The Best Scale to Improvise Jazz Piano
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Are you a closet improvisor? This is someone who desperately wants to express themself at the piano but is horrified to let anyone hear them attempt to improvise because of lack of confidence, knowledge or experience. In today’s Quick Tip, I am going to show you a beginner jazz piano scale used by pros and amateurs alike that will give you the knowledge and confidence you need to come out of the closet with your improv and sound amazing! You’ll learn:
- The Gospel Scale
- 1 Transformational Scale Exercise
- 6 Gospel Scale Improv Applications
- 4 Chord Shells for Accompaniment
If you are a beginner improvisor, this is absolutely the place to start. That’s because, unlike other scales, the Gospel Scale sounds great in virtually any style—swing, Latin, stride, pop, blues. Intermediate and advanced students will also appreciate the exercises in this Quick Tip as prompting for curiosity and exploration.
So let’s get started…and leave the door open!
Beginner Jazz Piano Scale
The Gospel Scale is a beginner jazz piano scale commonly relied on by performers and educators alike because of it’s versatility and simplicity. It’s like the Swiss Army knife of improv tools. For today’s Quick Tip, we will be in the key of C Major, so let’s take a look at the C Gospel Scale.
What is the Gospel Scale?
The Gospel Scale is a 6-note scale consisting of the notes C D Eb E G A. It is constructed from the following tones of the Major scale: 1-2-♭3-3-5-6.
If you’ve had jazz piano lessons before, you may have come across the notes of this scale by another name. This scale is sometimes called The Major Blues Scale, because it features both the Major 3rd (the note “E”) and the bluesy minor 3rd (the note “E♭”)—hence its name “major blues.” This scale also includes all of the notes of a C Pentatonic Scale (C D E G A) with an additional♭3 (the E♭), so some people call it the Pentatonic♭3 Scale. Another way jazz musicians commonly refer to this scale is as an A Blues Scale. That’s because an A Blues Scale contains all the same notes, even though it begins on A instead.
Since each of these titles are different ways of referring to the same notes, you might be wondering, which one is correct? Actually, each name subtly suggests a slightly different way of understanding how the notes are arranged and how they can be used together. Let’s look at each synonym for this scale individually.
C Major Blues Scale
Those who refer to this scale as a Major Blues Scale are conscious of its duality as simultaneously Major (♮3) and blue (♭3). They are careful not to be misunderstood as referring to the traditional “blues scale” (1-♭3 -4-♯4-5-♭7) which is unapologetically minor.
C Pentatonic♭3 Scale
You might be wondering why anyone would call this collection of six notes a “Pentatonic♭3 Scale” since everyone who has had basic geometry knows the prefix penta means “five.” However, this label is more intuitive than it first appears. Actually, a Pentatonic Scale does have five notes, as shown below.
Musicians who refer this Quick Tip’s focal scale as a “Pentatonic ♭3 Scale” are considering it as a modification of the traditional pentatonic scale shown above. This way of understanding the scale captures a nuance that other name designations overlook—that the♭3 frequently serves an ornamental role in licks and riffs that are otherwise essentially pentatonic in nature. The notation below grasps the essence of what this name designation implies.
A Blues Scale
You also might wonder why anyone would improvise in C Major and be thinking of a blues scale on A. In many respects this is too confusing for most beginners. However, there is long-standing tradition behind classifying these six notes as an A Blues Scale. Names like Gospel Scale, Major Blues Scale, and Pentatonic♭3 Scale are more modern names that are less widespread. In fact, the renowned jazz educator Jamey Aebersold who authored over 120 jazz play-a-long volumes did not use any of these modern names. He has been calling these notes The Blues Scale since the 1960s.
The Blues Scale construction is based on altering the Major scale as follows: 1-♭3 -4-♯4-5-♭7. Some musicians refer to this as the “minor blues scales.” For most genres, you would not want to use the C Minor Blues Scale if you are in C Major, as the absence of the ♮3 combined with the ♯4 and the ♭7 would create too much dissonance. However, building a Blues Scale on the 6th tone of C Major (the note “A”) results in pleasing intervals in C Major with just enough blue character. And there are some advantages to practicing these six notes beginning on A. This will expand your creative output to include lines that originate below C.
As you can see, the notes are exactly the same no matter how you group them or name them. Hopefully, now you also have some different conceptual approaches to explore with this beginner jazz piano scale. If you need a primer on keys, scales and chords, check out our Jazz Piano Complete Beginner Lesson—10 Steps.
