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The Altered Scale

20 Premium Lessons


When learning how to solo in the Jazz genre, one of the scales that comes up in our studies time and again is the altered scale, which is the 7th mode of the Melodic Minor Scale.

While this scale comes up often when reading about jazz improvisation, it can seem like a bit of a mystery. To help demystify this scale in your playing, this lesson will explain how to build and apply the altered scale, as well as explore common scale fingerings and melodic phrases.


What Is The Altered Scale?

The first item on our checklist of altered scale studies is digging into the construction of this commonly used melodic device.

The altered scale is the 7th mode of the melodic minor scale, which means that it is like playing Ab melodic minor starting from the note G. The altered scale is used to solo over dominant 7th chords, both in major and minor keys.

The altered scale contains all four of the common altered notes (b9-#9-b5-b13), which are used to create tension over the underlying chord when applying this scale to a soloing situation.

Here is a reference chart that lays out the notes and intervals for the G altered scale in comparison to the G Mixolydian scale. Because there are two 9th intervals in the altered scale (b9 and #9), the chart below uses the upper extensions to indicate the notes above the octave, 9-11-13 and their alterations. To make things easier to read and compare, the Cb note from G altered is written as B in this case.


G mixolydian scale G A B C D E F
1 9 3 11 5 13 b7
G altered scale G Ab Bb B Db Eb F
1 b9 #9 3 b5 b13 b7



Altered Scale Fingerings

After studying the theory behind the altered scale, you are now ready to learn a few fingerings in various positions of the fingerboard.

To begin, here is an in-position G altered scale:


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 1


You can also learn a shifting position for this scale as you take a sliding up the neck approach to playing the G altered scale in your studies.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 3


You can also practice the altered scale starting from the 5th string root note, which you can see here as an in-position fingering from a G root note.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 2


Here is a 5th-string root G altered scale that uses a shift at the second octave in order to slide up to the second half of the scale.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 4


Altered Scale Licks

With some or all of these altered scale fingerings under your belt, you’re ready to move on to studying common altered scale vocabulary, beginning with short phrases that are played only over the 7alt chord itself. Start by learning these short phrases, and integrating them into your soloing lines over backing tracks, before moving on to the longer ii-V-I phrases in the next section of the lesson.

To begin, here is a classic lick that is found in the playing of Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and other legendary players. Notice the use of the AbmMaj7 arpeggio (G-Eb-B-Ab) in the second half of the phrase.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 5



Here is a commonly used altered scale technique, where you use the major triads from the b5 and b13 of the underlying scale (in this case Db and Eb over G7alt), to outline that 7alt chord in your lines.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 6



The final short altered phrase you’ll learn is called the “Cry Me a River Lick", as it comes from a melody fragment found in this classic jazz standard.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 7



When you have these three sample phrases under your fingers, try experimenting with the Altered scale and coming up with three or more patterns of your own that you can use in your jazz guitar soloing lines and phrases.


Altered Scale ii-V-I Licks

Here are three ii-V-I licks that use the altered scale over the V7 chord in each progression. Try putting on a backing track, such as a minor blues or a tune like Solar, and practice adding these licks into your soloing lines in a musical situation.


To begin, here is a short ii-V-I lick in the key of C minor that uses the G altered scale to outline the V7 chord in the second half of bar one in the phrase.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 8



We’ll now move on to using the G altered scale to outline the V7 chord in a longer ii-V-I phrase in the key of C major.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 9



This last lick uses the G altered scale over the V7 chord in a longer ii-V-I phase in the key of C major.

The altered scale is a great device for creating tension over the V7 chord in a major key, but just be careful that you resolve that tension either over the same V7 chord, or in the Imaj7 chord that follows so you don’t leave those tense notes hanging in your lines.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 10



Altered Sample Solo

Now that you know how to play the Altered scale in four positions on the fretboard, as well as have studied classic altered vocabulary, you can take those ideas to a sample solo.

Here is a 12-bar solo written out over a C minor blues progression, with the altered scale being used to outline the chords in bars 4, 10, and 12.

Once you have learned this solo as written, try putting on a backing track and play this solo once, followed by an improvised solo in the second chorus, alternating back and forth as you begin to integrate these ideas into your improvisational repertoire.


Listen & Play:

Altered Scale 11






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