This page contains jazz scales guitar notation with tab, diagrams and information on how to use scales in jazz improvisation.
Jazz Scales Guitar: Introduction
Jazz guitarists improvise using many different guitar scales. Although many jazz guitarists concentrate on using arpeggios rather than scales as a basis for improvisation, most will also have a large arsenal of guitar scales and licks to call on.
On this page, we’ll look at some of the most widely-used jazz guitar scales, and explain how they are used.
- Interested in learning guitar scales? Download our printable Guitar Scales Chart Book.
- Teaching yourself jazz guitar? See our jazz guitar book recommendations: Best Jazz Guitar Books.
Jazz Scales Guitar Tab & Notation
We’ve provided tab, notation and diagrams for all of the scales. This gives you the opportunity to play the scales for yourself and hear how they sound.
Jazz Guitar Scales: Horizontal Playing In Jazz
In jazz, using scales–as opposed to chords and arpeggios–as a basis for improvisation is known as ‘horizontal’ playing.
Horizontal lines can be created with many different guitar scales, the most commonly used of which are detailed below.
The First Jazz Guitar Scales To Learn
A key skill you should aim to acquire is to be able to access these scales wherever you are on the guitar neck. Jazz music is constantly changing key. Your lines will flow much better if you’re not constantly having to change fretboard position.
The major scale is useful for playing over major chords, and also forms the basis for modal playing. Learning all 5 major scale shapes is a great step towards mastering modal playing.
Pentatonic Minor And Blues Scales
Blues music was a huge influence on jazz, and you’ll hear the blues scale in nearly every jazz style.
The pentatonic minor scale, on which the blues scale is based, is another important scale in jazz. As well as being a good choice for soloing over the ‘1’ chords in minor keys, it has other uses.
For a modern jazz sound, try playing a pentatonic minor scale a minor 3rd above a dominant 7 chord. It produces very jazzy-sounding flat 9, sharp 9, flat 5 and sharp 5 notes which, if used with care, can create some very interesting lines.
For Notation & TABs for these guitar scales, see the following artilces:
Jazz Guitar Scales – Modal Scales
Despite being based on the notes of a major scale, each mode has its own distinctive tone.
One of the best ways of learning modes is to learn the major scale shapes, then use these as a basis for playing modes.
However, when doing so it’s important to treat each modal scale as a scale in its own right, rather than just a ‘major scale that starts and ends on a different note’.
Modal scales can bring their own individual sounds over unchanging chord sequences or an ostinato (a repeated line or riff). A whole genre of jazz, known as ‘modal jazz’, is based on using the sound of modes without the emphasis on the chord changes of other jazz styles.
Probably the two most important modal scales in jazz are the Dorian and Mixolydian modal scales. As well as being used in modal jazz type improvisations, these two scale types are also used in all other varieties of jazz.
The Dorian modal scale works very well over minor 7 (m7) chords (in most situations). The Mixolydian scale is used over dominant seventh (7) chords (in most situations).
Read more about improvising with these scales here:
The Lydian mode is often used over major chords. It varies from a major scale by having a sharpened 4th, giving it a slightly more interesting sound.
Learn more about the Lydian mode, and all other modes of the major scale here: Guitar Modes
An additional note can be added to both scales to create bebop scales. Find out more about bebop scales further down the page.
Guitar Modes Backing Tracks
Guitar Command has produced special backing tracks to allow you to learn, and improvise with, modal scales. You can listen to samples here: Guitar Modes Backing Tracks.
Jazz Scales Guitar Lesson
We’ll now look at how scales are used in jazz improvisation. We’ll introduce some more useful jazz scales as we go along.
Jazz Guitar Scales – 2 5 1 Changes
The 2 5 1 chord sequence is found at some point in nearly every jazz standard. It is often used to introduce a key change.
In a basic major 2 5 1 in the key of C, the 2 chord would be a Dm7, the 5 chord a G7, and the I a Cmaj7 chord.
This is where the modal scales can be used: a D Dorian over the ii and a G mixolydian over the V will fit perfectly (and a C major, or C Ionian, scale can be used over the I).
Learn more about the 2 5 1 progression here: 2 5 1 Progression Explained.
Jazz Guitar Scales – Minor 2 5 1 Changes
In a basic C minor 2 5 1 progression, the 2 chord would be a Dm7b5 and the V chord a G7b9.
Guitar scales you can use to solo over these chords include a D Locrian modal scale for the Dm7b5, and a C harmonic minor scale for the G7b9 (and the Cm chord).
Alternatively, you could use an altered scale over the altered dominant seventh chord (the G7b9)
Jazz Scales Guitar – Altered Scales
Altered scales are often used over altered dominant seventh chords (e.g. 7#5, 7b9, etc.). This is because altered scales contain the altered notes (b5, #5, b9, #9).
Altered notes add ‘tension’ to lines or phrases. Tensions are a kind of ‘controlled dissonance’ and are at the heart of the jazz sound.
For more information on altered scales (including TABs and backing track) see: Altered Scale
Jazz Guitar Scales – Bebop Scales
Bebop scales are used by jazz musicians to create smooth, flowing lines. Essentially, they are major scales, or modes of the major scale, with an extra note added, so that chord tones fall on the beat.
For example, a bebop dominant scale is a mixolydian scale with an additional natural seventh note (i.e. the scale spelling is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7, 7, 1).
Dominant, major and dorian bebop scales are frequently used by jazz musicians in bebop and post-bop styles.
For more information on bebop scales (with notation and TAB), see: Bebop Scale Guitar
Other Jazz Guitar Scales
There are many other scales used in jazz guitar improvisation. The final two we’re going to look at in this lesson are the whole tone scale and the diminished scale.
The whole tone scale is a mysterious-sounding scale that can sound good when played over dominant chords. It contains the flat 5 and sharp 5 altered tones.
The diminished scale is another scale that is played over dominant chords. Use the diminished scale that starts a semitone above the root note of the dominant chord (i.e. a G# diminished scale over a G alt chord).
Tab and Diagrams for these two scales can be found here:
Jazz Scales Guitar Improvisation: Conclusion
We’ve looked at lots of guitar scales and covered a lot of ground in this lesson. Don’t worry if you feel that you’ll never learn all these jazz scales guitar diagrams and theory! Learn scales one by one, a shape at a time. You’ll soon find yourself getting confident using them all over the fingerboard.
The most important thing is to listen to and dissect solos by other jazz musicians – not just guitarists. Learn what scales were used to play your favourite solos, and use and adapt licks in your own playing.