Practicing Scales Through Changes with Jens Larsen

A lesson describing a way to practice your scales through a chord progression to get more free when improvising over it.

Practicing Scales Through Changes with Jens Larsen
9
This lesson is about a very simple exercise that should make you better at improvising freely over changing chords.

If you improvise you probably practice scales, and I have already made a few lesson on how you can practice your scales: Diatonic Arpeggios - How to use and practice and Diatonic Arpeggios - Superimposing and altered dominants. But probably you deal with them one at a time as I do for the most part in these lessons, and not like you do when improvising over for example a jazz standard where the chords changes once or twice per bar.

Melodies rules the harmonies!

When you improvise you need to make melodies on several scales and it should still sound like one melody, not like you and not get stuck in a chord change. The goal is to let the melodies you improvise rule what happens more than the changing harmony. For that reason it's useful to practice connecting scales because since we want to be as free as possible melodically when we improvise.

The Exercise

The Idea is quite simple: For each chord in a progression you have a scale, play the scale for the duration of the chord. In this lesson I've chosen one bar per chord and I am playing the scales in 8th notes.

This approach works the best if the chords are changing in a way that the scales a very different, so it I chose to use a turnaround, a I IV II V with altered dominants as an example. It also works really well with f.ex Coltrane Changes.

Here's the turnaround.


For Bbmaj7 and Cm7 I am using this scale:


For G7alt I am using this position of the Abm Melodic Minor scale:



And for F7alt I am using this scale:


Here is a transcription of how I play twice through the turnaround using this exercise in the video:


As I explain and demonstrate in the video you can use this approach not only while playing scales but also doing other exercises like diatonic 3rds, arpeggios, triads etc.

Here's a short transcription of a part of what I play at the end of the video:


About the Author:
By Jens Larsen. There are more lessons on the website: www.jenslarsen.nl. If you have any questions or comments then feel free to leave them here or on the video. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel and feel free to connect with me via Facebook, Google+ or Twitter to keep up to date with new lessons, concerts and releases.

