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How To Improvise Over Major Chords

In this guitar lesson we'll have a look at the guitar scales, arpeggios and substitutions we can use to improvise over major guitar chords.

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Do you have questions or feedback about this tutorial? Join the Discussion at the Forum.

We use a C major chord for all examples.

Here's a play-along track in C major for you to test and practice the scales and arpeggios suggested below.

Cmaj7 Play Along Track


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Major 7 Chords

1) The C Major Scale

The major scale (aka the Ionian mode) is the obvious choice of scale to play over a major chord. Beginners might want to read this music theory lesson: How to Construct Major Scales

The Ionian mode is played over I chords, in II V I chord progressions for example.

Something to look out for when using the major scale: the 11 (F in C major) is a so called avoid note for major chords because it is one half step above a chord note (the 3 or e). This does not mean you can not play this note, but is rather disharmonic when you keep hanging on it or use it as a target note.

Over the Cmaj7 we play the C Ionian scale:


C Ionian
Over Cmaj7
1 9 3 11 5 6 7

Here's the C Ionian mode in its root position on the guitar neck:

Guitar scales: C Ionian


Here's a Metheny-esque example:

Listen & Play

Metheny-esque guitar lick


2) The Major Bebop Scale

The major bebop scale is a major scale with a chormatic passing tone between the 6 and 5 (b6). Learn more about the Bebop Scale...


C Major Bebop Scale
Over Cmaj
B A Ab G F E D C
7 6 b6 5 11 3 9 1


3) The Cmaj7 Arpeggio

An obvious option as well: the C major arpeggio (C  E  G  B).
Here's a guitar lesson about Basic Arpeggio Shapes.


4) The Em7 Arpeggio

An Em7 arpeggio over C major gives us the 9 sound.


Em7 Arpeggio
Over Cmaj7
3 5 7 9


In this example I play an Em7 arpeggio with some chromatic notes:

Listen & Play

Major guitar lick 4


5) Guitar Chord Shapes

An effective way to outline the harmony of a song is by playing single note lines that follow the shape of a guitar voicing. Play the voicing like you would play an arpeggio, fret one note at a time (do not let ring).

The following guitar lick uses the outlines of these basic chord voicings:

Listen & Play


              Cmaj7 guitar chord diagram                                     G guitar chord diagramCmaj7 guitar chord diagram

Major Guitar Lick 1



Major 6 Chords

6) The C Major Pentatonic Scale

The C major (=A minor) pentatonic scale is the C major scale minus 2 notes (11 and 7). The 11 is gone, which might be a good thing because it is an avoid note. The 7 is ommited as well, which gives this scale a bit more basic and less colorful sound. Such a sound can be effective for major chords with a strong tonic function (like ending chords) or for traditional jazz styles like Dixieland.


C Major Pentatonic
Over Cmaj7
1 9 3 5 6


7) The E Minor Pentatonic Scale

The E minor (=G major) pentatonic scale has every note of the C major scale minus the 1 and 11, the least important notes of a chord.


E Minor Pentatonic
Over Cmaj7
3 5 6 7 9


An example:

Listen & Play


8) The Am7 Arpeggio

The Am7 arpeggio gives us the C triad + the 6.


Am7 Arpeggio
Over Cmaj7
6 1 3 5



Major #11 Chords

9) The Lydian Scale

The Lydian scale is the 4th degree of the modes and is played over major chords that have a IV function. Its only difference with the normal major scale is the #11. Because the 11 is raised a half tone, there is no avoid note in the Lydian scale.


C Lydian Scale
Over Cmaj7
C D E F# G A B
1 9 3 #11 5 6 7


10) B Minor Pentatonic Scale

The B minor (=D major) pentatonic scale works well over major #11 chords. It has the 3 and 7 + all the tensions. You can also use the B minor blues scale.


B Minor Pentatonic
Over Cmaj7
B D E F# A
7 9 3 #11 6


In this example I start with a blues lick and end with a F#m7b5 arpeggio (see point 13):

Listen & Play

Major guitar lick 7


11) Gmaj7 Arpeggio

The Gmaj7 is a good choice to play over Cmaj7#11.


Gmaj7 Arpeggio
Over Cmaj7
G B D F#
5 7 9 #11

Here's an example:

Listen & Play


12) D7 Arpeggio

A D7 arpeggio works well as well:


D7 Arpeggio
Over Cmaj7
D F# A C
9 #11 6 1


13) F#m7b5 Arpeggio

A F#m7b5 arpeggio sounds nice. I use it in the example of point 10.


F#m7b5 Arpeggio
Over Cmaj7
F# A C E
#11 6 1 3


14) Bm7 Arpeggio

A Bm7 is good for ad lib phrases on ending chords because it contains the 6, 9 and #11, all popular tensions for end voicings. More about Jazz Endings...


Bm7 Arpeggio
Over Cmaj7
B D F# A
7 9 #11 6



Do you have more ideas? If you do, let us know here...



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