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Jazz Scales for Jazz Improvisation

Reference for Most Common Jazz Scales (for Guitar)

Is jazz improvisation a big mystery to you? Do have questions as to "what notes are good" when soloing? Use this handy jazz scales reference chart to learn the most common sounds in jazz ...

The System

Using formulas is the best and most convenient way to write down, read, learn and memorize jazz scales. We use numbers instead of notes so you can easily apply the scale formula starting on any note...

The basis for the system of notation is the major scale structure.

This : C D E F G A B (1)
Becomes : 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (1)

I know this has been posted everywhere on this website... but, I repeat :

The Major Scale IS the prime reference
for building all the other scales!

At first, you should learn the jazz scales that are very closely related to the major scale (because they have only one or two note difference.)

Later, you'll be able tackle more challenging formulas (other more complex jazz scales) with a solid foundation. If you have any kind of question, please ask it here (at the bottom of the page).


Before going any further, just watch this video. Basically, I demonstrate the three basic chords - scales - arpeggios sounds needed for Jazz guitar improvisation on a basic II-V-I cadence. After you get this under your fingers, your can get going and create you own solos.

The chords, scales and arpeggios from the video are found in this PDF file here...

And now for some more theory on jazz scales ...

The 3 "Biggies": Major, Minor and Dominant

jazz scales dorian mixolydian major

Please note:

  • The major scale symbol is often a little triangle. You can also see the nomenclature "maj7" on charts.
  • The major scale is also known as the Ionian mode.
  • The dominant 7th scale has only one note different from the major. Which one?
  • The dominant 7th scale is also known as the Mixolydian mode (and it is found on the 5th degree of the major scale).
  • That basic minor sound is also known as the Dorian mode (and it is found on the 2nd degree of the major scale).
  • This minor scale has only two notes different from the major scale. Which ones?
  • The minor symbol is often a little minus sign. You can also see the nomenclature "minor7" or even just "m7" on charts.

Memorization Suggestions

Memorizing the three basic formulas is primordial. Then spell out the major, mixolydian (dominant) and minor (dorian) scales. I mean, recite the names of the note out loud! This helps a lot.

If you do all three scales from root C, it goes like this...


C D E F G A Bb

C D Eb F G A Bb

I stronly suggest that you pick *one* of the three scale and recite it in all the 12 keys. See this page for different cycles you can practice with (including the invaluable cycle of fourths).

All memorized? Let's go practice the three basic jazz scales on your instrument now!

Practice Suggestions

To learn these three jazz scales well, you have to think about the following at all times:

-Go slowly;
-Maintain a good sound on each note;
-Knowing exactly what scales / notes your are playing!
-Listen closely to the result.

Practice Steps: (pick one of the three jazz scales)

  • In *any* fingering: play the chosen scale from 1 to 7 and back down. Repeat in a few keys around the instrument / fretboard. Go slow, get accustomed to the sound.
  • Learn the scale starting on string 6 (biggest) and then on strings 5, 4, 3 and 2. Explore different starting fingers for each scale.
  • Consolidate between 2 and 4 fingerings that work well for you.
  • [You'll want to do that step carefully for each scale, because when the formula changes, so do the fingerings!]
  • Practice the scale from 1 to 7 and back down in all the twelve keys. Use the cycle of fourths as you root order: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, etc.
  • Practice the same as last step but only ascending the scale (1 to 7)
  • Same as last step but only descending the scale (7 to 1)

    [Last three steps here: play in time!!!]

More Practice Steps

-Now mixing the three scales together: practice the Dorian, Mixolydian in Major jazz scales together in the context of the II-V-I progression.

For example:

Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7 (this is a II-V-I in C major)

Play D dorian (minor) ascending and descending
then G mixolydian (dominant) ascending and descending
then C major ascending and descending

repeat with just the ascending version
... and just the descending version...

and then repeat with a the II-V-I progression in all the remaining keys...

Gm7 - C7 - Fmaj7
Cm7 - F7 - Bbmaj7
Fm7 - Bb7 - Ebmaj7
Bbm7 - Eb7 - Abmaj7

Ebm7 - Ab7 - Dbmaj7 .... (or D#m7 - G#7 - C#maj7)
Abm7 - Db7 - Gbmaj7 .... (or G#m7 - C#7 - F#maj7)

C#m7 - F#7 - Bmaj7
F#m7 - B7 - Emaj7
Bm7 - E7 - Amaj7
Em7 - A7 - Dmaj7
Am7 - D7 - Gmaj7

Congratulations! If you can play the above suggestions well enough, your jazz language can develop in many beautiful ways (in phrasing, ornamentations, licks, etc.) Learning, memorizing and playing those three basic jazz scales can get you very far in jazz improvisation.

Please ask you question(s) below (scroll down).

You May Also be Interested in ... Related Pages

  • VIDEO: Three Jazz Scales

    Great if you want to "go through the motion" with the video above, but on Youtube. Covers approximately the same topics as the above text. Basic improv on II-V-I progression.
  • The Major Scale

    The reference point every should have memorized and handy...
  • Diagonal Playing on Guitar

    Feel "boxed in" a little? Get out of the position-playing prison now!

Have a Question about Jazz Scales ?

Do you have a question about anything discussed in this article? Ask it here! It will be answered soon.

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Jazz Scales Questions by Other Visitors

Click below to see other visitors' questions (and answers) to this page. Feel free to add comments and or answer the questions yourself ...

Why modes? 
You say to play a D Dorian mode over the ii chord in a ii-V-I. Isn't D Dorian the same thing as C Major, just starting and ending on a different note? …

Books for reference 
Hi, I'm learning a lot with your lessons. Now, I'm about to apply the major, mixo and minor scales on a progression II V I. Can you recommend me any …

Simpler approach 
Over a ii V I of Dm G7 C, this site advocates one play D Dorian over the Dm, G mixolydian over G7 & C Ionian over C major . Why not just play a C-major …

Why dorian for minor chord? 
Hi, Why does one use the dorian mode over a minor chord instead of the minor scale? For example, if we see the A minor chord why would be play …

Scale Degrees 
In the dominant 7th scale, what does the term 5th degree mean? --- M-A's Answer: Hello, The term "5th degree" means the fifth note of the scale. …

Guide Notes 
This is for the PIANO. To improvise with Guide Notes of the scale of the Chord. What advice can you offer?? --- M-A's Answer : Please see the jazz …

Practicing Scales by Position 
Since I am not sure of the fingering you want to be used I will give you my interpretation and wait to be corrected! Would it be best to practice the …

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