How To Go From Scales to Great Jazz Phrases

You are practicing scales so that you know what to play in your solos, but, like me, I am sure that you are quickly realizing that running up and down the scale is a pretty boring solo. Scales is just not music. You need to learn how to take the raw material of the scale and turn that into musical phrases that you can actually use in a solo.

Scales Are Boring

This is about how you think about what you are playing, and realizing that Jazz is a language that you need to learn to speak on your instrument, but, as you will see, once you get used to that thought then that can also help practice in a much more efficient way and get to enjoy your own playing more.

You already know your scales and hopefully, you also checked out some of the essential exercises like the diatonic triads and 7th chord arpeggios in there since those are very useful for not sounding like you are just running up and down a row of notes.


If you don’t know those exercises then check out this lesson on practicing scales.

Jazz Beginner Mistakes – How To Learn Scales

You want to avoid playing solos that just sound like you are running up and down the scale without any direction, completely at random.

Which doesn’t really sound like something that works in a solo.

How To Play A Jazz Phrase on a Cmaj7

So how do you solve this? You need to find a way to construct lines that are not just using random scale notes and that also make sense as an interesting melody and sounds like Jazz.

To keep it simple, let’s just say that you are improvising over a Cmaj7 chord and then I will show you how to start making lines that actually work.

Instead of playing random notes then you want to play something that connects with that chord. A Cmaj7 is C E G B (chord with diagram, right side) and if we play those notes then that will work really well with the chord.

With this you can already start to make something that sounds like music:

The difference is that it is not just running up and down the arpeggio, but instead, you try to hear a melody with the notes, adding some rhythm and hearing where it ends. But it is still pretty limited, so let’s add in some more notes in there, which is easy because there are 3 more notes in the scale.

Scale Notes and Phrases

If you make a line with the arpeggio notes and then start to add in the scale notes around it then you can create something like this:

As you can see the most of the notes are still the chord tones, and the way they are placed in the melody then they still help us connect to, or hear the chord, in fact, you can remove the scale notes and still have a great sounding line:

Sounding Like Jazz – Rhythms and Accents

One of the most important parts of getting a phrase to sound like Jazz is to get some syncopated rhythm in there. You can do this by either using syncopated rhythms like this:

Or by accenting notes so that the accents give you a syncopated rhythm

You get those accented notes by having a high note on an off-beat. In the beginning, you probably need to practice making and hearing melodies like that, but then it gradually becomes a natural part of how you hear melodies and how you improvise.

Adding Some Beautiful Wrong Notes

Another thing that you hear in something like a Wes Montgomery, George Benson or a Charlie Parker solo is chromaticism, which essentially means using wrong notes to create some tension that resolves to a right note. If you just play the “right” notes then it is as if you are missing something, and if you just play the chromatic notes then that sounds like you are just playing something wrong.

It has to make sense in the melody and resolve in the right way.

In this example, you have two types of chromatic phrases. Passing notes that resolve to chord tones, like this:

You can create chromatic phrases that resolve to a chord tone. Here it is connecting 7th to the 5th, G in half-steps. You can also have chromatic phrases that move around the resolution like this:

The enclosures you have here are targeting chord tones, first the 5th and then the 3rd: l (isolate enclosure of G and E)

And of course you want to end up with phrases that combine the two like this:

How You Practice Making Phrases

What you have seen until now are different options for building blocks, so small fragments that you use to build phrases with like the arpeggio, the scale, and two types of chromatic phrases. If you want to work on playing better lines then you should work on putting together phrases, but you can also learn a lot from studying how your favorite soloist plays. The way you do this is by analyzing the solo and try to figure out what building blocks are used and how the different blocks are put together.

Transcribing and analyzing phrases is really powerful because it comes from music that inspires us, and you start with what you hear.

This is not the only option, you can also work with making variations of building blocks by moving them around the scale, onto other chords or using rules not unlike what you find Barry Harris doing in his workshops.

In this video, I was only talking about using the arpeggio of a single chord, but there are many other options that you can work on. If you want to explore how you can start using different arpeggios for a chord and also how you make bebop inspired lines with them then check out this lesson on: “the most important scale exercise in Jazz”

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