How to Choose Scales for Improvisation
Improvisation is a whole world in and of itself and it can get really complicated. In this article I’d like to keep things simple and just give you some tips to pick scales to use over chords and chord progressions. This will help with your improvisation but also with creating melodies.
My goal is for you to be able to get a general idea of what your options are and some guidelines to help you make your own decision of what scales you would like to use for whatever progression you’re working with. Sometimes you will have more than one option for usable scales.
In general, best practices to select scales for improvisation are to use scales that match the Major or Minor quality of the chord progression or individual chords, and have the least amount of “avoid notes”.
What Scales Can Go Over Which Chords Cheat Sheet
Here is just a quick reference list of the scales you can use over each type of chord. Make sure to bookmark this blog post so you can come back to this whenever you need it.
- Minor: Any Minor scale or mode
- Major:Any Major scale or mode
- Min7: Dorian, Aeolian, or Phrygian Mode, Dorian b2, Dorian #4, Minor Pentatonic
- Maj7: Ionian or Lydian Mode, Lydian Augmented, Ionian Augmented, Lydian #2, Major Pentatonic
- Dominant 7: Mixolydian Mode, Lydan Dominant, Mixolydian b6, Altered
- Diminished: W/H Diminished Scale, Super Locrian
- Min7b5: Locrian, Half Diminished, Locrian 6
Choosing One Scale For an Entire Chord Progression
Most people start out learning to improvise with the approach of using one scale over an entire chord progression. It’s quick, simple and sounds great.
This works if every chord is in the same key.
This means that if you want to use a Major or Minor scale over a Major or Minor chord progression it will work…
BUT with Modes it’s a different story.
If you want to use a single Mode over an entire Major or Minor chord progression then things are gonna go off the rails a bit because Modes have notes from outside the Major and Minor keys.
For example, the C Major scale has the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B
But C Lydian mode (which is a Major mode) has the notes C, D, E, F#, G, A, B.
So if you have a chord progression in a C Major key and you try to use C Lydian over the entire thing then there’s going to be one note that sounds wrong, the F#.
To use a C Lydian scale over an entire chord progression you’ll have to use the chords from C Lydian, not C Major.
Could you just avoid playing the F# when playing over the C Major key chords? Yes, you could,
BUT that’s the note that makes C Lydian different from C Major, so if you avoid it, you’re just playing the C Major scale without the 4th interval. So you could pepper that #4 note on some of the major chords in the progression but not the entire progression.
For example, if you have a Mixolydian chord progression like this:
I – bVII – IV
Cmaj, Bbmaj, Fmaj
You could use the Mixolydian mode to solo over this entire progression and it will work because all three of these chords are taken from the key of C Mixolydian.
So in short, to choose one single scale to solo over the entire progression you’ll need to see what key the progression is in, and use the scale that has the same notes.
Choosing Scales For Specific Chords
Another approach is to use a different scale over each chord of a progression.
Since each chord will have its own scale, you don’t have to worry about one scale fitting multiple chords.
This gives you more options for scales to use over a single chord.
The important factor when using a different scale over each specific chord is that the simpler the chord, the more options you have for scales you can play over it.
This is because when a chord is simple, there is a lot of room to add more notes on top without the melody clashing with the chord. When there are chord extensions, they take up that room and narrow your options. You’ll end up having to use a scale that has all those chord notes in it.
Let’s see an example in C Major.
ii – V – I
Dmin, Gmaj, Cmaj
As you can see this is all in one key, so the C Major scale would work over everything.
However if we wanted to use a Major mode like C Lydian over the entire thing it would not work well.
This is because as we mentioned earlier, C Lydian has a #4 (F# note) which would clash with the Natural F of the Dmin chord for example. If we avoided that #4 then we’re just playing the Major scale without the 4th interval.
So if you want to play modes over this progression a better approach would be to use modes over each individual chord.
Since all three chords are triads there’s a lot of room for the notes of modes to sound good on top.
There are some tips for choosing what modes can go over which chord.
Match Major Modes with Major Chords and Minor Modes with Minor Chords
This works great because you’ll match the chord quality and also have more than one option for the “spice” you add on top of it depending on each mode.
- Ionian (Major scale)
- Aeolian (Minor scale)
In the case of our example progression:
ii – V – I
Dmin, Gmaj, Cmaj
- Dmin – D Dorian, Phrygian, or Aeolian
- Gmaj – G Ionian, Mixolydian, or Lydian
- Cmaj – C Ionian, Mixolydian, or Lydian
To choose the scales you can play over each specific chord in a progression, pair Major chords with Major Modes and Minor chords with Minor Modes.
