There are many ways to improvise over chords. One way to do it is to use scales. In this article, I’ll show you 12 jazz scales that are important to know, the chords they sound great with, and how to connect them.
In this in-depth article, you’ll learn:
- Essential scales used in jazz
- The specific chord associated with each scale
- The most important habit for connecting scales
So if you’re ready to go “all in” with jazz scales, this guide is for you.
Let’s dive right in.
If you’re short on time, watch my video on 12 jazz scales that are important for building a jazz vocabulary. I’ll show you everything you need to know from this lesson. In my experience, I’ve noticed that these scales are essential and often used in jazz improvisation.
In the following video, I provide some basic demonstrations of how nice these scales sound when you connect them for your major and minor ii V I’s.
Jazz Scales And Their Chords (Jazz Theory That Also Works For Bass Players)
I’ve organized these jazz scales into 4 sets. The first 3 sets work well in the context of a ii V I progression. The last set sounds great over the blues progression. I hope that by organizing this information by common chord chunks that you’ll likely see on a jazz standard, you’ll be able to apply this music theory more easily.
- Set 1: These scales have mild tension and will work well for your ii chords.
- Set 2: These scales introduce the most tension and sounds great over V chords.
- Set 3: These scales feel like home base and are best suited for major and minor chords.
- Set 4: These scales have a special quality to them and a single scale will work well over an entire blues chord progression, even a jazz blues.
Scales for Minor ii Chords
The ii chord is a great chord for setting up tension that a dominant V chord can offer. Here are a few popular scales used in jazz for ii chords.
The notes of the Dorian scale, are: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7. These notes are derived from the second mode of a major scale.
The arpeggio of a scale is an easy way to figure out what chord a scale will sound good on.
For the Dorian scale, its arpeggio is: 1, ♭3, 5, ♭7.
This scale will sound great over any minor 7 chord. And, it particularly works well over a ii chord in a Major key.
Locrian Natural 2 Scale
The scale notes of a Locrian Natural 2 scale, are: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, ♭5, ♭6, ♭7.
Its arpeggio has these notes: 1, ♭3, ♭5, ♭7.
These notes sound really good over a Minor 7♭5 chord, also known as a Half-Diminished chord.
The half-diminished chord is often used in a Minor ii V i progression.
Jazz musicians will often use this sound when forecasting a resolution to a minor chord.
Locrian scale has these notes: 1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, ♭5, ♭6, ♭7.
The arpeggio of this scale is: 1, ♭3, ♭5, ♭7.
This jazz scale also sounds great over a half-diminished chord. So, you can use this scale for a ii chord in a minor key.
Scales for Dominant V Chords
A dominant chord in a ii V chord progression is where the real fun begins. This chord (the V chord) has the ability to introduce the most amount of tension right before resolving to a Major or Minor chord.
The notes of the Mixolydian scale is derived from the 5th mode of the major scale. It has these notes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7.
While this scale sounds great over a V chord for a major ii-V-I chord progression, it doesn’t really produce much tension/pull toward the resolving chord. So, if you want to make things sound more “jazzy”, move on the the next scale choice.
Half-Whole Diminished Scale
The Half-Whole Diminished scale is a unique scale, in that it has 8 notes, and is symmetrical. This scale is made up from a pattern of half-step and whole-step.
It has these notes: 1, ♭2, ♯2, 3, ♯4, 5, 6, ♭7.
These notes work really well for either a Dominant 7♭9 chord or a Dominant 7♯9 chord.
Jazz musicians will often use dominant V chords like these to resolve to a Major chord.
Altered Scale (Also known as Diminished Whole-Tone Scale)
The Altered Scale is a popular scale choice for V chords in a minor key.
It has these notes: 1, ♭2, ♯2, 3, ♯4, ♯5, ♭7.
The first half of the scale is very similar to a half-whole diminished scale. And the last half of the scale is similar to a Whole-Tone scale (a scale made up of only whole-steps). Hence, why some musicians in jazz will call this scale the Diminished Whole-Tone scale.
This scale will sound good over any altered Dominant 7 chord, particularly a Dominant 7♭13♯9 chord.
Phrygian Dominant Scale
I love the sound of this scale.
This scale is derived from the 5th mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale.
The Phrygian Dominant scale has the notes: 1, ♭2, 3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7.
And, it resolves very nicely to minor chords.
But, it also resolves nicely to major chords too. When resolving to a major chord, this scale gives the ii V I chord progression an exotic flavor to it.
This jazz scale works well for Dominant 7♭9 chords.
Scales for Major and Minor Tonic Chords
In both a ii, V, I and a ii, V, i chord progression, the I chord and the i chord is a point of resolution.
Quick tip: Lowercase Roman numerals resemble a minor chord.
Major Scale (Also known as Ionian Scale)
The Major scale has the following notes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.
