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Connections – Applying Scales In Jazz Improvisation

Scales In Jazz Improvisation – Making Connections

scales in jazz improvisation

In this lesson I’m going to explore an effective practice routine for integrating multiple scales in your soloing. If you’ve been struggling to make scales fit comfortably into your improvisations, or just feel that your scale playing always sounds like an interrupted exercise, then this article should really help you out. Although I will be demonstrating this approach over the chord changes to a well know jazz standard, the overall concept could be easily applied to other musical styles.

The application of multiple scales in jazz improvisation often mystifies some players, particularly when there are key changes involved and different scale types are required. Moving fluently between different scale positions (and scale types) can often seem an uphill struggle. There is however a helpful remedy for this.

As developing guitarists, we may initially learn some scale fingerings which whilst correct musically, are located in quite separate regions of the fingerboard. When we are then required to improvise with them, we end up rushing all over the fingerboard frantically trying to switch to these scale fingerings to match the harmony we are playing over. This approach can seriously interrupt the flow of otherwise good melodic ideas and also potentially lead to rather a disjointed sound. We are now going examine how to play scales within the same region of the fingerboard to facilitate smooth scale connection and produce a more consistent sound/melodic approach.

Using Scale Forms Intelligently

In the chart below you will see some possible chord scale choices for the first 12 bars of the well known jazz standard ‘Stella By Starlight’. As you can see almost immediately, there is a requirement to use major scales, harmonic minor scales and also a melodic minor scale. This kind of situation is very common when using scales in jazz improvisation, whereby you need to employ multiple scale types and often in different keys.

If you are already very familiar with these three scale types all over the fingerboard (and in different keys) then you may well have no problem using them to improvise with, but what if you only really knew one fingering pattern for each scale and each of these was located in a completely different area of the fingerboard?

You might well end up having to scramble all around the guitar neck just to cover the basic scale changes. If this is the case, then let’s examine how you can play all the required scales in just one area of the guitar neck, say between about the 5th and 9th frets.

The First Step in Applying Scales

Our first task is to learn the required scales within the same approximate region of the fingerboard. The PDF diagram below should help with this. (Note that C Dorian mode/scale has the same pitches as the Bb Major scale and Bb Mixolydian has the same pitches as the Eb Major scale)

Scale Positions for ‘Stella By Starlight’ PDF

Take each of the scale forms illustrated in the PDF above and learn them thoroughly (play them very slowly at first) from the lowest available note in the diagrams up to the highest available note. In doing this you will find that you are not always starting and finishing on the scale’s root, which may be a departure from past scale exercises you have learned which began and ended on a root/octave.

When you have completed studying each scale diagram and can play it from memory both ascending and descending without a mistake, then you can start to combine them. A good follow-up exercise is to play the first scale ascending up to the highest available note and then descend down the next scale type to the lowest available note. Do this slowly (and repeatedly) so that you can really hear each tone in the scale. Speed is not important here, just the pitch accuracy. What you are aiming for is an ability to move through each of the scales without hesitation as you progress forward through the underlying harmony of the composition.

It is very important that you master the above exercises fully before moving on. Once you have mastered them you can then further develop your knowledge of the scales by trying the following exercises:


A) Playing in quarter notes only, begin with the lowest available note from the first scale (D Harmonic Minor) and ascend up through the first eight available notes. When you have arrived at the last note, continue ascending but switch now to the next scale type (Bb Major Scale) and play another eight notes. You have now shifted scale type to match the underlying harmony. Also, by just restricting yourself to quarter notes (four notes per bar) you can easily check when you need to change scales. Here’s a quick example of what the first four bars should sound like:


B) Play the above exercise now going through all the required scales for the first 12 bars of ‘Stella By Starlight’. You will be playing roughly within a span of 5 – 6 frets.(depending on the scale type) for the whole exercise. If you run out of available notes within the current scale fingering, just change the direction of your line. For example if you are ascending through the scales and can’t play any higher notes, then just reverse the process and begin descending down the scale.


  • Try the above exercise but now with eighth notes (you will have to periodically change direction here too if you keep within a span of around 5 – 6 frets) As before, take things very slowly and make sure you are moving onto the next scale at the correct point within the chord progression.


  • Try the above exercises in eighth note triplets. This may feel a bit more difficult at first but it is very important to practice as well due to the change from even to odd note groupings.



The exercises discussed above are enormously helpful in developing improvisational fluency with multiple scales and with some diligent practice can really transform your playing. You can of course pick other regions of the fingerboard to employ these exercises and ultimately you should do this anyway, but only after really mastering one area first. Remember too that you can start each scale from any degree (not always the lowest or highest available pitch) and you should experiment with this.

In the next lesson I’ll expand upon these scales for jazz improvisation exercises to cover some more advanced applications.


Happy Practicing,



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