Getting started with jazz guitar can be pretty overwhelming – especially when you realise how many scales there are to learn.

Luckily for you, we’ve spent some time putting together a list of essential jazz scales to get you started – going from the humble major scale to the half-whole diminished scale, and everything in between.

Why are scales so important to jazz musicians?

If you’ve ever studied jazz or listened to your favorite jazz guitarists, you probably know that there’s a big focus on scales – but why?

Scales are magic, they:

  • Teach us where chords originate from and how to build them
  • Simplify and explain harmonic progressions.
  • Help us improvise, analyze, and harmonize melodies.
  • Each scale has a unique character and flavor of its own.
  • Unlock the fretboard, allowing us to better understand our instrument.

The major scale

It’s fair to say that the major scale is the most important scale in Western music. Almost every song that you listen to uses the major scale to form melodies and chord progressions.

If you’re just starting your journey into the world of jazz scales – start with major.

  • It’s been used to compose jazz music for more than 100 years.
  • The major scale will often provide the answer to your theory questions.
  • Studying the major scale will help you to become a better musician in any genre – not just jazz.
  • All other scales rely on major as a reference point.

The Dorian mode

Welcome to the Dorian zone.

The major scale has a collection of ‘mini scales’ hidden inside of it called modes. Modes are scales that help to describe each of the chords found in the major scale.

  • If the major scale is the parent, the modes are its children.
  • They’re related to the parent major scale as they share the same notes, but they have their own flavor and sounds.

The Dorian mode is an important minor scale shape to have banked.

  • This mode helps to describe the second chord found in the major scale.
  • In the key of C major, our second mode would be D Dorian which outlines a Dm7 chord.

What are modes for?

Jazz is without question one of the most modally adventurous genres. There are many ways musicians use modes:

  • Tonal center shifting: Jazz musicians often use modes to shift the tonal center during a piece of music, creating tension/release and harmonic interest.
  • Modal interchange: Borrowing modes from related keys is another way to add depth and variety.
  • Modal soloing: When improvising, you can use modes to fit the underlying harmony – like using the Dorian mode over a minor chord.
  • Playing over jazz standards: Some jazz standards, like So What by Miles Davis, are based on single modes – we can then improvise within these modal structures.

We’ve got a great article on how to play jazz standards if you want to learn more.

The Mixolydian mode

Mixolydian is like the major scale’s cool older brother.

The 5th mode of the major scale, the Mixolydian mode goes by a couple of different names such as the dominant scale for its role in outlining the V7 chord.

This mode is commonly heard in blues, jazz, country, folk, and classical music.

How to use the Mixolydian mode like a jazz pro

  • This mode holds the key to outlining the V chord when playing over the most common jazz chord progression, II - V - I.
  • It’s almost identical to the major scale, sharing six of the seven notes.
  • The only difference is that the Mixolydian scale has a b7th.
  • This is a very customizable scale that you can combine with the altered notes to take it to another level - more on this later!  

Want to learn more about modes? Check out our article for learning modes on guitar.

The melodic minor scale

Some of the darker jazz sounds live here. Late-night doomer jazz fans pay attention!

If you want to play some sadder jazz ballads, the melodic minor scale is just what you need.

  • This versatile scale is home to some interesting sounds that can go over minor chords to create tension and resolution.
  • Jazz guitarists like to use this scale to resolve minor chord progressions because of the natural 7th found at the end of this scale.

Things to consider about the melodic minor scale

  • This scale is very close to the major scale but uses a minor 3rd instead.
  • Although the two scales share similar notes, the modes, chords, and general atmosphere – the melodic minor scale is very different.  
  • The melodic minor scale has its role in highlighting minor II-V-I chord progressions.
  • Like the major scale, it can be a great place to extract more interesting chords and arpeggios that you might not normally find in the diatonic modes.

The Melodic Minor is the parent of the Altered scale. Wait… What’s an altered scale?!

