5 Scales to Improvise on Major Chords
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Have you ever felt stuck when improvising over major chords? Of course, you can draw on the major scale, but that often sounds a bit bland and repetitive. Well, in today’s Quick Tip, Jonny demonstrates 5 alternate scales to improvise on major chords that sound amazing! These 5 scales are game changers for piano students seeking to improvise with a professional sound on major chords. You’ll learn:
- Why Not Just Improvise with Major Scales on Major Chords?
- 5 Alternate Scales to Improvise on Major Chords that Sound Amazing
Are you ready for a major change in your playing?
The major scale is typically the first scale that piano students learn, and it is foundational to Western music. In fact, the sound of the major scale is so familiar that it can be somewhat tiresome as an improv scale.
C Major Scale
This is not to say that professional pianists never use major scales when soloing. If fact, we have two full-length courses here at PWJ on How to Improvise a Solo with the Major Scale (Beg/Int, Int/Adv). Inside these courses, Jonny demonstrates specific pro tips that advanced players use to create unique and intriguing solos with major scales. If you haven’t checked out these courses yet, you’ll likely be surprised by just how good a single major scale can sound. However, in today’s lesson, we’ll explore 5 alternative scales that you can use to improvise on major chords.
So, just what are these alternate scales to improvise and major chords and how do they work? Well, technically any scale that contains a major 3rd and a perfect 5th above the tonic can work to improvise on major chords. In fact, an improv scale doesn’t even necessarily need to contain these chord tones in order to be effective. For example, the “Heaven Scale” in today’s lesson does not have any 3rd above the root at all.
In reality, an effective improv scale contains a mixture of chord tones and available tensions. Some improv scales may even contain a limited number of avoid notes. These terms are defined below:
- chord tone: the individual notes of a chord (ie: C major = C, E, and G)
- available tension: a non-chord tone that complements the sonic properties of a chord. Generally, available tensions are a whole step above a chord tone.
- avoid note: a non-chord tone that conflicts with a chord’s harmonic character. Generally, any note that is a ½ step above a chord tone.
Some of the improv scales in today’s lesson contain avoid notes based on the definition above. Keep in mind, avoid notes are not “forbidden notes.” In reality, most avoid notes sound just fine when used as passing notes or neighboring notes. In other words, an avoid note sounds less jarring when it resolves to a chord tone or available tension and occurs on a weak beat. Don’t worry if this sounds confusing right now. Frankly, after playing and listening to the exercises and examples in today’s lesson, you’ll have a pretty good grasp on how to handle avoid notes.
For a deep dive on how to use avoid notes in your improv lines, check out Pro Piano Improv with the Chromatic Scale (Intermediate).
Before we unpack the 5 scales to improvise over major chords, let’s first lay a foundation to support our solo lines. This section contains 5 accompaniment patterns that we’ll use with today’s improv scales. The accompaniment patterns are organized into two categories: contemporary pop patterns and jazz swing patterns. All of the examples imply a harmony of C major.
Contemporary Pop Patterns
The following 8th note accompaniment patterns are called “broken chord” patterns because they present the chord tones one note at a time. These patterns are suitable for ballad tempos of ranging from 50–90 BPM.
In the contemporary pop style, it is appropriate to apply the sustain pedal for a more legato sound. The Italian word legato literally means “tied together” and calls for a smooth and connected texture. However, it is important to “clear the pedal” frequently by lifting and reapplying it. Otherwise, your playing will sound mushy and muddy. As a general rule, you should clear the pedal every time the chord changes. However, since today’s lesson features only one chord, you can simply clear the pedal at the beginning of each measure.
For a more in-depth discussion on how to use the pedals on a piano, check out our course on Piano Pedaling Essentials (All Levels).
Beginner Broken Chord Pattern
If you are an intermediate level player, you may prefer the next pattern which distributes the chord tones over a wider range for a fuller sound.
Intermediate Broken Chord Pattern
You can also play an accompaniment pattern that essentially combines the previous pattens. For example, in the opening of today’s Quick Tip video lesson, Jonny plays the following left hand accompaniment.
Late Intermediate Broken Chord Pattern
For even more pop accompaniment textures, check out our Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment Patterns (Beg/Int, Int/Adv) courses.
Next, let’s explore some jazz swing accompaniment patterns.
Jazz Swing Patterns
Some improv scales in today’s lesson are most commonly used in the jazz swing style. Therefore, we’ll have included two swing accompaniment patterns. These accompaniments are played without pedaling.
The first swing accompaniment pattern uses a C6 chord (pronounced “C major 6”) and features a groove known the Charleston rhythm, named after James P. Johnson’s famous 1923 composition.
Beginner Jazz Swing Pattern
If you are a more experienced player, you may also use the next pattern. This accompaniment features the Charleston rhythm also, but applies a “root-to-chord” technique. In addition, professional pianists will occasionally drop in the 5th of the chord on the “and of 4” to further enhance the swing feel.
