Tag Archives: barry harris scale exercises

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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Overlooked Barry Harris Wisdom That Is Amazing Advice For Jazz

In the late 90s when I traveled from Copenhagen to The Hague to follow masterclasses with Barry Harris at the Royal conservatory I didn’t realize that I was going on a trip that would really change the rest of my life.

Going to that masterclass would change a lot about how I thought about music, and the trip would also make me move to another country to really go deep into the study of Jazz at the conservatory there. Of course, when you are in the middle of it you can’t know that while it is happening but it is fun to see how that works.

Barry Harris was of course an iconic Jazz teacher having taught everyone from Paul Chambers to John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery, and his very complete approach to teaching Jazz has taught 1000s of people.

Some of the things I learned going to those masterclasses really changed a lot about how I was studying music and quite a few of those things are not what is mostly discussed when we talk about his teaching. That mostly stays with notes, scales, and chords. Those things are important of course, but if you take a step back and look at some of the overarching principles of how the lessons work then there are other things that are as important, and actually also relevant beyond Jazz as a style.

Practice Technique On Songs

Song with exercise moving around it (maybe sheet music showing arrows or analysis moving a phrase from one chord to the next)

A few bars with triplet arpeggios fading into licks (Often an exercise will naturally evolve into a lick just taking it through a song.)

The Masterclasses at the conservatory would often start with learning a song, so Barry would use a scale exercise to teach you the chord progression, even if most people usually knew the song already.

It would usually be starting with a basic scale exercise, just to make the chords clear and help you have a starting place for the lines that would be created later. Then it would gradually evolve bit by bit into a complete solo where you would learn some great vocabulary and melodic techniques along the way.

The advantage of linking scale practice to actual music is HUGE. Whatever you practice as an exercise is a lot closer to becoming a flexible part of your vocabulary if you immediately work on it on a song. Often an exercise will naturally evolve into a lick just taking it through a song.

Another way that this is also incredibly effective is in terms of taking a piece of vocabulary and then really exploring how to get the most out of it, and a lot of Barry Harris exercises and systems were really made to be able to do that easily, something that is not mentioned so often. When you move an exercise around a chord progression like that then you need skills for making it make sense on different chord types and really know what works and what doesn’t work on a chord.

And of course, Barry would keep it exciting by pushing the tempo up, sometimes even putting money on whether anyone could play it, oddly he never seemed to lose.

Write Licks And Write Solos

Strangely enough, the next exercise is pretty global. Most of the masterclasses I went to from Barry were centered around him teaching a song and writing a solo on that song.

In that way a masterclass would teach you:

  • The Song and The Chord Progressions
  • Vocabulary And How To Construct Lines
  • How To Deal With Smaller Progressions within the songs, something you can take to other songs

And that exercise is exactly what I think you should work on: Composing vocabulary on songs. For me, this was very useful for learning vocabulary and making it a flexible part of my playing, and using this as an exercise can easily be a big part of how you develop your vocabulary and explore how you can add new material to your solos.

Another place where writing material is useful is when you are dealing with a spot in a song that is difficult. Slowing it down and constructing lines, figuring out what really works, what fits together, and how to make it playable is the best way to go, and clearly also how Barry works his way through songs.

Write licks for the difficult part of the song:

Of course, you are probably not going to be able to write solos that are as good as what Barry seemed to produce in pretty much every class, but that doesn’t mean that composing lines won’t teach you something and help you get further, even if it is only by making you wonder why something doesn’t work.

  • The Song and The Chord Progressions
  • Vocabulary And Constructing Lines
  • How To Deal With Smaller Progressions within the songs

Turn Vocabulary Into Exercises

What all of these exercises have in common and what is one of the strongest aspects of this is that everything is about connecting every single note you practice to the solo you want to play and the songs you want to learn.

And actually, that is something that very often gets lost in planning practice and creating exercises.

It is not enough to play the exercises, you also need to link them to your repertoire and your vocabulary because you need to think about whether the exercises improve your playing.

For me, the shining example of this was the exercise of playing diatonic arpeggios with leading notes that I learned the first time I went to the Hague for the masterclasses, but there are a lot more examples in there. I covered a few of these in this video on scale exercises that are already Jazz licks, there is a link to that in the description.

Making your own exercises is a great way for you to develop your vocabulary and get better at constructing lines.

Very often these types of exercises are really just combinations of two or more exercises, for example, you can practice using Barry’s chromatic scale exercise:

and maybe you want to also work on being more flexible with your triads so you combine that with this exercise:

Together you get lines like this:

And that can be put to use like this:

This connection between what you want to play and the exercises you make for yourself is useful for being efficient, but it is also a lot more motivating and fun to work on things that you actually use in your playing.

If you want to explore some more examples of how you can work on this and see how Barry teaches that in one of his classes then check out this video where I show you how to construct scale exercises that are already Jazz vocabulary and actually use one of his examples as well.