Funny you should ask…

The altered scale

A-tension! This is your ticket to playing outside.

The altered scale is the 7th and final mode of the melodic minor scale.

  • Its primary use is to create maximum tension over the dominant V chord.
  • Jazz guitarists use this scale over the V chord to highlight non-diatonic chord tones that aren’t in the key.
  • Some players refer to this as ‘playing outside’.

Get to know your altered-ego!

  • The altered scale is used to highlight the tension notes on the dominant chord.
  • These notes are the b5th, #5th, b9th, and #9th.
  • Using the altered scale over different chords creates ‘controlled dissonance’ against the chord progression.
  • This is usually followed by a resolution to the major scale when playing over the I chord.

The diminished scale

The inbetweener.

The diminished scale is a weird, outlier sound – but like all of us oddballs, it has a place within jazz music.

  • We’ve nicknamed it ‘the inbetweener’ scale because it is often used as a passing chord to create movement between two other chords.
  • This scale is great for adding tension, or simply to ascend the fretboard before landing on a resolution note.

Augment your diminished-scale knowledge!

  • The diminished scale is an eight-note scale often described as a symmetrical scale.
  • This is because it’s built using the same two intervals repeated: half-step, whole-step.
  • Because of its strict, repeated interval pattern, it’s also know as the ‘half-whole diminished scale’.
  • Diminished chords and scales work the same way – placing them between the I and II chord creates a cool movement that helps to smoothen the transitions in a II-V-I progression.

The pentatonic scales

Never forget the value of the blues!

The major and minor pentatonic are synonymous with guitar scales, and for good reason.

  • They’re super friendly shapes and sounds that guitarists of all genres will explore at one point in their guitar learning journey.
  • Jazz guitarists are no exception, and learning both pentatonic scales can be perfect for injecting the soulful sound of the blues into their melodies.

It’s called blue note for a reason

The pentatonic scales are a perfect guide for guitarists exploring the fretboard. They’re also fantastic markers for navigating modes and other scales.

For example, the Dorian mode is simply the minor pentatonic with an added 9th and 6th!

  • Pentatonic scales have some specific sounds that work just perfectly in a jazz, blues, or rock and roll setting.
  • Jazz guitarists learn lots of arpeggios and pentatonic scales are often very similar shapes.
  • Top tip: Use the pentatonic scales as a framework for building min7 or dom7.

BONUS ROUND: Bebop scales

Can’t get enough? Here’s one more for the road!

Make sure you’re familiar with the previous scales in this article before jumping into this – it can get a little confusing without a strong foundation.

Here’s the problem the bebop scale is trying to solve.

  • A single bar of 4/4 can be broken into eight individual 8th notes.
  • Most scales only have seven notes which creates a rhythmic problem where the stresses of the scale are different when playing two octaves over two bars.

Bebop scales are eight-note scales that are based on the previous seven-note scales that we’ve looked at.

  • Bebop scales were invented in the 1940s as a way for jazz musicians to keep the rhythmic stresses of a scale the same when moving from bar to bar.
  • This allows a full run of the scale to match up with the beats in a bar of 4/4.

How to build a bebop scale

We make a bebop scale by adding a single passing tone to one of the regular seven-note scales. For example, the bebop major scale is simply the regular seven-note major scale with an added b6th.

  • The bebop minor scale is the melodic minor scale with an added b6th.
  • The bebop dominant scale is the mixolydian mode with an added natural 7th (this scale has both the flat and natural 7th).

The scale user’s manual

Ultimately, scales are a collection of sounds that help to describe a key or a particular chord.

Take your time when learning scales, make sure with each one you fully understand:

  • How the scale is constructed.
  • Where you can find it on the fretboard.
  • How it feels and sounds over certain chords.

“Knowing your scales” is a lifetime practice for jazz guitar players, so be patient and enjoy the exciting and colorful sounds that these different scales have to offer.

Author: Jack Handyside