Jazz Scales for Jazz Improvisation: Learn Jazz Improvisation

Jazz Scales for Jazz Improvisation: Learn Jazz Improvisation

Reference for Most Common Scales for Jazz 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 to learn jazz improv now. As jazz guitarists, it's important to make the best possible use of scales in soloing.

This quick guide will help you learn about not only the most typical scales on their own, but also show you how to use the scales in context. That's probably the most important factor in learning to apply jazz scales to standard progression. Note that this articles will focus on the II-V-I chord progression, the infamous chord sequence found in pretty much every jazz standard.

Learn Jazz Improvisation: 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. In brief, we relativize scale degrees and C D E F G becomes 1 2 3 4 5. Easy!

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)

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

At first, you should learn the 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 guitar scales) with a solid foundation. If you have any kind of question, please ask it at the bottom of the page.

The VIDEO - Is This Jazz Education?!?

Before going any further, just watch this video. Not too much jazz theory, I promise! Basically, I demonstrate the three basic chords, scales and arpeggios sounds needed for jazz guitar improvisation on a basic II-V-I cadence.

This means that every chord in the sequence gets assigned exactly one scale. Pretty neat, uh?

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 scales in jazz. Are you ready for this? :-)

The 3 "Biggies": Major, Minor and Dominant

Jazz Scales: Formulas for 3 Basic Scales

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 (Dorian) 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.

Learn Jazz Improvisation: 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 major: C D E F G A B

C mixolydian: C D E F G A Bb

C Dorian: C D Eb F G A Bb

I strongly 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 guitar scales on your instrument now!

Jazz Scales 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.

Jazz Guitar Tips to Get Going With JazzScales

Here's a series of videos (a YouTube playlist) to help you, step by step, on how to get started with everything that has been discussed on this page:



Some Practice Steps [pick one of the three scales above]

  • In *any* fingering: play the chosen scale from degrees 1 to 7 and back down. ONLY from 1 to 7, so in C major, you would play C D E F G A B.
  • Repeat in a few keys around the instrument / fretboard. Go slow, get accustomed to the sound.
  • Learn the scale starting on string 6 (biggest) string
  • Then learn the same scale starting 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. Not more. Don't learn everything in all positions (not yet!)
  • You'll want to do that previous step carefully for each scale, because when the formula changes, so do the fingerings!
  • Practice the scale from degrees 1 to 7 and back down 7 to 1 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)

For the last three steps above: play in time!!! I highly recommend setting the metronome on 2&4, like shown in this video.

More Practice Steps to Learning Jazz Improv

You need to know the scales independently (shown above) of one another to tackle these below. More challenging stuff, but still doable with patience.

We are going to be 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:

On the progression 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

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

Last but not least, 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 to learn jazz improvisation.

Confused while learning jazz improvisation? Please ask your questions at the bottom of this page.

You May Also be Interested in Related Pages

  • 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!

Learn jazz improvisation


With some scales under your belt, try your hand at some improv with our FREE guide!

This guide will teach you the very basics of jazz improv covering subjects such as outlining the changes, hitting the right notes, and most importantly making music. We’ll cover the basics with you and take you through an actual jazz standard showing you how to play over it!

beginners guide to improv w store background


Have a Question or Comment?

Do you have a question about anything discussed in this article? Ask it here, in the comments below!