Jazz Guitar Scales - Where The Heck Do I Start?

Are you learning jazz but don't know what jazz guitar scales you need to master first? Are you overwhelmed with how many jazz guitar scales you need to learn? If you answered yes to either question, then you are in the right place! :-)


Where Jazz Guitar Scales Are Used

This might be stating the totally obvious, but I'll say it anyway. Jazz guitar scales are used to solo over jazz chord progressions. It's hardly an earth-shattering statement, but it does bring up a really good point…

To find out what jazz guitar scales you need to learn, you first need to think of what chord progressions you are going to solo over.

There's absolutely no point learning certain scales if you are never going to use them. So let's take a look at one of the most common jazz chord progressions. This chord progression  is probably found in hundreds (if not thousands) of jazz standards…


The Major II-V-I Progression

Here is a II-V-I progression in the key of C major…

II-V-I In The Key Of C Major

We have a D minor 7th chord, followed by a G Dominant 7th chord, followed by a C Major 7th chord.

At this point I don't want to go into the theory behind this chord progression. Let's just say for now, that if you learn to solo fluently over major II-V-I progressions, then you are well on your way to soloing fluently in a jazz style!

Here is a table showing you the major II-V-I progression written out in all keys…

II-V-I Progressions In All Keys


Jazz Guitar Scales Used Over The II-V-I Progression

For each chord in the II-V-I progression there are MANY possible scales choices. But the purpose of this article is to help you learn the most essential scales.

Because of this, I will only give you the most common jazz guitar scales used….

The II Chord:

Three incredibly common jazz guitar scales that can be used over this chord include…

  • Dorian Mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
  • Minor Pentatonic: 1 b3 4 5 b7
  • Minor Blues Scale: 1 b3 4 b5 5 b7

So, using our example progression, if we were soloing over the Dmin7 chord we could use one of the three following scales…

  • D Dorian: D E F G A B C
  • D Minor Pentatonic: D F G A C
  • D Minor Blues Scale: D F G Ab A C

I recommend learning D Dorian first. Once it is mastered, then feel free to learn the other two scales.

The V Chord:

Some common scales that you could use over the V chord include…

  • Mixolydian Mode: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
  • Lydian Dominant: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 b7
  • Bebop Scale: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 7
  • Half-Whole Diminished: 1 b2 #2 3 #4 5 6 b7
  • Altered Scale: 1 b2 #2 3 b5 #5 b7

Using our example chord progression, over the Gdom7 chord you could use…

  • G Mixolydian: G A B C D E F
  • G Lydian Dominant: G A B C# D E F
  • G Bebop Scale: G A B C D E F F#
  • G Half-Whole Diminished: G Ab A# B C# D E F
  • G Altered Scale: G Ab A# B Db D# F

I highly recommend learning G Mixolydian first. It sounds a bit bland compared to the other scales. But you have to run before you can walk! :-)

The I Chord:

Probably the three most common scales used over this chord are…

  • Major: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
  • Major Pentatonic: 1 2 3 5 6
  • Lydian Mode: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

If we use the example chord progression, over the Cmaj7 chord we could use…

  • C Major: C D E F G A B
  • C Major Pentatonic: C D E G A
  • C Lydian Mode: C D E F# G A B

I recommend learning the C Major scale first.


Jazz Guitar Scales Suddenly Become Less Daunting

Notice that we have done a three step process:

  1. We have chosen a common jazz chord progression.
  2. We have listed all the common jazz guitar scales that would work over each chord in the progression.
  3. We have chosen ONE scale for each chord.

This approach really helps you to organize your jazz guitar scale practice. It also makes the task of learning scales a whole heap less intimidating! Rather than thinking you have to learn a billion scales, suddenly you have only a few to learn. Once you've mastered those "bread-and-butter" scales you can then move onto the other ones.

 Work hard at this stuff, and I'll catch you next time.

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