Intermediate Jazz Swing Pattern
Alright, now let’s get into our 5 scales to improvise on major chords.
In today’s Quick Tip video, Jonny presents 5 scales to improvise on major chords that sound amazing. These scales include:
- The Heaven Scale
- The Lydian Scale
- The Major Blues Scale
- The Mixo-Blues Scale
- The Major Bebop Scale
We consider 4 Learning Focuses for each of the improv scales above:
- Examine: how to construct the scale.
- Explore: a starting point for improv using fixed hand positions called ‘grips.’
- Exercises: helpful drills to get the scale in your ears and fingers.
- Example: a sample improvisation that draws exclusively on the featured improv scale.
Today’s lesson includes a companion PDF lesson sheet and 2 backing tracks for play-along practice. These resources are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
The “Heaven Scale” is one of Jonny’s favorites improv scales to use on major chords in the contemporary pop style. This scale has a beautiful sound that emphasizes some of the most beautiful colors of the major scale.
Use the following links to quickly navigate to a particular Learning Focus for the Heaven Scale:
- Examine the Heaven Scale
- Explore the Heaven Scale
- Exercises for the Heaven Scale
- Example of Heaven Scale Improvisation
To construct the Heaven Scale, simply use the following four scale tones from a major scale: 1-2-5-7. Therefore, the notes of the Heaven Scale for a C major chord are C,D,G and B. Let’s take a listen:
C Heaven Scale
The notes of the Heaven Scale imply a C▵9 sound (pronounced “C major 9). This chord includes the notes C–E–G–B–D. However, it isn’t necessary for a C▵9 chord symbol to appear in order for you to improvise with this sound. In fact, the Heaven Scale sounds great in most pop settings in which you have a basic major triad in the left hand.
When it comes to improvising with the Heaven Scale, Jonny actually doesn’t suggest the scale formation of 1-2-5-7 as a starting point. Instead, the two grips shown below have a much more natural hand shape. In addition, both of these grips invert the major 7th interval (C→B) into its compliment, a minor 2nd (B→C). This ½ step interval produces melodic lines with intriguing beauty.
As a starting point for improvisation with the Heaven Scale, try creating lines by restricting yourself to following grips, one at a time.
Let’s play some piano exercises with the Heaven Scale. The first exercise covers a span of two octaves using 8th notes and is geared toward beginner students.
Heaven Scale 8th Note Exercise: D Grip
Next, try playing a similar 8th note exercise using the B Grip, B–C–D–G, using the fingering 1–2–3–5.
If you are a more experienced pianist, you can cycle through the notes of the Heaven Scale twice as fast using 16th notes. The following D Grip exercise spans four octaves.
Heaven Scale 16th Note Exercise: D Grip
Next, try playing the same 16th note exercise with the B Grip, beginning on the B below middle C.
You can also practice playing the following Heaven Scale exercise that alternates between D Grips and B Grips.
Heaven Scale 16th Note Exercise: Alternating Grips
Now that you have some comfort and proficiency playing the Heaven Scale in different shapes, rhythms and registers, you are ready to improvise with this sound. Jonny frequently shares the following helpful line building tips: (1) try starting on different notes, (2) try starting on different beats, and (3) try starting in different directions. In addition, be sure to leave little gaps between each idea. Here is one example of how you might improvise with the Heaven Scale using the techniques we’ve covered:
Heaven Scale Sample Piano Improvisation
If you like the sound of the Heaven Scale, be sure to check out the following related resource, which is one of our most popular Quick Tips: The Most Beautiful Piano Chord, the Heaven Chord
The Lydian Scale creates beautiful major piano sounds with a magical quality. In fact, film composers such as John Williams and Hans Zimmer frequently draw on the Lydian mode to create a sense of magic, mystery or hope.
Use the following links to quickly navigate to a particular Learning Focus for the Lydian Scale:
- Examine the Lydian Scale
- Explore the Lydian Scale
- Exercises for the Lydian Scale
- Example of Lydian Scale Improvisation
An easy way to construct any Lydian scale is to start with a major scale and raise the 4th note a ½ step. This is called a “#4” for short. (However, keep in mind that if you are in a flat key like F major, raising the fourth tone a ½ step requires ♮ rather than a #.) Here is the C Lydian Scale:
C Lydian Scale
Did you notice that the C Lydian scale only has one sharp (F♯)? If you are familiar with all your major scales, you might be inclined to think of the C Lydian scale as a G major scale that begins on C. In fact, that is exactly where this scale originates. That is, G major is the source scale or parent scale for C Lydian. To use the terminology of music theory, we say that the Lydian sound is the 4th mode of the major scale. For a deep dive on musical modes, check out our Piano Musical Modes—The Complete Guide (Intermediate).
