervals. Something much more musical will come of it.

Let's take an example with the C major scale once again. This scale scale contains the following notes : C-D-E-F-G-A-B. Imagine that you want to play it in intervals of thirds, this would give C-E ; D-F; E-G; F-A; G-B; A-C and so on. Just the once is not hurt, you must apply the 4 directions technique to the intervals of the scale you want to master. The four examples below show you how to play the major scale in thirds following the 4 directions.

Major scale in thirds - Up & up

Major scale patterns in thirds up & up

Major scale in thirds - Up & down

Major scale patterns in thirds up and down

Major scale in thirds - Down & up

Major scale patterns in thirds down and up

Major scale in thirds - Down & down

Major scale patterns in thirds down and down

You can now repeat these patterns with the scales you want to master with the intervals of your choice.

Triad arpeggios

A triad is a set of three notes which, when they are stacked in thirds, forms a chord. By playing these notes one by one, you obtain arpeggios. Like the chords, there are different types of triads, so different formulas to remember :

As you can see they are all made up of a root (1), a minor or a major third (3 / b3) and a perfect, diminished or augmented fifth (5 / b5 / #5). Why it is so important to lear triads ? Because scales are a combination of different triads. If you look closely to the major scale you can ear seven different triads related to each degree of this scale.

I Major triad C E G
II Minor triad D F A
III Minor triad E G B
IV Major triad F A C
V Major triad G B D
VI Minor triad A C E
VII Diminished triad B D F


Major scale patterns in triads

In this example above, the C ionian mode is approached with triad arpeggios. Each triad is played from the lowest to the highest note (up). It is possible, once again, to play these triads in the four directions. The aim is to find triads of any scale, it is simple. Just take the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes from each tone of the scale you want to develop.

Seventh Arpeggios

Like the previous triad arpeggios, you can do the same work by arpeggiate seventh chords. There are no large difference between triads and seventh chords. Just one note more in the 7th arpeggios. To build a 7th arpeggio you must add the seventh note to the basic triad. That gives the following chart, still with the C major scale.

I Major seventh arpeggio C E G B
II Minor seventh arpeggio D F A C
III Minor seventh arpeggio E G B D
IV Major seventh arpeggio F A C E
V Dominant seventh arpeggio G B D F
VI Minor seventh arpeggio A C E G
VII Minor seventh flat fifth arpeggio B D F A


C ionian mode - Seventh arpeggios - Up & up

7th arpeggios up & up

C ionian mode - Seventh arpeggios - Up & down

7th arpeggios up & down

Try to practice  by playing only the seven 7th arpeggios of the scale of your choice in the 4 directions once again.

Grouping notes and patterns

This technique is to group four notes in order to create original and interesting lines. It is inspired by the most famous pattern (sometimes referred as the Coltrane pattern) that is constructed using the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th degrees of a scale. The example below consists to apply the 1235 pattern starting on each tone of the C major scale.

Grouping notes - 1235 jazz guitar patterns

You can now create your own patterns (1234, 2351, etc), and obviously play them in the four directions.

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Stef Ramin on

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