Guest columnist: Jazz guitar scales that every guitarist should know

Marc-Andre Seguin

Editor’s Note: Today we begin what we hope will be an ongoing series of guest columns from jazz musicians, specialists, historians and other experts. Today’s guest columnist is Marc-Andre Seguin of

Marc-Andre Seguin

These days, there is a lot of importance placed on scales while other aspects of improvisation are neglected. Still, however, knowing your scales is extremely valuable and having a well-rounded vocabulary will certainly help you on your way to being a great jazz guitar player. For each one of these scales, there are associated modes, but today, we will look at individual modes from the major scale, the melodic minor scale, and the diminished scale. These scales should get you by in most improvisational settings.

The Dorian mode is the second mode of the major scale and it is often how players are taught to deal with minor 7th chords in the early stages. It also the basis of lots of famous modal tunes such as “Impressions” and “So What.”

The Mixolydian mode is the fifth mode of the major scale and it is commonly played over dominant 7th chords that don’t have altered extensions such as b9, #11, etc. This mode gives you the 1, 3, 5, and b7 of a standard dominant 7th chord.

The Ionian mode, otherwise known as the major scale, can be used over the I chord in a progression. This scale provides the 1, 3, 5, 7 of a standard major 7th chord. It is important to note, however, that when using this scale, you should be careful not to lay into the 4th – in this case the F – as it will clash with the 3rd (E) of the chord. This leads us to our next mode.

The Lydian mode is the fourth mode of the major scale. It’s basically a major scale with a #11. Many players opt to use this in preference over a regular major scale as that #11 doesn’t clash with the 3rd and it also creates a nice, “dreamy” sort of sound.

Knowing all of your melodic minor modes inside-out will get you out of trouble in a lot of situations. You might know this scale from classical music where the 6th and 7th are raised ascending, but go back to normal descending. In jazz, we tend to use the raised 6th and 7th both, ascending and descending. This is great over min/maj 7th chords and is actually applicable over min 7th chords if you don’t lay into that #7 too much.

Lydian Dominant – sometimes known as Lydian b7 – is the fourth mode of melodic minor. This one is particularly useful over dominant 7th chords with a #11. You could also think of simple playing the melodic minor scale from the 5. For example, for Bb7#11, you can play F melodic minor and you’ll have everything you need.

The Altered Dominant scale, otherwise known as the seventh mode of melodic minor, is great for tackling alt dominant chords. It gives you the following chord tones and no natural 5th:

1, 3, b5(or #11), b7, b9, #9, #11, b13

For D7b13b9, you could play Eb melodic minor and be good to go!

Lastly, we have the half-whole diminished scale. I have seen this one go by other names, but this is what I like to call it. There is also the whole-half diminished scale, and it’s basically the same thing but starting from a different note with a different application. I find this scale is great for playing over dominant chords with a natural 13th and a b9 or #9. It’s also great over diminished chords (duh).

To close, I’d like to point out that scales are very valuable, but it’s also important to go over every aspect of music. There is a lot of importance placed on scales and not enough on other things like arpeggios, time-feel, phrasing, etc.

About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

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