5 Scale Exercises That Make It Easier To Learn Jazz

Scale Exercises are the source of a  lot of problems. I remember running into this myself when I was starting out and I also hear about it often from students.  You practice a lot of exercises, but is it really helping you play better, or are you just repeating the same exercises without getting anywhere?

For me,  there were some exercises that really were game changers in learning Jazz, simply because they could do more than just teach me how to play an arpeggio or a scale, and if you want to improve your playing then you should check if they won’t also be very useful for you.

What is maybe a little weird about them is that they are not all the type of exercise that you work on everyday for months with a metronome, because there are other things you need to learn besides technique, and there are other ways to practice than using a metronome. I think  one of them is also a very powerful and practical way to build a fretboard overview.

Is this a video with a list that get’s filled in along the way? (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5 visible from the beginning)

#1 The Scale

With a build-up like this is then it is maybe a bit of a disappointment that the first exercise is practicing the scale,  since you are hopefully doing that already and you probably trying to not sound like you are playing scales when you solo and want to develop your musicality. But, playing the scale and knowing what notes are in there is important and as you will see it will serve as a foundation for everything else in this video plus that it is the shortest exercise you can imagine with a scale,

just make sure that you:

  1. Start with the major scale in one position before adding other positions and other scales
  2. Gradually get around to all keys so that you get flexible with that
  3. Don’t just play them mindlessly but try to make them sound good and be aware of what you are playing.

There is a video of Pat Metheny turning scale practice into music which I think is very inspiring.

The next exercise is a logical extension of practicing scales, and also what I often refer to as “the most important exercise for Jazz”, but remember that if you are practicing scales then it only takes a short amount of time to go over a key in all positions, and you can set up systems so that you get through all keys over a few days. It shouldn’t take hours of practice every day because you also need to play music when you practice!

As you will see with the rest of the exercises then it is important to connect things, not only the scale, arpeggios and vocabulary, but also chords, you will see what I mean.

#2 Diatonic Arpeggios

I learned this exercise the first time I went to a Barry Harris masterclass in the Hague, and it was an exercise that changed everything about how I practiced and made it all much closer connected to the music that I wanted to learn to play: Bebop. And for me, the goal of all of these exercises is to help you play better Jazz, and this exercise is actually a direct link to the music, and I think it is crazy that not everyone teaches this to their students.

Diatonic Arpeggios sounds difficult, but it is pretty simple, if you play the scale in positions then you can play a 7th chord arpeggio for each note in the scale by essentially stacking 3rds.

Explainer/close-up (a bit quick since it is twice) – hand + diagram + letters?

Show the process of stacking 3rds:

For C major if I start on C, then I build a 7th chord by stacking 3rds: C, E, G, B which is Cmaj7

for Dm7 it is the same thing: D, F, A, C.

You can probably tell that there are obvious technical benefits to working on this exercise, but if you are also aware of what notes and what arpeggios you are playing then you are really connecting some very important information on the guitar to the chords you want to solo over.

Doing this exercise makes it possible for you to take a Jazz standard and play arpeggios through the entire progression, which is a great beginning for internalizing a song and having a place to start with soloing over it, where you take an arpeggio and build a phrase around it.

Besides being a very solid foundation for improvising over chords and learning songs then it will also give you a lot more material, because if you analyze transcriptions of great Jazz musicians then you will find a lot of other arpeggios being used besides the arpeggio of the chord itself, and you are completely ready for doing that if you work on this exercise.

Take a look at how this line uses other arpeggios over the chords than the chord itself.

There are arpeggios from other chord tones that sound great over the chords, and like this you already know them!

Example II V I with other arpeggios.  — First play it then cut to quick highlights with the line above as voice over

Let’s look at some exercises that are not just regular exercises, but also incorporate some chords before we get to exercises for vocabulary and fretboard overview

#3 Diatonic Chords

When you are playing Jazz then you are both playing solos and chords because you are not soloing ALL the time, and you can practice chords in scales as well, which for me was a very useful way to work on exploring new voicings, getting familiar with diatonic chords and how their extensions sound. You can even do chords in scale positions.

This exercise is actually possible with all types of chords, but the most basic version is probably a good place to start and that is to go through the major keys using shell-voicings.

If you know your major scales well enough to know the notes in there then this can be a great exercise since it is not always practical to start on the root.

For example, if you want to play Diatonic chords in C major with the shell-voicings that have the root on the 6th string then you can’t start on C, and F or E is a better option.

