Tag Archives: altered scale guitar lesson

It Is The Sound That Is Important! – Altered Scale

Altered Scale Is A Sound

Like most students, you probably find it difficult to learn using the altered scale because it seems too theoretical and complicated, but if you don’t start with that and instead think of it as a way to go from phrases that sound like this

To also have the option to play this beautiful sound:

Then that is a much better starting point, and THAT is how you want to learn it: As a sound, in fact, many things get easier if you approach them like that as you will see in this video.

The Problem With Theory

The way to learn something is to analyze it, understand it, and internalize it. For many things in life that is a great approach. If you are trying to learn to use Excel or cooking following recipes, but starting with music theory and turning that into music is often not very efficient.

If I say that it is a dominant with a b5, b13, b9 and #9 then that is probably not really helping you make music with the scale, and the same would be the case if I said the notes so Bb and F over D7. Telling you that D altered is the same scale as Eb melodic minor also doesn’t really give you an idea about how it sounds or how to play something with it, but I will fix that in a bit and show you examples of Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass using altered scale.

Listen To The Chords

The problem is that it is not music when you describe it as numbers or letters, so instead of analyzing it then first find some examples to listen to so that you have an idea about what it sounds like, and for that to work it is better to have some context to the altered dominant, not just playing a dominant isolated, that is never how it is used. Let’s start with the chords:

Altered dominants are mostly used with dominants that resolve, so for the D7 it is a D7 that resolves to a G chord. Which is great news because you can then use it in a II V I and use the II and the I chord to add some context to how it sounds.

A D7 altered chord can be a dominant with a b13 and a b9 so it sounds like this:

You probably want to compare that to the same progression with this chord that does not have the altered extensions:

The thing you want to listen for is that there is less movement going on from chord to chord. I’ll get back to that in a bit, but notice that more notes are staying the same going from chord to chord.

Another example that you want to hear could be a D7 with a b5 and a #9, and here I am also moving a few of the voices in the chord:


You want to try and play the chords and listen to them, maybe move them into songs you know to hear that, which may mean transposing them to another key. Just use the chords and listen to how it sounds,

because that will tell you more than know that it is a b9,b13 chord.

Play Altered Lines

But you also want to figure out how this works in a solo, and I’ll start by showing you how to play the scale and how to play some simple but clear lines and then you can use that to start to get it into your ears and give yourself a place to start with using this sound in your own solos.

Let’s start with this way of playing the D altered scale:

And again putting it into the context of a II V I really helps hearing how it sounds:


It is also useful to compare this to a similar II V I without the altered dominant:

Notice how the altered scale is a sound, and see if you can hear how this example sounds similar to other altered dominant lick:

What Is The Point Of Altered Dominants?

Now that you hear how the altered dominant sounds in a chord progression and also how it sounds compared to the regular dominant then the purpose of altered dominants is easier to understand:

They are there to add tension which in this case is coming from having notes that resolve in half-steps up or down when the chord moves from D7 to Gmaj7.

The altered dominant is a way to create outside tension on the song, and a tension that is easy to resolve using the strongest harmonic connection we have: dominant to tonic.

But how do you solo over it, and what do you play if it says D7alt?

Give Me The Scale Already!

As you already saw then the scale can be played like this:

And since the point of the scale is to resolve to Gmaj7 then you can create licks that move around but also has a direction towards a note on the Gmaj7:

One exercise that can be great to begin to  get the sound into your ears is again leaning more on the chords:

Listen to how each note in the altered scale resolves moving from to the tonic chord. I’ll go over it quickly but maybe try to play it yourself and really listen to it:

Let’s figure out how to make some licks, and talk a bit about why it is often enough to write alt on a dominant chord.

This Is How To Make Licks

If you spend all your time practicing scales, you are doing it wrong! So while it is worth it to figure out how the different notes of D altered resolve then you are better off relying on the fact that the scale is also Eb melodic minor,

and if you have practiced that and checked out the diatonic arpeggios and triads. Then you can use that for D altered as well, it is already in your fingers, and I’ll show you an example of Joe Pass thinking like that as well.

For Melodic minor you have these diatonic chords: EbmMaj7 Fm7 Gbmaj7(#5) Ab7 Bb7 Cø Dø

If you want to play solos using the altered scale then you don’t want to just run up and down the scale and If you are exploring the altered scale then you probably know how to make lines using arpeggios, but in the scale there is no D7 arpeggio, and if you try then Dø sounds pretty weak and difficult to get to sound good.

You can use most of the arpeggios but there are two that are easier to start with because they immediately connect with the D7.

If you look at the D7 chord I played earlier in the video:

Then the top part of that chord is a Cø and that is a diatonic chord in Eb melodic minor

so that is a great place to start already arpeggio up scale down works:

The reason this arpeggio works is that it contains both a C and an F# + some core altered notes like the b9 and the b13.

The other arpeggio you can use that also contains C and F# is Ab7:

The Cø arpeggio is usually easier to get to work and from there you get used to the sound and can start exploring other arpeggios. But it is as important to keep checking out licks and analyze those to get ideas.

How Wes Montgomery & Joe Pass Use Altered

Besides the arpeggios, there are a few other very common devices that really nail the altered sound, and some of them are only four notes. Wes demonstrates one in his solo on Yesterdays, even if he plays it an octave lower than what is most commonly used:

It is A7 altered so the scale is Bb melodic minor and I see this as build around a Bbm triad.

If you play it an octave higher which is also a very common way to use it, then you can also see how it is almost build around an A7 chord voicing

And I see that as build around this voicing

The most common 4-note phrase that Joe Pass uses really a lot is in this example. It is really just a minor triad with an extra note:

And these licks also show you that connection to the melodic minor scale, and a few bars later Joe Pass makes that really clear with this D7alt lick in the turnaround which is just n Ebm triad:

Why is D7alt enough?

I get asked about D7alt quite a lot. Surprisingly it is probably the most honest way to write a chord symbol.

When you come across a place where the altered scale is used then the chord mentioned is written as D7alt which means a D7 chord from the altered scale, but it is not very specific because you can have any combination of b9, #9, b5, and b13 in there.

Of course that is not very specific, so you can’t read D7alt and then immediately turn that into a grip, but it is closer to how we play Jazz. Most of the time we don’t think extensions and alterations

but more of the basic chord and then whatever added notes that make sense in how the chords are played.

So if you see Am7 D7alt Gmaj7 then you could play

But you can also play the dominant like this:

But in the end that is how I treat most chords, on a Gmaj7 I may play a 9 or a 13th, or maybe play a maj6 chord instead, the chord symbols are constantly interpreted, and that is what gives me the room to add melody and color to the music like this:

And you must start thinking about chords like that so that you are not stuck with grips that you can’t turn into music. Jazz harmony is so much more fun once you start to unlock that approach and work with categories. This is very close to how Joe Pass thinks about chords and I talk about it in this video which will help you get rid of that grip-limitation and help you be free when playing the chords. It will change how you play.

The Biggest Misunderstanding About Jazz Chords And How To Quickly Fix It


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