The Most Important Piano Scale for Improv
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Did you know there is a scale that is missing in nearly all traditional piano methods? Not only is this scale missing, but it’s also the most important one! It’s almost as if the publishing community has conspired together to keep it from you! In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny is breaking the silence to help you master the most important scale for piano improv. Why is this scale so important? Because this one scale works on virtually any song in any style on any chord progression. Although it’s called by a number of different names, its sound is always right on point! In today’s lesson you’ll learn:
- The Most Important Scale for Improv
- Why It’s So Important
- 2 Left Hand Accompaniments
- 2 Improv Grips & Scale Exercises
- 4 Essential Improv Techniques
If you want to improvise at the piano and sound like a pro in any situation, then this lesson contains the most important scale for you too!
Let’s dive in!
Intro to the Most Important Scale for Improv
So what is this mystery scale? It’s most commonly called the Major Blues Scale. However, it’s also referred to as the Gospel Scale or the Pentatonic ♭3 Scale. To construct this scale, use the following tones from the major scale: 1-2-♭3-♮3-5-6. Note, sometimes it may be written enharmonically as 1-2-♯2-3-5-6. 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.
Why is the Major Blues Scale So Important?
The reason that the Major Blues Scale is so important is because of its versatility. This scale always sounds good, regardless of the song, style, or chord progression. This is due to its internal balance of diatonic and chromatic notes. For example, the Minor Blues Scale has so many chromatic notes (♭3, ♯4, ♭7) that it works best in specific situations. On the other hand, the Major Scale has no chromatic notes and can tend to sound a little bland. However, the Major Blues Scale has just the right mixture of major and blue! So whether you want to improvise on a swing tune like “Fly Me to the Moon,” a bossa nova like “The Girl from Ipanema,” or a jazz ballad like “The Way You Look Tonight,” the Major Blues Scale is your go-to scale. It also works on funk, gospel, contemporary pop, rock and roll and classic rock!
For today’s lesson, we’ll focus on improvising with the Major Blues Scale in the jazz ballad style. This is a great point-of-entry for all playing levels from beginner and intermediate players to advanced pianists. In the next section, you’ll learn one of two accompaniment patterns depending on your current playing level. You can download the complete lesson sheet and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Left Hand Piano Accompaniment for the Most Important Scale
Hand coordination is frequently challenging for many piano students when learning to improvise. Therefore, it’s best to practice improv over a left hand accompaniment that is fairly simple. This will allow you to focus your attention on creating natural sounding lines with your right hand. For example, soloing over a walking bass line might be a great goal, but this is not a great starting point! Today’s lesson sheet contains two basic accompaniment patterns with a technique called “4-On-The-Floor.” This is a simple quarter-note pattern. If you need to simplify the accompaniment even further, you could play half notes since that is the rate at which the chords change.
The chord progression we’ll be using is 1-6-2-5—also known as the Turnaround Progression. Here is the beginner accompaniment.
The accompaniment above uses 3-note voicings that are suitable for beginner jazz piano students. Note that the voicings feature close movement from chord to chord, sometimes as little as one note difference. Consequently, it’s best to memorize these voicings in preparation for your improv. This will allow adequate attention on expression and creativity in the right hand. A great self-test to see if your accompaniment is ready to support your improv is to attempt to play the left hand along with one of the included backing tracks. Then, when you’re ready for a challenge, try stepping up to the intermediate accompaniment below for a more professional sound.
The intermediate accompaniment example above uses rich jazzy chords called rootless voicings. As their name implies, these voicings do not contain the root of the chord within the voicing itself. As such, they work great in an ensemble setting in which a bass player is playing the root. However, solo jazz pianists will also use rootless voicings on weak beats in conjuction with the root of each chord on strong beats. We call this technique a root-to-chord or stride-like accompaniment.
If you are a beginner to jazz harmony, the next logical question is, “How did you come up with the additional notes in these rootless voicings?” The answer is that in jazz harmony, there is the potential for 3 additional chord extensions for each chord. They are the 9th, 11th and 13th. If you want to play with rich jazz piano colors, you can take a deep dive on this topic in our Piano Chord Extensions course. You may have also seen symbols such as ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13. These are chord alterations. They most commonly occur on dominant chords and result in a jazz piano sound that is best characterized as crunchy and complex. To master this advanced jazz piano vocabulary, check out our Piano Chord Alterations course.
For additional accompaniment patterns to play over the Turnaround Progression, check out The Amazing Turnaround course which is packed with professional jazz accompaniment techniques including walking bass lines and 2-handed voicings.
Are you ready to put your hands together? Great! In the next section, you’ll learn 2 exercises to develop your proficiency with the Major Blues Scale and your hand coordination in preparation for improv.