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Get Scale Practice Right And It Will Boost Your Playing

Scale practice sounds, dry and boring and more than anything else about moving your fingers on the instrument in a way that is anything but music, but when you practice exercises like scale exercises then the purpose is to make it easier for you to play the things you want to play in your solos. It is really that simple, and keeping that in mind will help you come up with a lot of exercises that are much more efficient in making you play better.

Let’s take a look at what exercises you should be working on, but also how you should play them and think about them which is probably different from what you expect.

The Basics

With any scale you want to practice then you of course want to start with the most basic exercise of playing the scale. You can practice scales in many ways, in a position:

on a single string:

or across the entire neck.

To begin with, it makes a lot of sense to stick with positions, especially if you want to play songs with chord progressions that require different scales.

Just learning to play the scale, what notes are in there, and how it looks on the fretboard in that position. The important thing is just to not just stop there, because that is not enough and you can come up with more exercises that you want to get into your playing.

How To Play It What notes Seeing It On The Fretboard

What Are You Trying To Learn?

But when you solo then you are not just running up and down the scale, that sounds boring. You want to be able to create lines like this excerpt from Wes Montgomerys solo on Satin Doll:

And in this solo, there are a lot of 7th chord arpeggios and triads.

So it only makes sense that if you want to use those in your solos then you should also practice them in your scales. That is also why I made a video on “The Most Important Scale Exercise in Jazz” which is on practicing diatonic 7th chords arpeggios.

The reason that this is so important is that the basic chords you improvise over are 7th chords and this exercise is how you connect the scale to the harmony of the song.

First, you want to learn the basic arpeggios, and later in the video, I will show you some ways that you can expand the exercises so that it becomes almost small licks you can use in your solos.

This exercise can be a little tricky to play if you never tried it before, but there is a really useful hack to help you into it.

Each 7th chord is a stack of 3rds in the scale:

The C major scale is : C D E F G A B C

If you stack 3rds from C you get: C E G B

but instead of playing the entire 7th chord arpeggio then you can ease into it by first practicing the 3rds:

The 3rds are a good exercise for flexibility in your playing, and for the rest very much a technical exercise. The Diatonic triads are useful in solos and something that you anyway want to explore.

And then continue to the triads:

This also shows you why the 3rd interval is so incredibly important as a scale exercise, it helps you connect the scale to harmony.

 

How is it used: The Next Level!

As you saw both in the first Wes solo and can see in most bop-solos then the arpeggios and triads are played in specific ways in the solo, and you might as well incorporate that into how you practice the arpeggios through the scale.

In that way, you are just turning a scale exercise into a flexible lick that you can insert directly into your solo.

The most important version of this is probably using the 8th note triplet with a leading note:

This exercise is helping you vary the rhythm in your solo and teaches you how to use chromatic passing notes in your solos, and it is all over Bebop solos!

Another great way to use triplets is to use them to resolve the top note in the arpeggio like this:

This way of using the arpeggio lends itself really well to help resolve the top note for example in a II V like this:

A triad version of this exercise is also great and a shortcut to some Wes licks.

You start with this basic exercise

Taking this through the scale also becomes a great phrasing exercise

and this is also what you might recognize from this lick that Wes uses in his 4 on 6 solo from The Incredible Jazz Guitar Album:

Making Exercises From Licks

In general, it can be very useful to experiment with using fragments of licks that you transcribe as scale exercises, and in that way, both play them better and hear them move through the scale.

This can become this exercise:

You may be thinking that this is very complicated to keep track of what notes and arpeggios you have to take through the scale, but that is probably not how you want to approach it.

What Is Practicing The Right Way?

When you are practicing exercises like this then you can’t rely on analyzing everything, that is a separate skill and something you need to build in other ways. Instead, you should look at the exercise as a short predictable melody that you take through the scale and try to hear your way through it.

Again starting with this may seem difficult, but if you start with 3rd intervals and triads then you can get used to how it works and you will find that it is not as difficult as you might think.

With exercises like these then it really pays off to worry more about precision and clean execution than speed. This is simply because if you can easily play them cleanly at a slower tempo then speeding them up will become easier. You will probably also realize that if you speed it up before having control then you are going to have to go back and fix things later, and at that time you may also have developed some bad habits.

The Source Of Your Exercises

As I mentioned earlier then it is useful to take fragments from the solos of the people you transcribe and listen to. An amazing resource for this that you can get a lot of inspiration from is this Joe Pass book which has some rock-solid bebop lines that you want to have in your vocabulary and that can give you thousands of ideas for new exercises and lines to work on.

Is This Jazz Guitar Method Fantastic and Terrible At The Same Time

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Barry Harris Scale Exercise on an F Blues

Here’s a Short video discussing the Barry Harris Scale Exercise. This way of playing the scales for the chords in a simple logical way through the form of a song is a great way to become familiar with the chord progression hear how the material sounds on the song.

For this video I am using an F blues because that is hopefully a progression you are already familiar with and I also talk about how the Barry Harris exercise relates to the chords of the progression.

I know my version here is a little simple compared to the version that Barry mostly uses but it will get you started with this and you have an idea about how it works and how you can easily incorporate it into your own playing.

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