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What's the Deal with Jazz Guitar Scales?


Maybe you've heard about them, maybe not. But if you want to play jazz guitar with the best of them, sooner or later you'll need to spend some serious time learning your scales and modes. So you might as well get started, it can only help! Not only that, but after you spend enough time playing jazz guitar scales you'll realize why they're so important. 

What are Jazz Guitar Scales?

The keyword here is "Scale" which comes from the Latin word meaning ladder. So in this case, we're talking about a musical landscape which has notes that ascend up and down.

The basic scale that we are all familiar with in Western music is what we often call the "major scale", which is also called the "Ionian mode". Generally speaking, a "mode" refers to a type of scale. Specifically, modes are different types of scales which can have different roots and tone.

For a basic understanding of how to construct a major scale, watch this lesson on "Constructing Scales" Chuck Loeb. Chuck taught Jazz Guitar at ArtistWorks until his passing in 2017, Jazz Guitar lessons with Dave Stryker are now available

Because they are so familiar, many aspiring guitar players start jamming over major chords and use licks and ideas that build from the major scale. 

The C major scale is easy and familiar, so it is a good main reference for building other scales, especially when you're just get started learning jazz guitar. The notes in the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, so you would use these notes to solo over someone playing C major chords (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim).

To make playing the major scales easier, Chuck created a simple method for learning how to play the major scale, which he demonstrated in this Jazz Guitar Lesson on The 6 Positions:

In all of his lessons and Video Exchanges with students, Chuck sought to help aspiring jazz guitarists start playing and improvising. Dave Stryker's lessons help students play naturally and confidently, find lessons with him here

How is a Jazz Guitar Mode Different from a Scale?

When it comes down to it, all music is based on different scales and modes. 

What makes music sound like rock, jazz or pop is how you use those scales and modes to create songs. For example, if you start on the D rather than the C you get another kind of scale, called the Dorian Scale (DEGABCD).

The Dorian scale is often used in jazz and the pattern is "whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole."

Altogether, there are 7 modes which are derived from the major scale, and each one adds a very different tone or feel to your solo:

  • Ionian: the familiar major scale that is most fundamental and basic to use.
  • Dorian: a minor mode which is often the mode of choice for jazz guitarists improvising over a minor code.
  • Phrygian: the minor mode that adds a Spanish vibe to your solos.
  • Lydian: beautiful scale to play over a major chord.
  • Mixolydian: dominant chord scale that has a more blues-like sound.
  • Aeolian: natural minor scale with a very cool sound that provides interesting color to your music.
  • Locrian: good for soloing over half-diminished chords.

You can remember the names of the mode by using this trick mnemonic: "I Don't Play Like My Aunt Lucy." If you happen to have an Aunt Lucy, apologies. 

How Jazz Guitar Scales Can Be Used to Solo Over Chords

Learning to play solos in different modes adds color and character to your playing. While building a solo with major scales has a great inside sound, the lines can get a bit boring and predictable after a while. Using different modes adds contrast and excitement. 

For example, if you have a chord progression of C, Am, Dm, and G, you can play a solo over that in the C Ionian scale, but it might be more interesting if you chose a different mode to play over the chords. For a simple change, you can just do C-Ionian, A Dorian, D Dorian, G Ionian.  To get started, you will just want to practice one of these, say the D Dorian, over one chord (Dm).

All of that may sound complicated, which is why taking jazz guitar lessons with master teachers who explain things in a step by step approach can help.  To see how this works, check out this lesson from ArtistWorks fingerstyle guitar teacher Martin Taylor showing a simple 2-5-1 progression of improvising over jazz chords:

To be fluent with jazz soloing requires the ability to not just know the scales - you have to know when to use them. In fact, knowing jazz guitar scales and how to apply them in a variety of soloing situations will help you navigate the changes in the chords. In turn this will allow you to create melodic, precise, and interesting solos on your instrument.

So if you want to play jazz guitar like a pro, you need know that mastering some of these fundamental jazz guitar scales are an important step in achieving your goal. The good news though, is that you're not alone - and there is help for those who seek it.

Learn jazz guitar online with Dave Stryker at ArtistWorks. Click here for free sample lessons!



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