34 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Deadds
    "I should probably make a lesson on it at some point anyway" No. You should've made the lesson on altered scales way before introducing any of this. Calling it "simple" is completely wrong, specially when the reasoning behind the scales isn't explained and your other lesson barely scratches at that. And "G7alt"? What are you altering, the 9, the 13, is there a #4? Why can't you just say that it's a G7(#9) chord? The first time I saw that i thought it was a simple mistake, but now it needs to be corrected, especially on the other lessons. What about explaining the use of the 4th degree of the Bbmaj scale during the Bbmaj chord? That should have been the first paragraph. If you're gonna skip past all the basics then you need to let the reader know where they can get the information. The first comment should be proof of that.
    Chris Zoupa
    Deadds, you're an entitled rude jerk. You're constantly a douchebag on this website. Try being more thankful for people creating amazing content for free.
    jenslarsen
    Thanks for you comment! When I refer to G7alt, it means that it can have only altered extensions so b9,#9,b5,#5 (or b13) The reason that I use it is because it rules out that it is a dominant from the harmonic minor scale. This would not be clear if I only write G7(#9) or G7b9. That way of notating is common practice with jazz people as far as I know. In my opinion an altered scale is not really that much more complicated than any other scale, but that is of course my opinion. I am not sure what you mean with the 4th degree of the BbMajor scale. Do you mean that the Eb is not a note that you want to sustain on a BbMajor chord? I've had this discussion once before and I really don't think that it makes any sense to write thousands of words defining things that are anyway not specifically related to the subject I am writing about in the lesson. The turnaround is after all not the subject, the approach to playing scales through it is. Jens
    Chris Zoupa
    Oh Jens, don't even bother defending yourself to trolls. I'm an amazing guitarist and teacher recognised by people in my hometown/country and across the world and YOU always have content that makes me think! Keep up the good work mate!
    Deadds
    "This would not be clear if I only write G7(#9) or G7b9" A G7b9 implies a natural 13 and would have to be written as G13(b9) A G7b9 implies an Ab Diminished Scale A b13 and altered 9 has to be in the chord or it must be omitted in the spelling of the chord. G7(b9 omit13) "That way of notating is common practice with jazz people as far as I know" Most of your readers don't have that information. "As far as I know" is a terrible excuse. In teaching a "simple" lesson, you can't skip over crucial items no matter how insignificant they may seem to you.
    jenslarsen
    Don't try to correct me if you do not understand what you are talking about. Sorry there's really no polite way to say that. G7b9 does NOT imply any sort of 13 it does however contain a natural 5th. In 95% of the contexts where you find one it will be a dominant in a minor key or borrowed from a minor key so it will have a b13 and you use harmonic minor (ask Yngwie...). Look at standard melodies like Fly me to the moon or Softly as in a morning sunrise for examples. I don't know if you read the wrong book about this or just misunderstood it, but what you say is at least not based on experience that much is clear. You come across as if you find it unpleasant to be confronted with something that somebody thinks is easy and you think is difficult and your reaction is that you get offended? I hope you realize that you can't learn it with an attitude like that. If you don't understand altered scales, then try google look it up so you have a shot at understanding it. Or ask politely... I really can't start all lessons with "The 1st string of the guitar is the note E, the first fret is the note F....." and sometimes that means that a lesson is going to be out of your comfort zone, this happens to everybody. I personally try to learn something when I am in a situation like that. Also: My name and my credentials are clearly visible. You want to know who you are talking to look at my website. Who are you that you are such an expert on harmony and teaching? Sometimes being anonymous is to easy.. Jens
    Chris Zoupa
    Deadds, you're an entitled rude jerk. You're constantly a douchebag on this website. Try being more thankful for people creating amazing content for free.
    Chris Zoupa
    Deadds, you're an entitled rude jerk. You're constantly a douchebag on this website. Try being more thankful for people creating amazing content for free.
    lim.joeyj
    Hi Jens, thanks for the lesson. Am I missing something though? You say the progression is a I IV II V, but isn't G the VI of Bb? Also, could you explain this statement a bit more? "When I refer to G7alt, it means that it can have only altered extensions so b9,#9,b5,#5 (or b13) The reason that I use it is because it rules out that it is a dominant from the harmonic minor scale. This would not be clear if I only write G7(#9) or G7b9." Why does G7alt signify that it is not a dominant from the harmonic minor scale, and why is that important? Does it have something to with the following Cm7 chord? I hope my question isn't too vague. But thanks again. Joey
