How to Play Jazz Scales

To play jazz, you need to understand the modes, or special scales, of jazz. Although these can be challenging for beginners, with a bit of practice you'll be jazzing up all your music!


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    Take any major scale. This is the ionian mode, as it starts on the first degree of the scale- in other words, the ionian is another word for a major scale.
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    Now, play the same scale, but start from the second note of the scale. This is called the dorian mode.
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    Now, if we start on the third note, this is called the Phrygian mode.
    • In essence, you can start on any note of a major scale, and it will be a jazz mode. The full list, as well as the notes they will have starting on C major, is thus:
    • Ionian- starts on C; Dorian- starts on D; Phrygian- starts on E; Lydian- starts on F; Mixolydian- starts on G; Aeolian- starts on A;
    • Locrian- starts on B
      • In general, the best way to find the respective chords you use these scales over is by taking the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the root.
      • For example, C ionian (or major) scale consists of C, D, E, F, G, A and B. The 1st is C, the 3rd is E, the 5th is G and the 7th is B.
      • So that is the chord you would play it over- C major 7.
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    Practice. Here is a list of some of the chords you would play on these scales, again from C major:
    • Ionian- C major 7; Dorian- D minor 7; Phrygian- E minor 7; Lydian- F major 7; Mixolydian- G dominant 7; Aeolian- A minor 7; Locrian- B half diminished/B minor b5
      • However, the scales you use over a chord also relies heavily over the context in which you use them- for example, if the key was D Major, you wouldn't use E phrygian over E minor 7, but rather more likely would be E dorian.
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    Remember that these aren't the only scales you can use over these chords.
    • You can use pentatonic scales for Major and minor that work very well for soloing
    • You can use inversions of harmonic minor scales
    • You can use inversions of ASCENDING melodic minor scales. **(However, melodic descending scales are, in essence, dorian scales, and therefore they are not needed in jazz.)
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    Learn Diminished scales- these are complicated and hard to memorize, but they can be extremely useful. There are two options- you either play:
    • Root, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, and Semitone brings you back the root, OR
    • Root, Semitone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Semitone, and Tone brings you back to the root.
      • These both work, because they both have the chord tones (or notes in the chord) of the diminished chords.
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    You can also play whole tone scales, which are:
    • Root, Tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, and Tone brings you back to the root.
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    Learn other scales. There are major pentatonic scales, which are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes in an ionian, or major scale.
    • There are also minor pentatonics, which start on the 6th of the major pentatonic, and starting from the root go: 1st, Minor 3rd, 4th, 5th and Dominant/Minor 7th.
    • Blues scales are simply minor pentatonics with a #4 in between the 4th and fifth.


  • This information can take years to learn, but don't be dissuaded- it is worth it.
  • The best way to get "fluent" at this is practice, and even better if it is with a band. A possible substitute (and a very effective one, at that) for a band is Jamey Aebersold's publications, that come with a play-along CD.
  • Try to buy a jazz book with information that complements the above.
  • Try learning one mode in all the keys, as you won't merely need it in C major for your whole life!


  • This is not easy, but don't give up too soon if you are finding it hard. This information alone won't make you a great jazzer- try to find a competent jazz teacher in your area.

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Categories: Music | Music Techniques