Miles Davis For Guitar

Miles Davis’ professional career spans 50 years during which he was on top of almost every important innovation in jazz. Miles Davis impressed by his performance, recordings, and also by his choice of sidemen. Though not a guitarist, studying Miles Davis’ lines can take your jazz guitar soloing chops and creativity to the next level.

Miles Davis for guitarMiles began playing the trumpet when he was 13 and had his first professional gig when he was 17.  He was 19 when he played in Charlie Parker‘s band and at 23 he made his first influential album as a bandleader, Birth of the Cool. A list of following influential albums is simply too big to produce here.

Getting picked to play in a Miles Davis band was like putting a dose of steroids in your musical career. The list of guitarists who played with him speaks for itself: John Scofield, Mike Stern, John McLaughlin, and Robben Ford.

Recommended listening: Kind of Blue

Miles Davis – So What

Miles Davis
Here is the theme of So What, from the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue.

This first-take, unrehearsed Miles Davis session from 1959 is a true masterpiece. It was the key recording of what became modal jazz, a music free of fixed harmonies and forms.

If Kind of Blue is not part of your collection yet, don’t hesitate and get it, it’s the best-selling jazz album ever.

“The powerful thing with Kind of Blue is the space and information. There’s a lot of air in that record in the sense you don’t feel overloaded and you can take in each note. You don’t feel confronted with the music. You feel as if you’ve been invited into something very special.” -David Fricke

The band itself is extraordinary (proof of Miles Davis’s masterful casting skills), listing John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on saxophones, Bill Evans on piano, and the crack rhythm unit of Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.


So What is based on the D Dorian mode:


D Dorian mode diagram

The composition itself alternates between D minor and Eb minor. The chords that are being used are quartal voicings, a harmonic device made famous by Miles’ piano player Bill Evans.

The structure of So What looks like this: 2x 8 bars D minor, 1x 8 bars of Eb minor and 1x 8 bars of D minor.


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Miles Davis - So What

Miles Davis – Autumn Leaves

Here are the first 16 bars of Miles Davis’ solo on Autumn Leaves (1958).

Miles Davis uses simple melodic phrases in his solo, all in the Bb major scale, except on the Gm6 in bar 7 and 15, where he switches to Bb Lydian (=G Dorian) and emphasizes the natural 6.

“Miles was the Picasso of jazz. He really knew how to use space just like a painter.” -Quincy Jones

Notice his use of voice leading (the guide tone notes are circled in blue):

  • In the first 8 bars, Miles starts on the D (the 9 of Cm7), which becomes the 3 of Bbmaj7, going to the C (the b3 of Am7b5).
  • In bars 9 to 16, he starts on the F (the 11 of Cm7), going to D (the 3 of Bbmaj7), to C (the b3 of Am7b5), to A (the 5 of D7), and finally to G (the 1 of Gm6).


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Miles Davis - Autumn Leaves solo

Miles Davis – II V I Licks

II V I Lick 1

This ii V I lick in Bb uses typical Miles techniques as it snakes its way through the underlying chord changes.

Check out the voice leading techniques that Miles uses:

  • Notice the b9 drop in bar one (from the Eb down to the D), which is a characteristic of Miles’ playing.
  • The use of the B (#11) to start the second bar, allowing for a half-step resolution of the C in the last beat of the first bar.
  • The Eb-D movement (b7 to 3rd) that connects the last two bars.


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Miles Davis Lick 2


II V I Lick 2

The next line has a typical shape that you hear in many of Miles’ improvised solos:

  • The lick moves down an octave from D to Eb in the first bar,
  • Then back up to that same D halfway through bar two,
  • Before repeating this same up and down movement one more time to finish the line.


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Miles Davis Lick 3


II V I Lick 3

Here is a typical bebop lick that comes from Miles Davis’ solo on Move, the first song on Birth of the Cool.

The lick starts on D Dorian in the first bar, going to an Am phrase on G7, to a Dm phrase on Cmaj7, delaying the resolution.