Next we’ll introduce an exercise to help you master playing this scale.
Gospel Scale Exercise
A truly great improvisor can play in all registers and is a master of moving up and down the piano. In this section, I will teach you an exercise to accomplish that end. But first, let’s make sure you get comfortable with the correct fingering.
Excellent! Now, we want to expand the range to cover three octaves, beginning on middle C. We will use a triplet rhythm for this exercise which fits well in common time.
Nice job! Don’t forget you can download the lesson sheet for this Quick Tip from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Members can also access the companion Smart Sheet Music for this lesson which can be transposed to any key with a single click.
In our Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge course, I show additional solo exercises based on the Gospel Scale including lower and upper positions, up lines, down lines and combined lines.
Now, let’s add the left hand and place this in the context of a ballad style.
Jazz Ballad Application
In this section, I am going to show you a simple way to play a cocktail jazz style 1-6-2-5 “turn around progression” in the left hand using two-note chord shells. But first, let’s identify our root position 7th chords in C Major. By looking at all the 7th chords shown below, can you find the 1, 6, 2 and 5 chords?
If you said C Major 7, A minor 7, D minor 7, and G Dominant 7 you are right. Here’s what those chords look like in root position on the piano.
It is extremely important to have the knowledge on how to build these chords. However, it is also important for students to accept that professional jazz pianists don’t play these chords in root position most of the time. Converting these root position 7th chords to chord shells is a common way to play these chords that results in closer movement and a preferable sound. However, if you need more practice finding root position 7th chords in a given key, you’ll find Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises to be a great resource.
What is a Chord Shell?
A chord shell is a two-note, left hand piano voicing comprised of a chord’s root and 3rd or root and 7th. The specific context and range determines which option is more appropriate. In some cases, either chord shell will fit. When playing the Turnaround Progression, it is most common to alternate between the two chord shell options like this.
If you want to master all your Major 7, minor 7, and Dominant 7 chord shells in all 12 keys, check out our course on Chord Shell and Guide Tone Exercises . Maybe you’re ready for further application of what we’ve discussed so far? Then you’ll want to visit Soloing Over a Turnaround 1 (Level 2) or Soloing Over a Turnaround 2 (Level 3).
Now, let’s get ready to put it all together.
The Gospel Scale Improv Application
I’ve notated below some of the most common ways jazz pianists uses this beginner jazz piano scale to create amazing licks and riffs.
Slides are a great way to a color and texture to your playing. These are similar to grace notes in classical piano repertoire, except that you will play the ornament and the target note with the same finger—hence the name slide!
As you can see from the example above, it is possible to slide up or down. The 6th, 3rd and 2nd are common target notes for slides. (Technically speaking, the G♯ is not part of the Gospel Scale, but it occurs quite frequently as shown).
8ths and Triplets
Another way improv with the Gospel Scale is to construct ascending or descending lines of 8th notes or triplets as in the following examples:
In the Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge, I list several examples of combined lines that use both 8th notes and triplets.
Harmonized slides are a great way to add excitement to your lines and build up the energy of your solo. Check out these examples:
Turns are another great way to use the Gospel Scale to stylize your lines and add some flavor.
Of course, why limit yourself to just one of the above? The example below show how you can use the Gospel Scale to add harmonized turns to your improv.
You can even use five of the six notes of the Gospel Scale at once with these “gospel chords.” This classic lick slides off the D♯ with the 2nd finger into a C Major 6 chord and then plays a neighboring F Major triad before returning back to the C Major 6th. This lick sounds great in the middle or high register.
Now it’s up to you to combine these licks in different ways to create interest and variety, but you don’t have to do it alone! Our Piano Challenge Facebook Group is one of the best ways to connect with other aspiring jazz pianists just like you. Students of all ages and abilities regularly share progress videos from their practice of PWJ resources. Our students from all over the world have become friends in this group and continue to motivate and inspire each other daily.
When you’re ready to devote more time to expand your craft, you can take a deep dive into further soloing possibilities with these comprehensive courses:
- The Bible of Blues Riffs 1 (Level 2)
- The Bible of Blues Riffs 2 (Level 3)
- Scales for Improv on Major and Minor Chords (Level 2)
- Soloing Over a 2-5-1 Progression (Level 2 & 3)
Thanks for learning with me, and happy practicing!
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