Jazz Scales – The Complete Guide

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
14:36

Learning Focus
  • Practice Tips
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
  • Smooth Jazz
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If you’re newer to jazz, you’ve probably been overwhelmed with all the possible scale options thrown at you. In fact, there are hundreds of scales and modes you could use in your improvisations! Wouldn’t it be great to have some kind of handy list or guide to help you learn only the most important and best jazz scales to use over each chord all in 1 place?  That’s why we created this complete guide to jazz piano scales.

Many jazz players relate certain chord types with certain scales to make improvisation easier. We tend to call this idea the chord-scale theory. We could go on and on about this topic, but let’s focus on the 3 most common chords in jazz, and discuss scale options for each one so that you can always have them as options to infuse into your soloing.

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • The 3 most common chords in jazz
  • 2 scales to use on each chord: 1 standard scale and 1 more jazzy scale
  • Combining all the chords and scales in the most common jazz chord progression: the 2-5-1
  • Bonus soloing tips and tricks along the way
  • Several improv backing tracks and jazz scales complete guide PDF included

Let’s go play some jazz!

Getting Ready: Learn The 3 Most Common Chords in Jazz Piano

It might not seem readily obvious, but there actually aren’t that many chords in jazz. Don’t be fooled by all the 13’s and #11’s that are added to a chord, as they don’t actually have any impact on the underlying chord type. We can basically boil down traditional jazz into 3 chords (we’ll discuss more on the why later):

Major 7th Chords

How to construct a C major 7th chord
How to construct a C major 7th chord

A major 7th chord is a major triad, with a 7th that is only a half step below the root.

Minor 7th Chords

How to construct a D minor 7th chord
How to construct a D minor 7th chord

A minor 7th chord is a minor triad, with a 7th a whole step below the root.

Dominant 7th Chords

How to construct a G dominant 7th chord
How to construct a G dominant 7th chord

A dominant 7th chord is a major triad, with a 7th a whole step below the root.

TIP: When getting familiar with these chords, it’s a good idea to play them in many different keys. For example, if you are learning major 7th chords, don’t just learn C major 7th. There are 11 other major 7th chords on the piano that exist!

These chords, by far make up 90% or more of jazz! If you want a deeper dive into these chords and other chord types in jazz, then check Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Tract.

Jazz Piano Scales for Major 7th Chords

First on our complete guide to jazz scales is the Major 7th chord. Believe it or not, if you’re playing a major 7th chord in jazz, one of the best scales to use is simply the major scale.

1. Major Scale

The C major scale to solo over a C major 7th chord
The C major scale to solo over a C major 7th chord

2. Lydian Scale

The C Lydian scale to solo over a C major 7th chord
The C Lydian scale to solo over a C major 7th chord

If you want a more colorful scale option to use over major 7th chords, try the Lydian scale. It’s like a major scale with a raised 4th degree. This will produce an almost “dream-like” quality.

Tip: Try practicing each one of these scales and improvising with them over the backing tracks at the bottom of this page. Start with the simpler scale option first and then try using the more jazzy scale. We’ll outline some basic improv techniques at the end of the lesson.

Jazz Piano Scales For Minor 7th Chords

The most go-to scale in jazz for minor 7th chords is actually what we call a Dorian scale. This scale is also often referred to as one of the modes, or the Dorian mode.

1. The Dorian Scale

The D Dorian scale to solo over a D minor 7th chord
The D Dorian scale to solo over a D minor 7th chord

There are two ways to remember the construction of a D Dorian scale.

1.In the case of D Dorian, it’s all white keys. So it’s basically like C major but starting on D.

2. Start with a D major scale and follow the formula of lowering the 3rd and 7th degrees of the scale. 

2.Minor Bebop Scale

The D minor bebop scale to solo over D minor 7th chord
The D minor bebop scale to solo over D minor 7th chord

Bebop scales are neat scale options that exist for each chord type. They are meant to accent the chords’ main chord tones. Thus they always contain 8 notes.

Notice: As you can see, the C# in the scale clashes against the C natural in the chord. While it can be considered a nice “jazz crunch,” it’s still a note to treat with consideration.

Jazz Piano Scales For Dominant 7th Chords

For dominant 7th chords, we typically will use a Mixolydian scale. It’s another example of a modal scale.

1. Mixolydian Scale

The G Mixolydian scale to solo over a G dominant 7th chord
The G Mixolydian scale to solo over a G dominant 7th chord

Again, there are 2 ways to come about a G Mixolydian Scale:

  1. Play a C scale, but starting on G. Use all white keys.
  2. Play a G major scale but with a b7.

2.Dominant Diminished Scale

The G dominant diminished scale to solo over G dominant 7th chord
The G dominant diminished scale to solo over G dominant 7th chord

The dominant diminished is definitely one of the best and most colorful scales to use over a dominant 7th chord. Sometimes it’s called a half-whole diminished scale, or the octatonic scale.

Constructing a dominant diminished scale is actually pretty easy! You can start on the note G and simply go up a half step, then a whole step. Then you can repeat alternating half steps then whole steps all the way up until the next G.

This dominant diminished scale is great because it not only hits all the chord tones of the dominant 7th but also many chord alterations (b9,#9,#11) and the 13th, which is a chord extension of a dominant 7th chord.

Putting It All Together

Our last stop in our complete guide to jazz scales journey is going to be combining all the chords and scales in jazz’s most famous chord progression: the 2-5-1. It’s so important to be able to play and use these scales on common chord progressions.

A 2-5-1 (ii-V-I) chord progression in C major
A 2-5-1 (ii-V-I) chord progression in C major

In the key of C, the 2-5-1 progression will be chords Dmi7-G7-Cmaj7. These are all the exact chord types we just talked about! Now you should know exactly how to improvise over each one of those chords. Be sure to solo over them with the backing track below. Remember when playing with the track the 1 chord (C major) will last 2 bars long, while the other chords will only be 1 bar each.

TIP: When starting to use all the scales over the 2-5-1, start with using only white notes over all of them (think C major, the overall key). That’ll cover D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and C major scales. Then start slowly incorporating the other scales as well.

Tips For Jazz Piano Soloing And Improvising With Scales

1.Try walking between notes of the scale, making stepwise melodies

Improvisation technique #1, make solos by moving stepwise along the scale, making melodies
Improvisation technique #1, make solos by moving stepwise along the scale, making melodies

2. Skip notes, especially 3rds

Improvisation Technique #2, skip notes in the scale for a nice contrast from stepwise motion
Improvisation Technique #2, skip notes in the scale for a nice contrast from stepwise motion

3. Play 7th chord structures on chord tones (stack a group of 4 thirds on top of a chord tone)

Improvisation technique #3, playing 7th chord structures on chord tones by stacking 3rds
Improvisation technique #3, playing 7th chord structures on chord tones by stacking 3rds

4. Use turns, which are quick alternations of a chord tone with a note directly above it.

Improvisation Technique #4, the turn technique
Improvisation Technique #4, the turn technique

I hope you’ve enjoyed the complete guide to jazz scales on the piano! Be sure to check out the backing tracks and the downloadable PDF jazz scales guide below. There’s also smart sheet music available that transposes into any key you’d like.

If you want an even deeper dive into this topic and chord-scale theory, then check out just some of the courses here at Piano With Jonny:

That’s it for this Quick Tip. Until next time!

Blog written by Daine Jordan/Quick Tip by Jonny May

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