Playing Jazz using Chord Notes versus Scales

Question by Al
(Los Angeles, California)

Hi Marc,

I’ve conversed with a well known studio musician (late ’50s through early 70s) in Hollywood. He was on the very high list of studio bass players calls (“who’s who” list of the top record hits of that era).

This anonymous musician is in his mid 70s, still teaches and writes music books {…} and was once ask to join the George Shearing Orchestra. He does not believe in using strictly scales to learn how to improvise in jazz. He said that, in the 1950s, nobody did: they concentrated on the chords, that is, the chord notes {…}.


I’ve heard of chordal notes, target notes, but I know you can make something of scales and chords, there is a relationship going on. From what I understand, in the 30s, 40s so-called “standard tunes” were made up from the songs’ chord progressions (as in “All The Things You Are” for example.)

Well, I am not sure because I know Miles Davis used modal scales in that album “Kind of Blue”. Plus jazz evolved through the years… i.e. “jazz fusion” where modal scales are also being used. But what I’m talking about (and so is this anonymous musician) is of the older jazz musicians and how they learned the jazz music.

This musician says: “Don’t concentrate on scales. It’s all in the chord notes and phrasing.”

He sell books, cds and dvds along with some Joe Pass Chord books to get into playing jazz the way it was taught and is very negative about how it is being taught nowadays.

So my question is:

What do you think of concentrating on the jazz tune’s chordal progression and concentrating on the notes and jazz phrasing as opposing to scales on improvising?


M-A’s Answer

Hello Al,

That is a question for the ages!  “Should I do A or B?”

As always, my answer is definitely: Why not do both?! Why limit yourself?!

I believe musicians exposed to two different approaches in solving a musical obstacle can always benefit from experimenting with both “solutions”.

In this case the problem is “Creating and playing improvised melodic lines spontaneously over chord progressions.”

You goal should be to experiment with one aspect, and then the other, and see where it goes, so to speak. I’m sure you could also play beautiful, deep improvisations by mixing the two approaches.

In the end, you may prefer to stick with only the “scales” approach (or with the “chord tones” approach) … and it doesn’t really matter. What’s really important is that you make a conscious choice vis-a-vis your artistic vision.


Scales + Arpeggios Review

I slightly understand what this older, anonymous musician might be thinking:

“If you play only scales (like they teach in college), you completely blanket the chord and lose all sense of resolutions. It’s better to learn the notes found in chords first and then make music out of that… etc.”

But in the end, scales and chord-notes are really the very same thing: seven diatonic “good notes” that delineate a sense of tonality (or modality, if you prefer) in the human ear.

Here’s why: Look at F mixolydian scale and arpeggio (would be used on a F dominant 7th chord).

They both contain the notes F G A Bb C D Eb

So, whether you “axe” your whole playing around scales (horizontal) or chord-tones (vertical)… the same seven notes are still there! It’s true, though, that the latter is associated with swing and other “pre-bop” types of improvisations while mostly scale content became prominent with the bebop wave of the 1940’s and 1950’s.


Thought: Ying Yang

One last thing: while improvising, if the musician keeps thinking only “on one side”, then the opposite approach will soon make his way into the music. It’s a simple matter of balance.

For example: I’m taking a solo on “All the Things…” and I’m thinking solely about the scales.

What’s happening?

My scales have to resolve properly on the
right chord-tones to make the lines sound good!

On the other hand: I’m taking a solo on “All the Things…” and I’m thinking solely about chord-notes.

What’s happening?

Some passing notes and embellishments are necessary to connect the chord-tones … and they’re coming from some scales!

To conclude:

Being informed (or at least aware ) of both scalar and chord-tones approaches is essential to the modern improvising musician. It’s simply best to have more than one “take” on any given subject in general…

Good music is not only about one thing, it’s about “All the Things…” 😉

I hope this helps,

Practice Well,
Marc-Andre Seguin

Old Comments for Playing Jazz using Chord Notes versus Scales

Jul 10, 2010
Thanks for valued reply!
by: Al

Thank you Marc for the reply it sheds some light on improvising, that is, chord Notes versus scales.

This older musician educator by the way is [a she not a he] and well known bass player in the 60s early 70s Hollywood studios.

It’s not too hard at all to figure who she is, but I will not name her. She strongly believes not using scales in learning bass/guitar… it is the way she was taught in the late 40s and early 50s during the Bebop era … jazz guitar playing and jazz playing in general.

Though I was somewhat confused by teaching almost strictly chordal notes to jazz improvising instead of scales which in my limited musical knowledge I would think they interweave.
Your explanation is most helpful, many thanks,
Best regards,

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