How to Use the Melodic Minor Scale

Outside of the major scale system, the melodic minor scale is the most important modal system in jazz. When first exploring melodic minor concepts in your studies, tackling the first mode, the melodic minor scale itself, is the best place to begin.

Used by every major jazz guitarist in their solos to color minor-family chords, the melodic minor scale is an essential sound to have under your fingers as you continue to the next stage in your development.

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to use the melodic minor scale, how to finger this scale on the fretboard, and study a sample solo over the Miles Davis standard “Solar.”

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Melodic Minor Scale Fingerings

Before you begin applying the melodic minor scale to your soloing lines and phrases, here are two fingerings for this scale that you can learn on the guitar.

But first, let’s look at how to build a melodic minor scale from an interval standpoint.

A melodic minor scale contains the b3 interval, just like any minor based-mode, but it has a major 7th interval that gives it a unique sound compared to the Dorian mode.

Here is a chart that breaks down the interval pattern for both Dorian and melodic minor for comparison:

 

D DorianDEFGABC
12b3456b7
D Melodic MinorDEFGABC#
12b34567

 

After you’ve studied the interval structure for melodic minor, it’s time to take it to the fretboard.

The first fingering begins with the root note on the 6th string and runs up the fretboard from there.

 

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 1

 

Moving on, here’s a shifting pattern with the root note on the 5th string that you can practice and apply to your soloing lines and phrases.

 

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 2

 

After you can play either of these fingerings, work them in multiple keys with a metronome, at various tempos from very slow to as fast as you can.

Melodic Minor Scale Over Im7 Chords

Now that you know a few fingerings for the melodic minor scale, it’s time to take it to your soloing practice routine.

The first chord that you’ll apply this scale to is the Im7 chord, often found at the end of a minor key ii V I chord progression. When you apply the melodic minor scale to a Im7 chord, you’ll be highlighting the major 7th interval against that chord.

This interval will cause a bit of tension over a Im7 chord, so you’ll have to play with it in your solos to see how you want to handle that tension in your lines. You can resolve that tension, or you can let it hang if you want.

To help you take this concept to your soloing practice, here are three sample licks that you can learn and apply to your own jazz guitar solos. Start by learning each lick in the given key, then take them to other keys and tempos from that starting point. When you’re ready, work on soloing over minor key ii V I changes and apply the melodic minor scale to the Im7 chord in that progression.

To begin, this line uses a Wes Montgomery inspired phrase to bring the melodic minor scale to the Im7 chord in this progression.

 

Melodic Minor Lick 1

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 3

 

Melodic Minor Lick 2

The second line uses the C# note to create tension in both an enclosure and parallel 3rds manner over the Dm7 chord.

 

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 4

 

Melodic Minor Lick 3

Moving on, here’s a classic melodic minor lick over the Dm7 chord. If you dig this line, take it out of the lick and apply it to other situations in your solos.

 

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 5

 

Melodic Minor Scale Over iim7 Chords

The other common function for minor chords in jazz, beyond the Im7 chord, is the iim7 chord.

This chord is found in countless tunes, from being entire sections in So What, to being a part of the classic ii V I progression, and everything in between.

As well as using the Dorian mode to solo over iim7 chords, you can add a bit of tension to this chord change using the melodic minor scale.

When playing melodic minor over a iim7 chord, you’ll highlight the same major 7th interval over that chord as you did with the Im7 chord. This note, the major 7th, is the tension that you’ll have to resolve when applying melodic minor to iim7 chords in your solos.

To help you apply this concept to your playing, here are a few sample licks that you can study that use melodic minor over the iim7 chord in a ii-V-I-VI progression.

 

Melodic Minor Lick 4

This first lick uses D melodic minor over the Dm7 chord, creating a bit of tension with the C# note that’s then resolved into D in both instances.

 

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 6

 

Melodic Minor Lick 5

Moving on, the second lick features the same D melodic minor scale over Dm7.

Once you can play both of these licks, in a few keys and at various tempos if possible, you can practice soloing over ii V I VI changes, using melodic minor over the iim7 chord.

 

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 7

 

Melodic Minor Scale Over iim7 V7 Chords

As well as soloing over iim7 chords with the melodic minor scale, you can continue to use that same scale over the V7 chord in a iim7-V7 chord progression.

When doing so, you create a Lydian Dominant sound over that V7 chord. The Lydian dominant scale is one of the modes of the melodic minor scale.

This is because if you’re playing over a Dm7-G7 progression, D melodic minor produces the G Lydian dominant mode.

G Lydian dominant uses the same notes as D melodic minor, just played from G to G.