    jenslarsen
    Not vague at all! Yep that is a typo, sorry. It should be I VI II V. The G7 thing: The exercise is easier to hear if I have as few common notes between scales as possible, therefore it is nice to use the altered scale since one of the strong notes on Bb is a D and the D is not in the G altered scale. G7b9 or G7#9 could both have an unaltered 5th so they could be taken from the diminished scale(G7#9 or G7b9) or the harmonic minor scale (G7b9). It is a bit pedantic, and maybe it's not that important. I just tried to be clear and avoid too much discussion of the best choice of scale for the dominants. Playing dominants from the harmonic minor scale would be fine on both G7 and F7. Is that a bit clearer?
    lim.joeyj
    Ok I've understood your explanation of the G7 thing now. Thanks for that, that is a lot clearer. But then I got confused again when you said "Playing dominants from the harmonic minor scale would be fine on both G7 and F7". Sorry. What do you mean by "playing dominants"? I think this is a phrase I'm not familiar with. To clarify, We are playing the melodic minor scale a half-step up from the dominant chords, which is the same as the altered scale of the chord. So we're playing scales that contain the b5 (and all the other alterations) over the altered dominants. If we were to play the harmonic minor scales of the G7/F7, then there would be a p5 that is not in the altered dominant, and there would be some alterations missing like the b2.
    jenslarsen
    This might get a little theory heavy.. When I say playing dominants from the Harmonic minor scale would fit to I mean this: F7b9 is the dominant in Bb harmonic minor: so F Gb A Bb C Db Eb F (it is also sometimes referred to as Mixolydian b9b13 or Phrygian Major)) so the b2 (b9 is a better term in this context btw) is still there. For the G7 it's the same, C Harm minor from G to G. In both cases the dominants are resolving (F7->Bbmaj7 and G7->Cm7) so in that case you can use any sort of alterations you want and still have a natural resolution. That means in the case of F7, the 1st choice would be mixolydian (since it is in a Bb major context) but besides that we can choose practically any other dominant 7th sound we want: Harmonic minor(or Mixob9b13 if you want to call it that), Altered (Indeed Gb melodic minor), diminished scale, whole tone etc. etc. In the case of the G7 it is a dominant resolving to a minor chord so in the context the natural choice will be a dominant from harmonic minor. Mixolydian(so as the dominant of C major) would sound a bit off. For the rest we can throw the same scales in the mix. Does that help? Jens
    lim.joeyj
    Ok. Thanks a lot for your time and lengthy explanations by the way Jens. For some reason I was interpreting your words as meaning playing the G and F harmonic minor scales over G7/F7, rather than the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scales of C and Bb, which makes much more sense (although now I wonder if it works to play the harmonic minor scale treating the G/F as the root over the G7/F7 chords, or if that is a convoluted way of thinking about an already established concept). Anywho, to make sure I got this: you mean that (1) playing the dominant of the C harmonic minor scale (G Mixb9b13) over a G7 resolving to Cm gives us all the most in-the-box notes. And (2) F mixolydian of course gives us the same effect for F7 to Bb Major. (3) However since we are using the G7alt for this exercise, we use the altered scales to ensure that we match the possibility of a V7#9 and a b5, which aren’t covered when we play the mixolydian b9b13.
    jenslarsen
    No problem! I am happy that you spend time on my lesson! I figured you might mean G harmonic minor over a G7 chord from your remark about the b2 missing... If you want to have an idea how it sounds then try playing a G harmonic minor chord in the progression instead of a the G7, something like Dm7 GmMaj7 CMaj7? The scale does not have the B and also not the F so it might not sound really close to a G7. And for your list: 1. Yes, 2. Yes and 3. Yes Jens
    kaptinjoe
    I have a question about the I IV II V progression, since Bb is I, C is II, F is V, wouldn't D# be IV instead of G? Could you please explain this since I am not too knowledgeable when it comes to theory? Also, I enjoyed the lesson.
    jenslarsen
    Thanks! Indeed! it's a typo. I meant to write VI not IV. Btw The 4th note in Bb would be written Eb not D# (you try to use each letter once in a scale)
    proudestmonkey4
    Hey thanks for another great article... Keep em coming Just one thing - I'm a little confused on how you knew which scale to play. For example, I realized you are playing the Bb Maj scale over the Bbmaj7, but why the CM7? I'm also not entirely used to seeing any of those chords so that could be why it's throwing me off. To simplify it, say you have a progression that is C, AM, D, G. I know you could easily play the A minor pentatonic over the first two. How about the next two, E minor pent?
    jenslarsen