Preparatory Exercises on the Most Important Scale for Improv
The two most common rhythms in jazz language are 8th notes and triplets. Therefore, it is important to practice playing the Major Blues Scale with each of these subdivisions. The first exercise below features 8th notes which should be played with a swing feel—LONG, short, LONG, short, LONG, short, LONG, short, etc.
Beginner Major Blues Scale Exercise
If you are an intermediate or advanced player, you’ll also want to get comfortable playing triplets with the Major Blues Scale as in the following example. Note, triplets are especially effective for quickly changing registers while soloing.
Intermediate Major Blues Scale Exercise
So far, so good? Then you’ll want to check out our full-length course on this most important scale. The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale)—(Part 1~Level 2, Part 2~Levels 2 & 3) courses are loaded with additional exercises, improv techniques, accompaniment grooves and more—including fingering references for the Major Blues Scale in all 12 keys!
2 Grips for C Major Blues Piano Improv
Now that you are familiar with the most important scale for piano improv, let’s look at some strategic ways to generate melodic lines. One of the best ways for beginners to improvise with melodic clarity is to use a limited number of notes within a fixed hand position. These hand positions are commonly known as grips.
While it’s true that the spirit of improvisation involves freedom, that doesn’t necessary mean that all ideas that you create with this scale will be equally effective. The goal is to generate melodies, which we also call lines. For new improvisers, this is often a challenging concept. You want to resist the urge to simply play the scale up and down—that is not a melody. A melody is a musically satisfying succession of individual notes. To put it another way, melody is that aspect of a tune that is singable and memorable. This is the goal of improvisation, and grips are extremely effective toward that end.
Let’s look at two simple grips you can use to improvise with the C Major Blues Scale.
C Major Blues Scale—Grip 1
Did you notice that this grip does not begin on C? This is perhaps the quickest way for beginners to reach their first breakthrough in improvising. Just like all melodies don’t begin and end on C, neither should your improv. Since this grip starts on an A, we’ll refer to it as the “A Grip.” However, a good creative exercise is to see if you can generate pleasing lines beginning from each of these notes. You can also experiment with lines that enter on different beats and move in different directions. Try improvising lines with one of the accompaniment patterns discussed earlier in this lesson while playing along with one of the backing tracks.
Great job! Now, let’s explore another grip.
C Major Blues Scale—Grip 2
Grip 2 begins on the E, so we’ll refer to it as the “E Grip.” Since this grip does not contain the blue note (E♭), you may notice that it has a brighter sound overall. However, may players will slide up with their thumb or index finger from the E♭ to the E♮ when playing in this grip position. In fact, will cover the slide technique and more in the next section!
4 Essential Improv Techniques for The Most Important Scale
In this section, we’ll cover 4 essential improv techniques that you can use to create lines that sound amazing! The first technique is to play 8th-note lines. The example below represents one possible 8th-note line using the “A Grip.”
8th Note Improv Technique for Piano
This example is called an up-line because the initial melodic direction is ascending. Next, try creating your own down-line using the “A Grip” position. You can also try various 8-note lines using the “E Grip.”
Next, we’ll look at another rhythm for you can play with the most important piano scale for improv.
Triplet Improv Tehchnique for Piano
This line uses a triplet subdivision with the “A Grip.” Triplet lines are great for increasing the overall energy of your solo. However, try not to view 8th-notes and triplet as “either/or” techniques. In actual practice, professional piano players combine 8th-note and triplet rhythms quite naturally.
Now, let’s look at another improv technique that works in conjunction with both 8th notes and triplets—the slide technique.
Slide Improv Technique for Piano
Finger slides, or slides for short, can instantly make your improv sound more hip and bluesy. As the name implies, this technique involves physically sliding your finger from a black key to a white key. Most slides will be played with the 2nd or 3rd finger. However, the context will dictate the best fingering option. Here are three slides you can use with the Major Blues Scale.
Now, try playing the following slide exercise. You can loop this exercise over the Turnaround Progression with your left hand.
Turn Improv Technique for Piano
Turns are a flashy sounding ornament that can be added to a simple 8th-note or triplet line to give it a professional edge. The key to understanding this technique is to recognize that the turn is ornamenting a target tone. You can play a turn in 4 simple steps:
- Play the target note on a strong beat
- Play the note above the target
- Repeat the target tone
- Play the note below the target
Now that you understand the overall shape of the turn, then final step is to apply the correct timing. The key to executing the timing is to recognize that steps 2 and 3 occur quickly as an ornament to step 4. Here are three turns that work great on the Major Blues Scale. The label in each example indicates the target tone.
Congratulations. You’ve completed today’s lesson! By now, you can probably see why the Major Blues Scale is the most important scale for piano improv. For more great soloing ideas, be sure to check out the following related courses:
- The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale)—(Part 1~Level 2, Part 2~Levels 2 & 3)
- Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge (Levels 2 & 3)
- The Amazing Turnaround (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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