Jazz Beginner Mistakes – How To Learn Scales

When I started playing Jazz then I came from improvising mostly with the pentatonic scale, playing phrases, and licks in the scale without really worrying about what I was playing and especially what notes.

Once I got interested in Jazz, in fact, mostly in Charlie Parker solos, then I realized that I needed to use 7 note scales, and that was a lot more tricky to get to sound right and especially to get to sound like great jazz lines

Just practicing the scale, up and down doesn’t teach you how to do that and there is a much better way to practice the scales, one that helps you learn to play Jazz faster and sound in the right way.

Which Scales Do You Need?

First, you need to figure out which scales you need.

Playing Jazz is associated with scales, and often also with a lot of scales with a lot of fancy names. But when you start then you are better off not drowning yourself in different scales, simply because it is more work to learn to use a scale than to learn to play it. Just start with the major scale, and if you are new to major scales then start in a single position

You can add to it later and knowing the scale well in one position will help you learn the others as well. Starting with 5 or 7 positions in one go and trying to be able to play and improvise in them all is not as efficient in the beginning, and you might get overwhelmed and lose the overview, and getting an overview is why you practice scales in the first place.

If you practice in the way that I outline later in this video, then learning other scales and being able to use them will become a lot easier because you can leverage what you already know.

CAGED, 3NPS, Berklee doesn’t matter

A discussion that sometimes appears at this point is what type of scale system should I use, and there are quite a few, CAGED, 3NPS, and Berklee being the big 3. This can sometimes lead to heated discussions, but In the end, it doesn’t matter too much, do what feels more natural to you, you can even change along the way.

Basic Exercises

How do you start? The first thing is to practice the scale, for example, this position of C major:

Try to play it slowly, evenly with alternate picking. Connect the notes, because otherwise, you are going to sound choppy when you have to play faster

Be aware of the notes you play, so first the root

You can even practice the scale while saying the notes you are playing.

The first technical exercise that you should do in the scale beyond playing it is to play it in 3rds.

Scale in 3rds

The reason for this is that when you play Jazz then you are using the notes of the chord, and chords are built in 3rds so you are preparing yourself for learning the diatonic arpeggios, triads, and 7th chords that are found in the scale.

What Do You Need To Play Jazz

What do you need to play jazz phrases? If you look at this fairly typical jazz lick

Jazz Lick – chromaticism arpeggio

Then you can see that it uses a 7th chord arpeggio, Cmaj7, and some chromaticism mixed in with scale notes.

Beyond practicing the scale itself then the things you want to practice are the things you need in your solo. Arpeggios seem like a very useful candidate, to begin with.

The Arpeggios Are In The Scales

When I was first taught arpeggios the I was told to practice them as separate positions. In that way, learn them as independent things, not connecting them to scales or anything else.

A few years later, when I was in a Barry Harris masterclass in the Hague, I learned from Barry Harris that I should know how to play the diatonic arpeggios of the scales, and he talked about how to use them.

If you practice the arpeggios like that you get something like this:

Diatonic Arpeggios

If you know how to play this exercise then you have material that you can use on a lot of chords that you come across in C major, and you see the arpeggios together with the other notes that you have available when you solo. It is already connected to the rest of the material you can use.

II V I lick with diatonic arpeggios

For me, this was really a gamechanger, when you connect the arpeggio to the scale like this it is much easier to play the arpeggio with an extra scale note and also to see how the notes move from one chord to the next, which makes it a lot easier to make strong lines that outline the chords. But there is a lot more you can get out of it, as you will see later in the video. (highlight voice-leading in a lick, overlay lick while talking)

Another thing that is worth noting is that most of the time when you come across arpeggios in Jazz solos, then they are one-octave arpeggios in the middle of a line or even with scale notes in between, so practicing them like this is much more efficient and closer to how you use them in Jazz. As you can see in this transcription (Parker solo transcription?)

How To Practice and Use Them

You can practice the arpeggios from each note in the scale like this (example 4) and again you want to play them cleanly, equal in volume, not too fast, and connecting the notes as much as possible. Another way of practicing them that is useful is to practice up one and down the next

This is actually a bit easier because you don’t have the large interval skip from one arpeggio to the next. In general, you want to practice different things to build flexibility and work towards being free when you improvise, so coming up with variations is something that will help you with that.

If you start thinking of the scales and the exercises like this, then you want to find out what you want to use in a solo and then practice that in your scales so that you learn all the useful variations building a vocabulary you can use in solos.

From Arpeggios to Lines

There are many ways that you can use these arpeggios, to get started it makes sense to just play the arpeggios on a chord progression

Example 7 (no backing)

To turn this into something you can use in a solo then you can use the notes around the arpeggios and add some nice rhythms as well.

For the Dm7, this is the arpeggio:

And you can turn that into a more interesting line by adding the E in between the first two notes:

In this way you can start to work on making lines like this:

Here I am using the Dm7 phrase, a triplet on the G7, and also adding an A to the Cmaj7 arpeggio.

The Mighty Triad

Another obvious one is to also check out the diatonic triads which as you will see we can easily connect to the chords and also are great for creating super-strong lines.

Going over the triads in the scale gives you an exercise like this:

And finding triads to use with a chord is very easy:

If you look at a Dm7 then that is D F A C

Here we already have two triads: Dm: D F A and F major F A C.

For the G7: G B D F – G B D and B diminished and Cmaj7: C major and Em

And using these to make lines could sound like this:

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