    Thanks! The turnaround I am using is in Bb so that's how I deal with the Bbmajor7 chord and the Cm7 chord. Bb is the 1st degree of Bb and Cm7 is the II degree. In modal terms you'd call it C dorian, but since the whole progression is related to Bb I tend to think of it as a chord within the Bb tonality (this might be a bit vague?) The other chords are altered dominants so with them there is really only one scale choice: the altered scale. To some degree I chose altered dominants to have scales that were not too similar because that makes it easier to hear the exercise, if the scales are very similar it is hard to hear that you change scale. As for your example. I don't know the song and it could be in several keys so it is hard to give a really good answer. Your choices for Am and Em pentatonic are not wrong, but it might be handy with an F# in the scale for the D chord, so maybe Bminor? That might work for the G but probably Dm or Em pentatonic would be better. Again it is a bit hard to say that from the chord symbols alone when they are only triads. The song could be in G but also in C and even A minor... Hope that helps a bit Jens Edit: Now that I think about it.. Maybe you would be better of doing this exercise but note with scales but with the arpeggios of the chords? Just a thought...
    MaggaraMarine
    C Am D G is one of the most basic progressions in C major (I-vi-II-V though usually D is Dm, but using D major instead isn't that rare - it functions as the secondary dominant for the G major chord). Just play C major over everything but when you play over the D major chord, change your F to F#. Over everything else C major should work perfectly.
    Sir_Taffey
    Thanks for the lesson! The "alt" thing throws me a bit for chords and scales but what do I know, I'm just the metalhead pretending to be a real musician But this is a cool idea. I never thought this was in the rulebook as far as harmony went!
    jenslarsen
    I think you'll get altered scale eventually, I should probably make a lesson on it at some point anyway. It is pretty much a jazz only thing AFAIK. Thanks for checking it out!
    Eastwinn
    forget the scales, use your ears.
    Jimjambanx
    Scales are kind of important when improvising, unless you want to be making a ton of mistakes and awful sounding notes because you have no idea what scales are used in what contexts.
    MaggaraMarine
    If you can use your ears, you won't play any "wrong" sounding notes. If you play "wrong" notes, it means you can't use your ears that well. If you don't learn any theory, it will take more time to train your ears but I'm pretty sure it's doable. You don't need to think about scales when improvising. But I think you need to know where the tonic is. You don't need to know all the fancy names. I would say there are two (really) useful scales that are major and minor. If you learn them by ear and then learn to recognize (and play) every accidental, you don't need to learn any other scales. You can just use minor and major (depending on the key of the song) as your "base scale" and when you want to play an accidental, play an accidental. I would say scales do help finding the right notes (and by right notes I mean the notes you are hearing in your head). If it belongs to the scale, you'll hear it, and if it doesn't, you'll hear it. Using scales/ears isn't exclusive. You can use both. But especially using your ears is important. Even if you know all scales in the world, you still can't use them, unless you use your ears. (And by using your ears I don't mean listening to your playing and thinking "this sounds good". I mean listening to the sounds in your head and playing what you hear.)
    Jimjambanx
    The thing is though every note you play is part of a scale. Even if you say "Oh I'm just playing a random blues lick by ear" chances are you're using the blues scale. If you say "I'm just playing some bends over a rock track" chances are you're using the pentatonic scale. The first guy basically implies that knowing any scales is useless, but unless you know what notes sound good how are you going to play any sort of improv? Unless you memorize every single sound on the fretboard and can tell what will sound nice before you even play it, you're not going to have any confidence in your improvisation. Using scales doesn't mean playing the first note to the last note, it's knowing what works over a given backdrop, and if you don't know that, then you're throwing punches in the dark. I agree that it's mostly your ear that you need, but without any basic knowledge of scales your improve is going to be shit, especially when playing over changes. Even just learning, as you said, the major and minor scales is fine, but saying to forget scales is just ignorant.
    kashmar88
    You need both. If you just play something that theoretically makes sense, you end up with soulless nothing. If you just "use your ears," yeah, it can sound good, and even project emotion and feeling. But it's much easier to know where to go and how to improvise with a healthy knowledge of theory and tonics (especially if the piece has modal interchanges).
    johnnydead83
    You can do fine using just your ear when improvising, but it's also good to learn the scales just to leave that option open. I'm a bit of a newbie at guitar (only been playing for a couple years) and started out using just my ears to figure out what sounded good, but everyone says my improvisation sounds better after learning scales.
    jenslarsen
    Actually I never practiced this exercise on this progression before I made this lesson. I often used it for Coltrane changes and other symmetrical moving stuff. Now it's part of my daily routine as a part of my scale practice