17 Scale Choices For Improvising on Guitar

What Scale to Choose for Improvising?

Locrian bb7 mode for guitar

One of the most common question a beginner asks when he wants to start improvising on guitar is : Which scale to choose over which chords? However, there is a lot of scale and a lot of chord, it is easy to get lost. That's why it is important to make the relation between them, trying to understand what is the appropriate scale that fit the chord and vice versa. 

This guitar lesson provides the seventeen most important scales with shapes and formulas to know for improvising over the most used chord types in jazz music (major, minor, dominant and diminished).

The More Commonly Used Scales in Jazz

Over Major Chords

Here are the following scales that can be used over

  • Maj7
  • Maj9
  • Maj6
  • Maj11
  • Maj13 chords.

The Ionian mode (aka major scale)

The ionian mode is best know as the major scale, the formula is :

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • 3 - Major third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth
  • 7 - Seventh

The Major Pentatonic Scale

The major pentatonic scale consists of :

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • 3 - Major third
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth

The Major Blues Scale

The major blues is nothing more than a major pentatonic scale with an added passing tone (b3) between the second (2) and the major third (3), thus giving the following pattern :

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • b3 - Minor third (passing tone)
  • 3 - Major third
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth

The Major Bebop Scale

The major bebop scale is the Ionian mode with a passing tone (#5) between the fifth (5) and the sixth (6). As its name implies it is widely used in bebop.

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • 3 - Major third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • #5 - Augmented fifth (passing tone)
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth
  • 7 - Seventh

The Lydian Scale

The Lydian scale is the fourth mode of the major scale and surely the most used when improvising over major 7 sharp 11 chords also called Lydian chords or Lydian augmented chords. It is built the same as the Ionian mode but with a #11 instead of a perfect fourth (4) The formula is :

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • 3 - Major third
  • #4 (#11) - Sharp Fourth or sharp eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth
  • 7 - Seventh

Over Minor Chords

Here is a list of scales that can be played over :

  • min7
  • min6
  • min 9
  • min11
  • min13 chords

The Dorian Mode

This is the most known of the minor scale. The Dorian mode is the second mode of the major scale. The formula is :

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth
  • b7 - Minor seventh

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale is one of the most important scale in blues and jazz music.

  • 1 - Root 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • b7 - Minor seventh

The minor blues scale (with a b5)

You can see the minor blues scale as a minor pentatonic scale with a supplementary note. This first example (there are two other minor blues scale) is shown with a b5 between the fourth (4) and the fifth (5). This is the msot used of the three minor blues scales.

  • 1 - Root 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • b5 - flat fifth (passing tone)
  • 5 - Fifth
  • b7 - Minor seventh

The minor blues scale (with a major third)

This is the minor pentatonic scale with a passing tone, the major third (3) between the minor third (b3) and the fourth (4).

  • 1 - Root 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 3 - Major third (passing tone)
  • 4 - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • b7 - Minor seventh

The minor blues scale (with a major seventh)

This is the last of a serie of three minor blues scales. This one has a major seventh (7) between the minor seventh (b7) and the root (1).

  • 1 - Root 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 4 - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • b7 - Minor seventh
  • 7 - Major seventh (passing tone)

Minor Bebop Scale

The minor bebop scale or Dorian bebop scale is commonly used in bebop. This is an eight note scale (octatonic). You see it as the Dorian mode with an added note (the major third) between the minor third (b3) and the fourth (4).

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 3 - Major third (passing tone)
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth
  • b7 - Minor seventh

The following scales is designed to be played over minMaj7 chords

The Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor scale is sometimes referred to as "minor jazz scale". It is actually the Dorian mode with a major seventh (7) in place of a minor seventh (b7). It is spelled

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth
  • 7 - Major seventh

Over Dominant Chords

The following scales can be used on dominant chords (non-altered) as :

  • 7
  • 9
  • 11
  • 13

The Mixolydian scale

This is the fifth mode of the major scale, an obvious choice to play over dominant chords. The formula is :

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • 3 - Major third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth
  • b7 - Minor seventh

The Dominant Bebop Scale

The dominant bebop scale is also know as Mixolydian bebop scale. This is an octatonic scale which contains the same notes as the Mixolydian scale including a chromatic passing tone (the major seventh) between the minor seventh (b7) and the root (R).

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • 3 - Major third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • 5 - Fifth
  • 6 (13) - Sixth or thirteenth
  • b7 - Minor seventh
  • 7 - Major seventh

 

Over Diminished Chords

Here are some scales to play over diminished chords

The Whole-half Diminished Scale

The Whole-half diminished scale, also called "Fully Diminished scale" should not be confused with the Dominant Diminished scale which is employed over altered dominant chords. The Whole-half diminished scale is a symmetrical scale built with :

  • 1 - Root 
  • 2 (9)  - Second or ninth 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 4 (11) - Fourth or eleventh
  • b5 - Diminished fifth
  • #5 - Augmented fifth
  • 6 or 13 or bb7 - Sixth or thirteenth or diminished seventh
  • 7 - Major seventh

The Super Locrian bb7 mode

The super Locrian bb7 scale is the seventh mode of the harmonic minor scale. It is also named Ultra Locrian or super Locrian diminished scale.

  • 1 - Root 
  • b2 (b9)  - Minor second or flat ninth 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • b4 (b11) - Diminished fourth or diminished eleventh
  • b5 - Diminished fifth
  • b6 (b13) - Minor sixth of flat thirteenth
  • bb7 - Diminished seventh

The Locrian bb7 Mode

The Locrian bb7 mode is the seventh mode of the harmonic major scale.

  • 1 - Root 
  • b2 (b9)  - Minor second or flat ninth 
  • b3 - Minor third
  • 4 (11) -  Fourth or eleventh
  • b5 - Diminished fifth
  • b6 (b13) - Minor sixth of flat thirteenth
  • bb7 - Diminished seventh

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