The diagram below shows two grips that form helpful starting points for improvising with the C Lydian Scale. First, we have the C Grip (C–D–E–F♯–G), which uses the first five notes of the scale: 1–2–3–♯4–5. Secondly, the G Grip (G–A–B–C–D) uses scale tones 5–6–7–1–2.
As a starting point for improvisation with the Lydian Scale, try creating lines by restricting yourself to following grips, one at a time.
Let’s play some exercises with the Lydian Scale. One particularly effective technique that emphasizes the magical character of the Lydian mode is melodic 3rds. This compositional technique uses a repeating melodic shape that skips up and steps down over and over. Of course, the opposite movement (skip down, step up) is also melodic 3rds.
The first exercise below is perfect for beginners and features melodic 3rds fixed within each grip using 8th notes.
C Lydian 8th Note Exercise
Intermediate and advanced pianists can also play a Lydian exercise that features melodic 3rds arranged in 16th notes, as in the following example.
C Lydian 16th Notes Exercise
Once you have played the Lydian Scale with different grips, patterns and rhythms, you are ready to improvise with this sound. Here is one example of piano improv with the C Lydian Scale:
C Lydian Sample Piano Improvisation
When you want a more upbeat improv sound with a touch of blues, the Major Blues Scale is the perfect choice. This versatile scale is equally at home in blues, jazz, gospel, soul, R&B, funk and pop styles.
Use the following links to quickly navigate to a particular Learning Focus for the Major Blues Scale:
- Examine the Major Blues Scale
- Explore the Major Blues Scale
- Exercises for the Major Blues Scale
- Example of Major Blues Scale Improvisation
Often times in music education, techniques that are popular across widespread genres tend to develop different names. Such is the case with the Major Blues Scale. For example, this popular improv scale is also called the Gospel Scale and the Pentatonic ♭3 Scale.
To construct this scale, use the following tones from the major scale: 1–2–♯2–3–5–6. Note, sometimes it may be written enharmonically as 1–2–♭3–♮3–5–6. The direction of the melody usually determines whether the “blue note” is notated as a ♯2 or a ♭3. For example, ascending lines will favor the ♯2 spelling, whereas descending lines will commonly use the ♭3 spelling. The example below shows the C Major Blues Scale.
C Major Blues Scale
The following example shows two grips that form helpful starting points for improvising with the C Major Blues Scale. First, we have the C Grip (C–D–E♭) which uses the first three scale tones: 1–2–♭3. Next, the E Grip (E♮–G–A) uses the last three scale tones: ♮3–5–6.
As a starting point for improvisation with the Major Blues Scale, try creating lines by restricting yourself to following grips, one at a time.
Let’s play some exercises with the Major Blues Scale. For this improv scale, we’ll use our beginner jazz swing accompaniment pattern. The first exercise below features catchy ascending and descending 8th notes lines with a unique contour.
Major Blues Scale 8th Note Exercise
More experience players will love playing the following exercise which features three different harmonized turns on the Major Blues Scale.
Major Blues Scale Harmonized Turn Exercise
Once you have explored the Major Blues Scale in each grip and worked through the exercises above, you are ready to step out and begin improvising with this sound. Here is an example of piano improv lines drawn exclusively from the C Major Blues Scale:
Major Blues Scale Sample Piano Improvisation
To learn even more captivating improv tips and tricks with the Major Blues Scale, check out our complete courses on The Major Blues Scale / Gospel Scale (Int, Int/Adv). These courses are packed with professional improv sounds including 8th notes, triplets, slides, turns, rolls, harmonized grips, gospel connectors and more!
For some playing situations resting a bed of major chords, you may want an even more bluesy sound. In such cases, the Mixo-Blues Scale is just what the doctor ordered. In fact, the Mixo-Blues Scale provides the underpinning for many of the infectious blues licks associated with New Orleans pianists such as Dr. John, Fats Domino, and Professor Longhair.
Use the following links to quickly navigate to a particular Learning Focus for the Mixo-Blues Scale:
- Examine the Mixo-Blues Scale
- Explore the Mixo-Blues Scale
- Exercises for the Mixo-Blues Scale
- Example of Mixo-Blues Scale Improvisation
The Mixo-Blues Scale is a hybrid scale which derives its name by combining the Mixolydian Scale (C–D–E–F –G–A–B♭) with the Minor Blues Scale (C–E♭–F–F♯–G–B♭). Another way to think of this hybrid scale is that it combines the notes of the Major Blues Scale (C–D–D♯–E –G–A) with the notes of the Minor Blues Scale. Either way, you get the same 9 notes: C–D–D♯–E–F–F♯–G–A–B♭.
