A simple approach by Christiaan 'Niliov' van Hemert

When you go out to buy a book on scales you'll probably end up with a true "thesaurus" in which literally dozens of different scales are given and explained. Who has the time to work through such a book? My guess is: nobody. In my (humble) opinion one only needs to know five different scales as a help for improvising. On this page I want to discuss these scales and their uses. You need to be familiar with terms like: altered, octotonic, mixolydian etc. If you're not I recommend you first study our page on Dominants and Subdominants.

The five "important" scales and their uses

Ionian Scale
Pentatonic Scale
Octotonic Scale
Wholetone Scale
Minor Melodic Scale
Bebop Scale

Ionian Scale

The Ionian is the "first" scale of the church-scales. If you're not familiar with the term church-scales don't worry about it. The Ionian scale is also called the major-scale. It is the most common scale and probably known by every musician (and probably a lot of non-musicians) on the globe. In C this scale would go like this:


You can use this scale (C-ionian) on the following chords:

- Cmaj7/F6
This gives you a very natural sound on this chord; be careful though with the 4(F).

If you use the C-major scale on Fmaj.7 you accomplish a lydian sound. This is more modern. When you try to do this keep the tonic of the chord (F in this case), not the tonic of the scale in mind as your bass. This makes sure you get a F-lydian sound in stead of: "playing a C-major scale on Fmaj7".

- Dmin7 This accomplishes the sound of a Dorian scale. In other words: when you play a C-major scale on a Dmin7 from D to D you are in fact playing a D-dorian scale. Again: keep the D as your modal "focus". (To give an other example: on Abmin7 the "right" scale would be Gb-major).

Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale is probably the scale with the most uses. Since the scale only consists of five notes (penta=five) it is very compatible. Not only for inside playing (playing inside the chords) but for outside playing as well. Now, on this page I will confine myself to the uses for playing inside the chords. Mayby in the future I will dedicate a page to various "outside-techniques".

Most people make a difference between the major and the minor pentatonic scale. Of course: you can practice both, but it might be easier to realise that due to the "parallel-key phenomenon" every major pentatonic scale is the same as the minor pentatonic scale of the parallel key. For example: C-major = A-minor, E-major = C#(Db)-minor and F-major = D-minor. So I would say: practice either the major or the minor pentatonic scales and learn the parallel keys!!

For the examples I will take a C-major pentatonic scale (=A-minor pentatonic scale). This scale consists of the following notes:


You can use this C-major pentatonic scale on the following maj7 or 6 chords:

- Cmaj7/C6
Normal sound.

- Fmaj7/F6
Normal sound, but this time you are avoiding the root (which to me sounds better!)

- Bbmaj7/Bb6
Lydian sound. Very nice, but be sure to use this with taste.

You can also use the C-major pentatonic scale on the following min6/minMaj7 chords:

- Amin6/AminMaj7
Although the scale contains a b7 it still sounds very natural.

- Gmin/GminMaj7
The scale is harmonically correct; it can however sound really terrible, because the sixth and the ninth are there, but the third is missing. It can also sound quite "hip" though, if you use the scale as a outside-scale (but you'd have to be an experienced player for that!).

You can also use the C-major pentatonic scale on the following min.7 chords:

- Amin7
Normal sound.

- Dmin7
Somewhat more modern.

- Gmin7
Most modern of the three choices on Gmin7. (If you would transpose the two example above for Gmin7 you would get Bb pentatonic and F pentatonic and of course C pentatonic with Bb being the least modern and C the most modern.)

You can also use the C-major pentatonic scale on the following dominants:

- C7
Normal, almost old fashioned sound.

- F#7
Altered sound: b9, b13.

- A7
Strictly spoken this is a b10 sound, but I recommend using it on a blues. In this case that would be a blues in A.

You can also use the C-major pentatonic scale on the following sus(4) chords:

- D7sus
Normal sound.

- G7sus
Somewhat more modern.

- C7sus
I consider this most modern, because in this case the used scale is not representing the chord: you're actually playing a normal third now!