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Miles Davis II V I lick


II V I Lick 4

This lick on a short II V in C minor comes from Miles’ solo on On Green Dolphin Street.

Notice the ghost notes in bar 2, producing some interesting phrasing which you can take out and use when practicing scales and arpeggios.


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Miles Davis - On Green Dolphin Street Lick 2


II V I Lick 5

This lick on a series of II Vs going to Fmaj7 is from a Miles Davis solo on Boplicity.


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Miles Davis - Boplicity lick

Miles Davis – Major Licks

Major Lick 1

This lick over Ebmaj7 is from Miles’ solo on On Green Dolphin Street and revolves around an Ebmaj9 arpeggio:


Ebmaj9 arpeggio diagram


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Miles Davis - On Green Dolphin Street Lick 1

Miles Davis – Minor Licks

Minor Lick 1

Here is a Dm7 lick that uses a few chromatic notes (the A# lower neighbor and C#), hinting at D melodic minor to build tension during the phrase.

Here are two approaches that Miles liked to use in his minor 7th chord soloing ideas:

  • The use of the C triad to outline the b7-9-11 intervals over Dm7.
  • The line finishing on the 6th (B).


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Miles Davis Lick 4


Minor Lick 2

In this Dm7 lick, you are only using the notes from the D Dorian Mode to create this snaking line over the underlying chord.

Notice the three 4-note groups in bar 2 and 3. These three groups are all classic Miles mini-licks that are worth exploring further:

  • 4 consecutive scale tones
  • 1-6-7-1
  • 2-4-3-2


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Miles Davis Lick 5


Minor Lick 3

This minor lick is from Miles’ solo on Milestones and is built around a Gm7 arpeggio:


Gm7 arpeggio diagram


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Miles Davis - Milestones lick 1


Minor Lick 4

This simple, but effective lick is also from Milestones and uses the same Gm7 arpeggio.


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Miles Davis - Milestones lick 2


All the backing tracks of the examples in this lesson are made with Band in a Box, intelligent accompaniment software for your computer. Thanks to Band in a Box, you can practice guitar with a virtual band, making your practice routines more fun and effective. Check it out here…


Band in a Box 2018

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14 thoughts on “Miles Davis For Guitar”

  1. mark forbes

    this site is so good , thank you.i love the audio and the tabs, just so cool.

    1. Dirk Laukens

      Hey Mark, thanks for the feedback!

  2. Jonas

    Thanks this was just so great, but you guys are missing (in my book at least) the most amazing guitar player ever, and that is Allan Holdsworth, but I understand if his music is his music is too complex and maybe too far from the norm, but if you guys could put some of his music up, then I would personally be soo happy 🙂

    1. Anonymous

      You can find many transcriptions of his on youtube

  3. Randy

    “So What”. This is fabulous. I keep reworking it and am adding Miles’s leads. The sophistication is deceptively simple. I am considering taking it to a very small venue and letting the people sing the so what’s while I play the leads over the top. We’ll see how it goes!

  4. Alex Merola

    Another great lesson allows for much creativity to solo…thanks again

  5. Frank

    One of the many great lessons provide. I love it, keep them coming. Thank YouSo Much!!

  6. Dave

    This is a marvelous lesson. Thank you!

  7. Lachlan

    Amazing resource. +1 for the PDF please.

  8. Alvaro

    Thanks, … would be great if your lessons had PDF option.

    1. Dirk Laukens

      There’s a button at the bottom of the lesson labeled “Print & PDF” you can use to get the page into pdf.

      1. Jeremy

        Another great lesson.
        Unfortunately no pdf button at bottom. I view these lessons on an android phone.

      2. Fred

        No button “Print & PDF” for me ( I use Mozilla Firefox).
        What about a link to get the Biab file for the backing tracks ?
        Great lesson, thank you.

        Kind regards,

        1. Fred

          uBlock (ad blocker) was the reason why I didn’t have the print&pdf button…

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