Here’s a chart to help you visualize the D melodic minor scale over each chord:

 

D Melodic MinorDEFGABC#
12b34567
G Lydian DominantGABC#DEF
123#456b7

 

To help you take this concept to your soloing, here are a few sample lines that you can learn and apply to your improvisations.

 

Melodic Minor Lick 6

In this first line, you’ll use a classic melodic minor phrase over Dm7, followed by another essential Lydian dominant line over G7.

 

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 8

 

Melodic Minor Lick 7

In the next line, you’ll be running up and down a D melodic minor scale over both Dm7 and G7 in this ii-V-I-VI chord progression.

Notice how the C# stands out over both chords, it adds a bit of tension that is then resolved as you continue through the line.

This is the key to using melodic minor over ii V chords, that you resolve the tension that is created with this scale over each chord in the progression.

 

Listen & Play Along


How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 9

 

Solar Melodic Minor Scale Solo

To finish your study of the how to use the melodic minor scale, here’s a sample solo over the Miles Davis tune Solar, using melodic minor over each iim7-V7, and Im7 chord.

Work on the solo in chunks to make it easier to learn, four-bars at a time is a good way to break it up, before playing the solo as a whole.

 

Backing Track


Listen & Play Along

How to Use Melodic Minor Scales 10

 

  • António Ferreira says:

    Cool!

  • jabulani says:

    wow incredible 2 51 in minor key. I never knew that melodic minor differ from Dorian mode with only one note. however, now i know. thank you very much.

  • James says:

    Just stumbled on this discussion, I like the explanation about Modes and moods. I spent a lot of time on the diatonic Modes and the use of the melodic minor scale and it’s Modes and putting it to practice requires context. In other words we must have a set of chords to deal with and that will inform our choices. The more specific the chord is, that is the more extensions and alterations beyond the triad the less you can mix and match Modes over them. The chords define the mode or mood. The chords drive everything. If the chirds are simple triads then there is more freedom to impose different modes over them without clashes.The melody of the piece will also give hints to what the final centers are.

    An important thing to observe is generally the Modes only change with respect to non-chord tones, 9,11,13. All diatonic minors have R b3 5 7. So you could imply Phrygian over a iim7, but it has to be in context of what tonal center is happening or about to happen.

    Hope this helps. I highly recommend looking at the arpeggios within the mode, and the tonal centers within a piece, there may be several.

  • Jackson says:

    3rd measure 1st exercise/example: B-G? Nah, A-F …just gotta’ be.

  • Rust says:

    A friend told me that modes are “moods” that can be developed into different feels, by how the guitarist engages them. Similar to how a colored glass (the mode), like a stained glass, evokes a feel that depends upon the LIGHT (the spirit of the guitarist) that engages it and shines through it.

  • chrisw says:

    if its possible. can you display the guitar chord shapes along with the guitar music of the backing chords ? ….. apart from that, good lesson.

  • Oscar says:

    To me all these solo’s sound just like quicksand running through my fingers:
    awesome but difficult to grasp. But then I am just an amateur gitarist who tries to find the use of modes in playing, something nobody has succeeded in explaining to me.
    😉

    • Gordon says:

      Hello Oscar,

      Here is a letter I wrote to a jazz guitar forum recently explaining what I’ve learnt and come to understand about modes (Maj) and the use. Perhaps you will find it useful?

      Modes & Moods

      I first came across modes as a fumbling teenage guitar player in about 1971. I’m still a fumbling guitar player.

      I never understood modes then, nor did I have any idea really what they meant until a few years ago when I saw some antique video (VHS tape) lessons on modes by the wonderful Australian, Frank Gambale.

      Frank was a young man then, dressed in a multi-coloured, tie-dye style T-shirt and, can you believe it, tight-fitting leather pants! His video lessons planted the seed in my head for modes as being moods.

      It had always troubled me that the Phrygian mode was described as being “Spanish”. I could never reconcile that a mode could align to a nation. Imagine Lydian is Welsh, Ionian is Swedish, Mixolydian Corsican, and so on. Ridiculous! It may well be true that “Spanish gypsy style music” uses the Phrygian scale (often altered), but that does not make the Phrygian scale “Spanish”.

      Frank talked of the “modes” as being musicians’ secret tools to evoke emotions from their audiences. Specifically, in his videos, he gave a few examples of these emotions but didn’t go on to try to pin down the category, or genre, of emotions attached to each of the (diatonic) modes he was teaching.

      Not too long ago, I had further insight into this subject from a course in jazz improvisation presented by Gary Burton. Gary taught me that rather than seeing modes as scales beginning at sequential notes on the mother scale (e.g. Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian), consider them in descending order of brightness to darkness (Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian and Locrian, all played in the mother key).