Which one you choose beyond that will be a matter of personal preference and the sound you’re going for. Each mode has its own vibe.
What Are “Avoid Notes”?
An important concept to keep in mind when improvising is “Avoid Notes”.
Avoid Notes are notes that are a b2 or b9 interval away from another note. These are often avoided by Jazz players improvising because they clash and sound very dissonant.
As a best practice you’ll want to use scales with the least amount of avoid notes so you can reduce the risk of clashing. No avoid notes is great, one is totally ok if you watch out for it, two or more is not recommended.
Sometimes you can get away with it if the avoid notes are used as a “Passing Note” or a note that you quickly move on from to the next. You just don’t want to linger on it because it will sound ugly and jarring.
An example would be if you had a Dmin chord and you used the Phrygian mode over it. It has a b2 interval which is an Avoid Note.
Many Jazz musicians wouldn’t use Phrygian in this case because of that b2 interval, but metal musicians use it all the time, so some genre’s will use it as a stylistic choice.
However, even when they use it, it is with a thought out intent and as a passing tone a lot of the time. You wouldn’t want to try to resolve a progression to the root note in chords and resolve the lead melody to a b2. That would sound dissonant and not resolved at all.
Hybrid Improvisation Approach – Scales Over Multiple Chords and Some Specific Chords
Some chord progressions may have most chords within the same key, but also have some borrowed chords from outside the key or from a mode.
In this case you can use a hybrid approach to use one scale over multiple chords in the same key and a specific scale over the specific chords outside the key.
This begins to take you into a more advanced way of approaching your improvisation and melodies. You can get more interesting sounds by changing scales over the chord changes. This is part of the concept of “playing over the changes”. I have a bit more info on this further below.
Many musicians also like using arpeggios in their improvisation as well. These aren’t technically scales but are scale-like patterns using the notes that build the chord underneath rather than a strummed chord-like approach.
Using arpeggios in your solos over each chord can help highlight the changes between them. However I don’t recommend you play only the arpeggio over each chord for the entire solo. That would get too predictable.
You would get more out of arpeggios if you instead incorporate short passages and phrases based on them into your melodic phrases.
Playing Over the Changes
One of the goals with using different scales over different chords is to do something called “playing over the changes”.
The idea is to improvise in a way that highlights the chord changes happening underneath but with your melodies.
This can be done with a combination of using arpeggios and scales to highlight the important notes in the rhythm chords as they change from one chord to another.
When done correctly, it makes your solo’s sound more melodic and sounds as if you could almost hear the rhythm chord change to the next one by only listening to the melody itself.
I won’t go into detail about this here because this might be best suited for an article of its own but I wanted to briefly mention it. It’s a closely related concept that you should look into. I will link the article on this later once it’s written.
Using Pentatonic/Blues Scales
As you are choosing scales to improvise with, pentatonic and blues scales can be a powerful tool.
Since they only have 5 notes (hence the name), they often have less chances of clashing with the chords in your progression. They are also easy to play and have a really unique sound.
Try playing short phrases based on pentatonic and blues scales along with the scales that you use and you’ll see it adds a lot of character to your phrasing.
Major Pentatonic scales will fit well over any Major progression and Minor over Minor progressions. You can also do the same over individual chords accordingly as well.
Lastly, one nifty trick is to briefly switch between Major and Minor Pentatonic scales within the same key signature. When you do this with Pentatonics it works, even though it wouldn’t necessarily work with other scales and modes. You always want to come back to the key though.
Wrapping it up
How to choose scales for improvising is one of those questions I always had as a guitar player and I think it is more useful to know how to choose than to know a ton of scales. It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with what you know.
So when it comes to choosing the scales to improvise with now you know that as a guideline you should use the same scale that matches the chord or chord progression in terms of Major or Minor.
You also know now that you can use one scale over a whole progression as long as the scale matches the key (and if it’s with modes then the chords have to be in the key of the mode).
You learned that you can use a single different scale over each individual chord in the progression and that if you want, you can do a hybrid approach where you play one scale over the chords in the same key and switch for the one or two borrowed chords from outside the key.
When it comes to choosing the modes you like, you’re going to have to try them and listen to them. Some genre’s like Jazz will prefer to use a mode like Dorian and others like Metal will prefer to use Phrygian over the same minor chord. And this will change depending on the player’s taste too.
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