Most-useful scales to learn for jazz guitar?

I’ve just very recently decided to branch off into jazz; before that it was all rock/alternative, etc.

I’ve got the major scales and pentatonic minors down well; but I was wondering which other scales would be useful to learn for jazz guitar specifically. Also, any hints, pointers or instruction books you could mention would be much appreciated!

I would say the Dorian and Mixolydian scales are definetly ones to look at. The Dorian is essentially a major scale starting on the second tone. (For example, a D dorian scale would be played D E F G A B C D , which you’ll notice are the same notes as a C major scale)

Similar thing with the Mixolydian scale. Same as a major scale except you start on the 5th tone. A G mixolydian would be played G A B C D E F G .

To offer some further information, the Dorian scale is altered from the major scale by having a flat 3rd and a flat 7th.

C Major

C Dorian
C D Eb F G A Bb C

The mixolydian scale is altered by having a flat 7th

C Major

C Mixolydian
C D E F G A Bb C

When I learned all the scales I was taught 6 different ways to play each and every one; that way I could make my way around the guitar easily, instead of being stuck in one box position. I would recommend learning several ways of playing all the scales.

It also helps to have a razor-sharp grasp of theory in order to play jazz. Without enough theory it is nearly impossible to get to the next level of improvisation.

I hope this helps, theory/scales can be really confusing.

The melodic minor is perhaps the jazziest sounding scale. Ascending it is essentially a minor scale with a raised 6 and 7. Descending it is the natural minor.

A lot of jazz still works on the various Pentatonic scales. Also, if you are doing jazz for “solo” work, you should probably learn some arppegios (both triads and full form) to vary your music up some and make it more interesting to play and listen to.

The Red Menace, thinking of the modes as a major scale starting on a different scale degree is a misnomer. You are right about them having all the same notes as the major scale but it doesn’t function as a major scale The tonic triad of the scale determines the harmonic implications of the scale. See the below scales for modal implications:

Ionian = The major scale
Dorian = Minor scale with a raised 6
Phrygian = Minor scale with a flat 2
Lydian = Major scale with a sharp 4
Mixolidian = major scale with a flat 7
Aeolian = natural minor
Locrian = Minor scale with a flat 5 (it is really a diminished type of a scale)


There are basically 3 scales you need to know to get through most jazz standards and have a sense of motion in your playing: the major scale, the dominant scale, and the be-bop minor.

The major scale is just the natural major. The dominant scale is the same as the mixolydian.

The be bop minor scale is similar to the melodic minor but has an extra tone (b6) in it.

C Be-Bop minor: C D Eb F G Ab A B C

A word on modes: as a beginner you would do best to not think modally. Modal jazz didn’t exist before Miles davis in the 60’s. Before that jazz musicians thought tonally.

Over a ii-V-I in major (e.g. Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7) you should think G7 scale (G A B C D E F G) over the ii-V and C major over the I. Though they are the same notes, thinking in this way will produce motion (i.e. a sense of tension and release). A dominant scale has tension, while a netural major scale has release.

For now, I would just use the be-bop minor over a minor ii-V-i (e.g. dm7b5 - G7 - Cm7).

There are ways to create motion with different scales over the minor ii-V-i as well, but they are a bit more complicated (e.g. bVII dominant scale - bVII dominant scale raised root - minor be-bop).

Remember that the goal ultimately is to use the entire chromatic scale, so don’t be afraid to stick passing notes (notes not in the scale) in between while you are soloing. There are no wrong notes in jazz, only tense ones.

…and flat 2. Sorry to nitpick. It is actually more common in jazz to use what is called a locrian #2 scale which is the one you described.

BTW, Jamie Aebersold’s play-along CDs are great to learn jazz. These have been used by jazz musicians at all levels for years. Check out his site:
There’s also a discussion board where Jamie and others are glad to answer questions about playing jazz.

Also, check out Band in a Box. It’s a computer program which allows you to enter in the chords while you play over them. It provides the whole rhythm section for you. Download their free demo here:
Only thing is, it expires 10/1. I hope they put a new Demo up or extend the date because I absolutely rely on it to practice. One day I’ll be able to actually afford buying it. :frowning:

I am aware of this. What the major scale is is defined by the key signature (pretending we’re not dealing with accidentals here) so that is why I prefer to refer everything back to the singular major scale, instead of the more theoretical major/minor diad. It is just simply clearer to think back to one base. You raise a good point, but I think it is obvious to anyone with at least one functioning ear that the dorian scale is not a major-type scale. I explained things the way I did because I think that in this case less information is better than more.

I say just wing that baby …

[sub]Bloom County flash-back – sorry.[/sub]

That’ll learn me not to preview.

Thanks for the clarification Moe.

/me submits without previewing again.