      The net result of the insights borrowed from Frank and Gary, coupled with a little bit of my own imagination has led me to understand the major modes (moods) as follows:

      Lydian: “Party happy” (credit to Frank) – this mood feels like a whole bunch of people having a hell of a good time together.

      Ionian: “Love happy” (credit to Frank, again) – this makes one think of two people, isolated from the world, immersed in their happiness and togetherness.

      Mixolydian: “Detached, independent” – this mood underscores that feeling of being unencumbered, footloose and fancy free. Perhaps betwixt and between being free and lonely. Hence its common use in the “blues”. Feeling safe, yet secretly vulnerable.

      Dorian: “Melancholy, introspective” – not desperately sad, but a little reflective and, perhaps, calling for comfort or reflection.

      Aeolian: “Simply, Sad” – this mood will bring tears out of most people with a healthy heart. It is the stock standard “tearjerker” mood (sorry, mode).

      Phrygian: “Mystical” – it seems that the flat 2 in this mode kicks one out of reality and into the realm of the spiritual. Perhaps the hypnotic effects of Spanish dance (and music) is from where the “Spanish” misnomer is derived. Phrygian definitely shifts the mood to the realm of another world, not scary but definitely displaced.

      Locrian: “Eerie, spooky, creepy ” – the Locrian mood takes the “mystical” deeper into the realm of non-reality, to a point that is uncomfortable. Lots of flats, the darkest of the diatonic modes. Scary. I have met many musicians over the years who believe one should never play Locrian, because no one wants to hear it. In jazz however the minor 7 flat 5 is really common, and of course strongly associated with the Locrian mood. I guess that’s why jazz makes one’s hair curl, gives one goose bumps and a feeling of furry teeth at times!

      Okay, so this is all in respect of the diatonic scale and its modes. Trying to apply this type of thinking to the Melodic Minor scale and its modes is perplexing. A mere half tone difference to the diatonic, yet a whole new set of moods.

      I thought a bit about the emotions potentially evoked by the Melodic Minor (root) mode. It seems like a Dorian (a bit introspective) pepped up with a bit of Ionian (a bit hopeful, for love, or even a party). Or could it rather be Ionian (in love) with a bit of Dorian (a bit melancholy doubtful and introspective). It certainly is enigmatic in concept, and sound!

      As for the Dorian flat 2, Lydian Augmented, Lydian flat 7, Mixolydian flat 6, Locrian #2 and Altered Scale, I’ve yet to find any good way to describe the moods they suggest.

      Any feelings on the topic?

      Gordon Hooper

  • Gordon Hooper says:

    Dear Dirk,

    Thanks for the article. I noticed Lane Garner’s comment above, especially in respect of the use of melodic minor scales on IImin7b5-V7alt-Imin(maj7) progressions. I would be very keen to know more about this topic.

    In particular, I’m currently working on Manhã de Carnaval … the recurring progression in this tune is Imin-IImin7b5-V7-Imin. I have substituted the V7 with a V7Alt (specifically V7flat9) simply because I like the sound of it as well as the fingering.

    I’ve experimented with several approaches to soloing over this progression, including the melodic minor derived Altered Scale. It feels to me that it works, but I lack any formal view of the neatest approach to deal with this progression.

    Any help will be gratefully welcomed.

    Kind regards,

    Gordon
    Johannesburg, South Africa

    • ZEE says:

      Hi Gordon,

      First of all: I like to call the scale of this lesson the jazz minor scale. To avoid confusion with a more general meaning of melodic minor, which includes the ascending and descending melodic minor scales. Also because it is used in jazz in a very specific way.
      A short answer to your question is: to stay in the mood of this lesson you can use 2 minor scales in your progression. If you play in A minor (= the Imin) this is can be an ascending or descending A melodic minor (typically on Am and Bm7b5), and F jazz minor on the V chord (E7). A few reasons why the last one works and sounds great as you experienced. Altered dominants increase the tension in a tension-release sequence of the V dominant chord going home to the I. Thinking in melodic jazz minor half a step above an altered V in this situation creates a sound which is very characteristic to jazz. And in minor the raised and flattened 9’s of the V fit naturally in the root scale.
      Of course, there is a lot more that can be said about this topic.

      Happy playing.

      • Gordon Hooper says:

        Thanks Zee,

        Much appreciated. I will give this a try.

        Best,

        Gordon

  • Lane Garner says:

    Good intro to melodic minor scales. To expand on this lesson- the next step for a student after mastering this material would be learning to use the lydian dominant sound and the remaining three non-stretch scale fingerings around the neck. Another exercise I enjoy is playing over a minor IImin7b5-V7alt-Imin(maj7) progression with the three melodic minor scales in position.

    Lane Garner
    GarnerGuitar.com

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