To construct this scale in any key, use the following tones from the corresponding major scale: 1–2–♯2–3–4–♯4–5–6–♭7. Here is the C Mixo-Blues Scale:
C Mixo-Blues Scale
The diagram below shows three grips that form helpful starting points for improvising with the C Mixo-Blues Scale. First, we have the C Grip (C–D–E♭) which uses the first three tones of the scale: 1–2–♭3. Secondly, the E Grip (E–F–G♭) uses the middle three scale tones: ♮3–4–♭5. Finally, the G Grip (G–A–B♭) uses the last three scale tones: 5–6–♭7.
As a starting point for improv with the Mixo-Blues Scale, try creating lines by restricting yourself to following grips, one at a time.
Let’s play some exercises with the Mixo-Blues Scale. The first exercise below arranges the scale in ascending and descending 8th notes over our beginner jazz swing accompaniment pattern.
Mixo-Blues Scale 8th Note Exercise
The next exercise, while not particularly difficult, will go a long way in helping you to play lines with the Mixo-Blues Scale that don’t sound aimless. This is achieved by targeting chord tones of a C major triad on beat 3, a metrically strong beat.
Mixo-Blues Scale Target Tone Exercise
Once you have explored the C Mixo-Blues Scale in each grip and worked through the exercises above, you are ready improve with this sound. For example, here is a bluesy improv line that draws exclusively on the C Mixo-Blues Scale:
Mixo-Blues Scale Sample Piano Improvisation
To master even more catchy professional piano licks with the Mixo-Blues Scale, check out our popular Quick Tip on New Orleans Piano—The Complete Guide (Intermediate).
For jazz piano improv on major chords, the sound of the Major Bebop Scale is a preferred choice. This tasty jazz improv scale adds just a touch of chromaticism to the sound of the major scale.
Use the following links to quickly navigate to a particular Learning Focus for the Major Bebop Scale:
- Examine the Major Bebop Scale
- Explore the Major Bebop Scale
- Exercises for the Major Bebop Scale
- Example of Major Bebop Scale Improvisation
The Major Bebop Scale is essentially a major scale with a chromatic passing tone between the 5th and 6th scale degrees. To construct this scale, simply modify a major scale using the following scale formula: 1-2-3-4-5-♯5-6-7.
Another name for this scale is the Major 6th-Diminished Scale because this 8-note scale combines the notes of two 4-note chords: a major 6th chord (C–E–G–A) and a diminished 7th chord (B–D–F–A♭). For example, here is the C Major Bebop Scale:
C Major Bebop Scale
The diagram below shows three grips that form helpful starting points for improvising with the C Major Bebop Scale. First, we have the C Grip (C–D–E), which uses the first three scale tones: 1–2–3. Secondly, the F Grip (F–G–A♭) uses the next three scale tones: 4–5–♭6. Finally, the A Grip (A♮–B) use the last two scale tones: 6–7.
As a starting point for improvisation with the Major Bebop Scale, try creating lines by restricting yourself to following grips, one at a time.
Let’s play some exercises with the Major Bebop Scale. The first exercise uses 8th notes pairs of adjacent chord tones from C6 on the strong beats, that is, beats 1 and 3. Then, the weak beats feature pairs of 8th notes from B°7. Furthermore, the 8th notes on beats 2 and 4 employ a specific jazz phrasing technique called enclosure which precedes a target note with its upper and lower neighbors (or vice versa). For example, in measure 1, the notes F and D on beat 2 are upper and lower neighbors which “enclose” the target note E on beat 3.
Major Bebop Scale Enclosure Exercise
The next exercise further develops the idea behind the previous exercise by outlining all four notes of C6 on beats 1 and 2 and then outlining a B°7 chord on beats 3 and 4. Just like the previous exercise, the melodic contour of this exercise also features jazz enclosures. Throughout this exercise, the C6 in the accompaniment on the “and of 2” is played short to avoid a clash with the chord tones of B°7 on beats 3 and 4.
Major Bebop Scale 6th-Diminished Exercise
After you have explored the Major Bebop Scale in each grip and worked through the exercises above, you are ready to begin improvising with this sound. Here is a transcription of one of Jonny’s improv lines that draws on the C Major Bebop Scale:
Major Bebop Scale Sample Piano Improvisation
To learn additional jazz improv techniques with bebop scales, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Bebop Scales (Advanced).
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on 5 Scales to Improvise on Major Chords! In completing this survey on these 5 essential improv scales, you have learned how professional pianists approach various playing situations which require soloing over major chords. In addition, you can now further pursue your favorite scales from today’s lesson in the corresponding courses available to PWJ members.
Additional Scales to Improvise on Other Chords
- Scales for Improv on Major and Minor Chords (Beg/Int)
- Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Int/Adv)
- How to Improvise a Solo with the Dorian Mode (Int, Adv)
- How to Improvise a Solo with the Mixolydian Mode (Int, Adv)
- How to Improvise a Solo with the Aeolian Mode (Int, Adv)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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