This scale is a familiar sound to all of us and it’s as vanilla as it gets. If you’ve heard of Solfege, these notes are the same as Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti.
But, just because this sound isn’t very special, it is still widely used in jazz.
Always use your ears. Music isn’t always asking to throw in chromaticism. So, sometimes this scale is the perfect choice for resolving in a Major key.
Major Bebop Scale (Also known as Barry Harris’ Major 6 Diminished Scale)
This is one of my favorite jazz scales. I learned about this from jazz pianist and jazz educator Barry Harris.
It has 8 notes and the only difference between this scale and the Major sale, is that it also has a ♭6.
Here are the notes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ♭6, 6, 7.
The added chromaticism between the 5 and the 6 allow all chord tones to remain on a strong beat when playing a continuous line either ascending or descending. A lot of walking bass lines will incorporate this technique.
Barry Harris explored this scale to the nth degree and harmonized this scale.
When you harmonize this scale, you get a series of alternating Major 6 chords and Diminished chords.
This has a really cool sound and is widely used in jazz.
Melodic Minor Scale
Jazz solos will often have a Melodic Minor scale for the resolving Minor chord.
The notes of a Melodic Minor scale, are: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, 7.
This scale closely resembles a Major scale. The only difference is that the third is flatted.
Barry Harris’ Minor 6 Diminished Scale
Similar to a melodic minor scale, the Minor 6 Diminished scale has the following notes: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, 6, 7.
The main difference is that a ♭6 note has been added.
Barry Harris also harmonized this scale to his advantage to create beautiful tension and release with his chord melodies.
This scale is a great sound to use for a resolving minor chord and it really captures the sound of a minor key.
Scales for Blues Chord Progression
Blues chord progressions are often used in jazz music.
While outlining the chord changes in a blues progression can work, there is another approach that many jazz musicians take instead.
Often jazz musicians will use a single blues scale over the entire chord progression.
Here are a couple blues scales that are good to know.
The Blues scale is a 6 note scale that has these notes: 1, ♭3, 4, ♭5, 5, ♭7.
This scale is not really meant to be harmonized, like how Barry Harris harmonizes a Major Bebop scale.
Instead, this scale, is meant to create melodic phrases, also known as melodic statements.
In addition, the same scale is often used over an entire blues chord progression, and even certain parts of Rhythm Changes.
So, while chords may be changing, a jazz soloist will often stay with the same blues scale and focus more on melodic phrases instead of playing the changes.
Blues Scale + Major 3rd
I don’t know if this scale even has an official name. But it is used by a lot of jazz musicians nonetheless.
It’s a blues scale with a major 3rd added to it.
Here are the notes: 1, ♭3, 3, 4, ♭5, 5, ♭7.
This scale is often used on the I chord of a blues chord progression.
Practice Scales or a Mode Both In Context And With A Drone
When you’re learning a scale, there are a couple good ways to get the sound of the scale into your ears. Being able to “hear” scales and modes speeds up the process tremendously and will ultimately help you become a better jazz musician.
The two ways are:
- Practicing in context of a chord progression
- Using a drone (sustained note or chord) to play melodies using scale notes.
Practice Jazz scales within the context of a chord progression
In jazz, the ii V I chord progression is prominent. You’ll find these chords in almost every tune.
Each scale that I introduce will be in the context of either a ii V I (Major key) or ii V i (Minor key).
Practicing in context helps get the sound of the scale ingrained in your ears and develops your muscle memory for resolving your notes.
Some scales work well for both major and minor keys. While other jazz scales sound best only for minor keys.
As long as it sounds good, that’s really all that matters. So, use your ears, explore the jazz theory, and find out what sounds best to you.
Play scale melodies over a sustained note
“Drone” is name some people use when sustaining notes or chords for a long duration.
You can sustain a chord, a single note, or even a triad when you practice scales.
This is a great way to discover which notes have a tendency to resolve and which don’t.
How To Connect Jazz Scales? (The Key To Making Your Jazz Improvisation Lines Sound Strong)
Being able to connect your jazz scales is crucial to making your melodic lines sound cohesive.
One of the most important ways to do this is by voice leading.
Voice leading is simply starting your next measure with a note that is a step away from the last note of the previous measure.
When you transcribe jazz solos, you’ll find that the end of a measure and beginning of the next measure are often close in musical intervals.
This is how jazz musicians connect scales and are able to weave in and out of the key in ways that sound natural to the ear.
Now It’s Your Turn
We’ve gone over a lot of material in this article. And now it’s time for you to apply these jazz scales to your playing.
Start by applying one scale every time you encounter a context where that scale would work.
Once you’re comfortable, add a second scale and be sure to connect the scales using voice leading.
After you’ve got the mechanics to connect two scales, try creating melodic phrases with those two scales.
Build on your previous knowledge and skills instead of trying to apply everything at the same time.