You could also explore doing this in a position, but that will not be useful for that many types of voicings, thought it is a nice exercise for the shell voicings:

The main benefits from this exercise are:

  • Know the chords in a key, and how they sound
  • Making it easier to play songs & hear the harmony
  • Exploring how chords move through a scale

Now, you have  the scale linked to both arpeggios and chords, so let’s connect it to the notes that are not in the scale since they are a part of the picture in Jazz as well.

#4 Chromatic Notes

This exercise is such a simple concept but when I first came across it then it  immediately  resonated with me and it really sounds like Jazz, already as an exercise. Of course, this comes from how frequently it is a building block in Jazz solos and especially Bebop lines. When I was given the exercise then I had already heard it 1000s of times in the solos Charlie Parker, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery, so playing it really just made that click into place and gave me tons of phrases to use in my solos.

I am, as you may have guessed, talking about the Bebop arpeggio exercise, which I have also mentioned in other videos, and this was an exercise that I learned the first time I was at a Barry Harris workshop in the Hague.

The exercise is simple, you play each diatonic arpeggio as an 8th-note triplet and add a leading note in front of it, but it is also a great example of an exercise that is already vocabulary,

something you can use in countless lines and actually also illustrates why Barry’s method is so powerful: It is based on making exercises that are already solo lines, like this:

Obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg, and you can do so much more with adding chromatic notes or even chromatic phrases to arpeggios or intervals, and they will all be good exercise, in fact any vocabulary that you like is probably worth taking apart and turning into exercises.

Most of them will not be used as often as this one in solos, but they are still fun and useful to explore.

You can let me know in the comments if you want a link to a playlist with some of the Barry Harris videos I have done that go deeper into his method and  his system for chromatic notes.

The Bebop arpeggio exercise is the typical “scale exercise” that you can work on in all keys and positions with a metronome. You could approach the next exercise like that as well, but I am not sure I think that is the point of it really. However, It does really fit with the Barry Harris ideology and it is the BEST exercise for building a practical overview of the fretboard.

#5 Vocabulary

I remember when I was starting out and with a lot of the songs I could solo over, then there would be chords where I did not have the freedom to move around on the neck, I was stuck in a single position. if I had been given these exercises then that would have developed a lot faster than it did, in fact this is probably the most practical and efficient fretboard knowledge exercise that you can work on.

The idea of learning a phrase and taking it through all 12 keys isn’t usually considered a scale exercise, but it really is a great exercise for your overview of the scale and it will help you get better at finding the things that you want to use in your solos on the instrument.

Of course, phrases don’t always fit in a single scale, but then the different scales that are in the phrase anyway go together in the music so linking them up is incredibly useful.


There are two ways you can approach this, which are different takes on the geometry of the guitar, and both are equally useful. In the end, you can use both long and short phrases and explore how it is to move them around, but for this I will stick to a relatively short phrase which is a pivot arpeggio

and an altered dominant line

like this:

Example Bebop line  + Bebop line in one position and lots of keys and Bebop line in one key and several positions (Maybe Joe Pass Etudes in several positions)

The first variation is the traditional approach, so take the phrase through all 12 keys (and yes, for stuff like this the whole 15 or 30 keys or whatever that was, doesn’t make any sense at all, so 12 keys!). For this one, I am going to focus on staying around the same area of the neck, it probably won’t make sense to insist on staying completely in the same position, instead the priority should be to stay in the same area while keeping it playable and also possible to play with decent phrasing. This is much more useful, and you want to be practical!

This phrase combines an altered dominant with the key of the II V I which is a really useful connection, and taking it through the keys help you identify important building blocks in those keys and also know what the altered dominant is in those keys, which is (obviously) going to be very useful, we are not all playing in bands like AC/DC where 85% of the songs are in A.

If you are working on this exercise with licks that have common progressions and common building blocks then this is a great exercise for your playing, fretboard overview, ear training and vocabulary. It is good for a LOT of things.

The Guitaristic version of this is also really worthwhile, because you can also use this to develop the visual skills associated with the guitar and your overview of the neck.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this section then I found myself in a place where I was practicing scales in all positions, but I was only able to solo in some of those positions. I only knew how to play the scale in some places without having any vocabulary. Taking a simple phrase and then sticking to one key, but exploring how to play it in all positions is in a way the guitar version of moving a lick through 12 keys, and that can be an exercise that really opens up scale positions for you. When you find the building blocks that you need in each position by moving some lines through the positions, then it gets easier to solo in those positions. In fact, I was given this exercise by a teacher later when I moved to Copenhagen and it did indeed quickly start to do exactly that for my playing. This is also the kind of exercise that you can explore doing with the shot solos from the book the Joe Pass Guitar Style to get more out of them, but you can check that video out later.

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