Octotonic Scale

The octotonic scale finds its name in the eight tones the scale consists of. The scale is built in a very orderly fashion: first the root, then a half step up, a whole step up, a half step, a whole step etc. Some people call this scale the diminished scale, but I make a little difference between the two. For me, the octotonic scale starts with a half step up after the root, whereas the diminished scale starts with a whole step up after the root. So the octotonic scale in C would be:

C Db Eb E F# G A Bb

And the diminished scale of C would be:

C D Eb F F# G# A B

In other words: the octotonic scale of C consists of the same notes as the diminished scale of Db.

Due to the structure of this scale you can only built three different scales. Of course one could argue that there are in fact twelve octotonic scales, but the only difference between let's say the C-octotonic and the Eb-octotonic is its "starting-point", the notes are all the same. So, to keep things simple: just practice the octotonic scales of C, Db and D and you've practiced them all!!

For the examples again I will take the C-octotonic scale. You can use this scale on the following chords:

- C7, Eb7, Gb7 and A7
You accomplish a pure octotonic sound: b9, 13.

- Dbdim, Edim, Gdim and Bbdim
This accomplishes the most natural (but maybe not the most "hip") sound on these diminished chords.

Wholetone Scale

The wholetone scale like the octotonic scale is built in a very orderly fashion: from the root a whole step up, a whole step up, a whole step up etc. Of course that's why the scale is called a wholetone scale. Due to this structure you can only built two different scales. So, practice the wholetone scale of C and Db and again: you've practiced them all!

The C-wholetone scale again serves as the example scale:

C D E Gb Ab Bb

You can use this scale on the following chords:

- C7, D7, E7, Gb7, Ab7 and Bb7

You accomplish a pure wholetone sound: 9, b13

Minor Melodic Scale

This is no doubt the scale I use the most; I just love it. Not only does it sound great, it also gives you insight in a otherwise complex considered theoretical subject!! The minor melodic scale is in fact nothing else but a
Ionian scale with a minor third. So in C you would get:

C D Eb F G A B

You can use the C-minor melodic scale scale on the following chords:

- Cmin6/minMaj7
Very natural sound.

- Cmin7
Theoretically this is not "right", because the chord has a minor 7 in it and the scale a major 7, but if you consider the major 7 in the scale as a passing tone or a lead tone to C it sounds great! In fact: I use this scale more often than the C-dorian scale (which is the same as a Bb-ionian scale!)

- Amin7b5
Theoretically the best choice for this chord!

- F7
Mixolydian#11 sound. Very nice!

- B7
Altered sound. This is in fact the altered scale you're using now!

Now for the theoretical subject I was talking about. If you take all the chords this scale fits too except for the Cmin7 you can make the following rule: Cmin6/CminMaj7 = Amin7b5 = F7mixo#11 = B7alt. Yes! These chords are all the same, only the bass-note, the root is different. This "rule" is extremely handy when it comes to voicing the different chords: one voicing fits all.

Bebop Scale

The bebop scale was to my sources first analysed by David Baker (I'm not sure though, so don't hold it against me if it proves wrong). He has written an excellent paper on this subject. If you really want to practice all the possibilities I advice you to get a copy of that paper (I don't know the name).

There are two different bebop scales. One is for maj7-chords and one for dominants. Both scales are extremely usefull in bebop because of their flowing character. The scales are meant to be played in a descending fashion and in eighth-notes or sixteenth-notes (double time). The first note of the scale should be played on a downbeat. I will just give you the scales so you can experiment with them. Cmaj7 bebop scale:

C B A Ab G F E D (C)

C7 (dominant) bebop scale:

C B Bb A G F E D (C)

Both scales when started on the "one" of a bar and when played in eight notes will exactly last one bar. The C between brackets will be on the "one" of the new bar. Again there are lots of different possibillities and "tricks" using this scale. Try your local music shop for the David Baker book! Well, that's it!! My rendition of the important scales. I truly believe that knowing these scales in every key and knowing all the possibilities will carry you a long way when it comes to scales. Of course using a scale in a interesting and "jazzy" manner is a whole different story. Maybe some day a page on that too will appear on the Jazz Resource Center !

©1998 Christiaan 'Niliov' van Hemert. JRC.  JAZZ RESOURCE CENTER