Jazz Improvisation Using Scales (with AUDIO mp3)
Jazz improvisation is the art of creating melodic lines spontaneously. It is traditionally inspired by a piece’s rhythms, melody and harmony.The goal of the jazz improviser is to invent lyrical, inspired melodic content within the boundaries of harmony. In fact, great jazz solos are often outlining the chord changes effectively!
It’s also good to know that jazz musicians sometimes play *OUT* on purpose. They can try to avoid the pre-determined key centers. It’s seems that artistic expression cannot be boiled down to formulas after all! Since this is an instructional website, I will focus on how to play effectively “IN” the changes… I would like to share three of my favorite jazz improvisation “tools” with you.
The tools are explained in three pages + audio examples and should help you outline chords clearly while improvising on the guitar.
Please listen to this audio (mp3) while you check out this lesson. I’ll be walking you through the steps and explaining things a bit further than what’s written out. Feel free to pause the audio as you “puzzle things out” on your own instrument! (-:
Scales Are Horizontal
Using scales to outline chords is natural. Scales are built of little intervals (whole-steps or half-steps) and are easy to hear. Most lullabies and folk tune contain scale wise melodic motion. We can easily take any chord on a staff and spread it out. Let’s look at the F dominant 7 chord :
See, the scale is much more horizontal than the stack of notes.
Both the chord and the scale contain exactly the same notes!
Applying the Scales
The basic steps in scales application are as follow :
- Pick a tune and learn exactly one scale for each chord.
- Play scales up and down through the tune “rubato” (no tempo).
- In strict tempo, play scales up (from degrees 1 to 7).
The first four bars of the blues goes like this:
While attempting to play this, stick with familiar fingerings. The goal for now is to hear the progression not to unlock the entire fretboard!
Here are three more things to consider:
- Play the scale back down when needed. (bars 3-4 of the PDF)
- *Land on different notes when needed (bar 8 of the PDF)
- Play only the “V” scale in “II-V’s” (bars 9-10 of the PDF)
*If are unsure of what we are doing in bars 7-8, please see this Q&A with a visitor…
Beginner Jazz Guitar Scales Outlining
Once you are familiar with the process, I recommend you pick a new tune and study its scale outline. Do NOT pick the blues in F again!
I recommend a jazz standard with an 32-bar form (such as “Autumn Leaves”) because more scales are going to be involved. Choose a tune you like and work on it for a while. Select the scales you prefer and experiment with alternatives. This will forge your personal voice.
Don’t know what scales to use? Find out about Major, Dorian and Mixolydian here : Consult this “Jazz Scales: Three Most Used” article and then come back here, I’ll be waiting for you!
Now that you understand the whole process, let’s add some technicalities to open-it up. Try the two following variations:
- Scale degrees number 1,3,5 and 7 are called chord tones. Learn to play the scales starting from those four different chord tones. From the root = it’s easy. Then start each scale on the third (then repeat with fifth and seventh).
- Become as comfortable descending than ascending the scales. (starting on any of the chord tones)
This offers you new possibilities for jazz improvisation.
Intermediate Jazz Guitar Scales Outlining
Now you can play the scales outlines to a blues and another standard of your choice. That is quite specific and you should begin to hear the chord changes clearly in your head.
It gets easier the more you do it since we’re always dealing with the same types of scale. Major, minor and dominant are the chords/scales of choice in jazz.
The ultimate goal here is to know all the scales to all the tunes in your repertoire. It’s simpler than it looks! Go through your repertoire. Try it!
Here are two more suggestions to mix-it-up further:
- Choose the chord tones you start on randomly.
- Choose to ascend or descend the scale randomly.
Here’s a PDF of mixed scale outline on F blues.
It should begin to feel like true jazz improvisation now. Play them as “semi-improvised exercises” : Take the decisions on the spot and have fun!
Advanced Jazz Guitar Scales Outlining
It feels great to hear and play the “right notes” to standard jazz tunes. You get just that with appropriately chosen scales. Take your guitar improvisation a step further, try two of my favorite “scale tricks” :
- Cover the entire range with the right scales. Go all the way up and down *without* changing direction when the chord is changing.
Play the scales up from the lowest note available on the guitar. Come back down from the highestnote. You have to change scale when the chord changes, but keep your asc. or desc. motion (unless your run out of frets).
Pretty neat, huh? And we’re still just using very basic scales here…
Keep going for many choruses. You will end up covering different areas of the fretboard at different spots in the form of the song. It takes you out of the comfort zone! After you nail this in quarter notes, do it in eighth notes. GO SLOWLY! Do not write anything down, just try to wing it to test your knowledge of the fretboard, the scales and the song…
Here’s a written out version as an example : take a look at this PDF of the entire range outline to understand the process. I used different scales just to give you an idea of the potential of this exercise.
And finally, here’s the second advanced “trick”:
- Cover only a small range with the right scales.
Play the scales up and down strictly inside the selected range. Change scale when the chord changes, but stay within your pre-determined boundaries.
Keep going for many choruses. You will cover and understand the chosen area in and out! It is the exact opposite of covering the entire fretboard. Have fun with it!
Please keep in mind that scales are only tools to develop genuine jazz improvisation. Scales will not make music for you… but they will help you hear through chord progressions.
When you are really “blowing”, be in the moment and focus on the feel. Scales are simply the grammar of jazz vocabulary, not your whole speech. They emotions you want to convey are above any rules!