Learning jazz guitar scales can be complicated and often beginners wonder which scales they should learn first. The 7 scales on the chart below are a good place to start. These scales are essential for beginning jazz guitarists and enable you to play over almost any jazz standard.
This lesson is by no means meant to be complete, but gives you a good overview of the most important jazz guitar scales. For each scale, there are 2 positions on the scale chart. These are the most important positions you should learn first. Once you master these two, make sure you learn all other positions as well.
Below the scale chart, you’ll find some more tips on how to practice scales, as well as understand how to use them.
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Guitar Scale Chart
How to Practice These Scales?
In the examples below, we’ll be using the C major scale.
A general rule for fingering the C major scale:
- Notes on the 7th fret are played with the index finger (finger 1).
- Notes on the 8th fret are played with middle finger (finger 2).
- Notes on the 9th fret are played with the ring finger (finger 3).
- Notes on the 10th fret are played with the pinkie finger (finger 4).
In some examples, the fingering deviates from the rule, in which case I put the fingering underneath the notation.
Scale Exercise 1
First, you should be able to play the scales up and down, from the low string to the high string and back, without hesitation and without hiccups along the way. All notes should sound clean and even.
Here’s an example for the C major scale:
Audio Example 1
Scale Exercise 2
Another good starter exercise is to play each note of the scale double:
When you have the previous examples under your fingers, you’re ready to learn some scale patterns.
Scale Pattern 1
In this first pattern, you’ll play the C major scale in 3rds, by skipping a note:
Scale Pattern 2
In this scale pattern, you’ll play the C major scale in groups of 3 notes:
Scale Pattern 3
In this next scale pattern, you’ll play the C major scale in groups of 4 notes:
Playing Scales Horizontally
When we first start learning guitar scales, we usually play the scale vertical on the neck, from the lowest to the highest note in a particular position. This is a necessary step, but don’t limit yourself to that because it’s hard to see the connection between the different positions that way.
Playing horizontally is a more advanced method of playing guitar scales and means we start left on the guitar neck and advance to the right, or the other way round. This can be done on two adjacent strings or three or four or with a skipped string, the possibilities go as far as your imagination goes. I’ll help you on your way with some examples.
In this section, we work with the C major scale, but you can use any scale you like.
Playing Scales on 1 String
Playing a scale on 1 string is a good ear training exercise and a good preparation to play what you hear. In this exercise, you play the notes of the C major scale on 1 string. Don’t think about where you place your fingers too much, but work with your ears.
In this example, you start on the high E string and work your way down to the low E string.
Playing Scales on 2 Strings
You can also play the notes of the C major scale on 2 adjacent strings.
In this first exercise, you will play on strings 1 and 2:
You can pick any string set you like, here’s another example on strings 4 and 5:
Instead of playing the scale melodically (note by note) you can also play it harmonically (2 notes together):
The Ionian, Dorian and Mixolydian Scale
The Ionian (aka major scale), Dorian and Mixolydian scales are called modes in music theory (learn more about guitar modes here).
There are 7 modes, but in this lesson we’ll only have a look at 4, to keep things simple:
- The Ionian mode: used over major chords.
- The Dorian mode: used over minor chords (iim7).
- The Mixolydian mode: used over dominant chords (What is a dominant chord?).
- The Aeolian mode: used over minor chords (vim7).
Let’s say you want to play scales over a ii V I vi chord progression in C major:
Music theory tells us you should play the following scales over each chord:
- Cmaj7: the C Ionian scale.
- Dm7: the D Dorian scale.
- G7: the G Mixolydian scale.
- Am7: the A Aeolian scale.
The problem with this theoretical approach is that it’s not very convenient because you have to think about another scale on every chord.
The good news is that these 4 modes all have the same notes:
|D Dorian Mode||D||E||F||G||A||B||C|
|G Mixolydian Mode||G||A||B||C||D||E||F|
|C Ionian Mode||C||D||E||F||G||A||B|
|A Aeolian Mode||A||B||C||D||E||F||G|
As you can see in the table above, these 4 modes all have the same 7 notes, namely the notes of the C major scale (C D E F G A B), they just start on a different note.
This means we can pick one scale (usually the scale of the Imaj7 chord), and use that scale to play over all chords that are within the key.
- If you play the C Ionian scale over the Dm7 chord, it will sound like the D Dorian scale.
- If you play the C Ionian scale over the G7 chord, it will sound like the G Mixolydian scale.
- If you play the C Ionian scale over the Am7 chord, it will sound like the A Aeolian scale.
In the following audio example I play the C Ionian scale up and down over a ii V I vi backing track, and you’ll notice all notes are in key:
Audio Example 6
Playing scales like this is good for initial practice, but it doesn’t sound very musical. In the following example I play the same scale over the backing track, but in a more creative manner.
When using scales to improvise, your musicality will dictate how you play them:
- It doesn’t matter what note of the scale you start on.
- It doesn’t matter what rhythm you play or how long your notes are.
- The order of notes doesn’t matter either, you can skip or repeat notes.
Here’s a more musical example of how you can use the C Ionian scale over the same ii V I vi chord progression:
Audio Example 7
Minor Blues Scale Study
In this minor blues scale study you’ll be using the minor blues, Dorian, Aeolian and Phrygian dominant scales.
- Cm7: on this chord you can play the C minor blues scale, the C Dorian scale or the C Aeolian scale.
- G7: here you play the G Phrygian dominant scale (or C minor blues scale).
- Fm7: on this chord you play the F Dorian scale, which has the same notes as the C Aeolian scale. C minor blues works fine here as well.
- Dm7b5: on the half diminished chord you play the D Locrian scale (one of the modes we didn’t cover in this lesson), which has the same notes as the C Aeolian scale. Again, C minor blues works as well.
As you can see from the list above, the C minor blues scale works over the entire minor blues, but for the sake of variation it’s a good idea to mix in other scales as well.
C Minor Blues Backing Track
Listen & Play
To learn more about the minor blues, and jazz blues in general, check out our Introduction to Jazz Blues Guitar Bundle.