Jazz Dispatch: Scale Exercises

In college, I became obsessed with learning a variation on the CAGED method that I’m sure many of you are familiar with. Inspired by Alan Holdsworth, I also learned every mode, scale, exotic scale, and altered scale I thought I’d find useful by browsing theory texts, instructional books, YouTube videos, and forums. I spent hours a day practicing these things, in every location on the neck.

After two years, I found that not only could I not really apply these things in playing situations (non-compositional) – I found that I retained very little. Although I “knew” the idea of each mode, I had effectively forgotten them. At first I was ashamed – was I not practicing enough? Did I not actually understand these things? Did I just suck?

Midway through this time, I began taking jazz more seriously, and took up study with several teachers. I also made two core realizations about the guitar from jazz that I want to share with you, in the hopes that you’ll find this stuff helpful and not make the same mistakes as me. You don’t have to know theory to understand them – if you’re already practicing scales, then great! Try working these two simple exercises into your practice routine.

There Are Only Two Ways to Play Scales

Yes, this obviously discounts playing a scale like a trombonist would (all on one string) and discounts, if you’re in standard tuning, that the B string is in a different spacing relative to the rest of the strings, but when you start thinking this way, you’ll see it is WAY more practically useful than trying to memorize 5 or more ways to play a scale.

These two ways are simple: you start on your pinky OR on your pointer finger. I’ll let jazz guitar legend Pat Martino demonstrate:

I like this method because it emphasizes the idea of where you can start a scale, as opposed to “scale exists here like THIS and here like THAT.” It also doesn’t negate methods like CAGED, but rather makes them more useful, because you already have a foundation for where things are generally located.

This is super helpful if like me, you aren’t a musical or mathematical genius. Memorizing dozens of locations can be a drag (although, awesome if you can do it!). This way, you only think in two directions: right and left. The pinky finger way moves towards the headstock, the pointer finger way moves towards the bridge. Simple as fuck!

I HIGHLY recommend taking the little 1-2-3-4-2-1 lick that Pat plays in this video, picking a scale – start with G minor like him – and then go all around the neck with the lick on both your two ways: pinky and pointer finger. Then try another scale. And another. Then try doing the lick as G major (moving the third note up a fret), and do that with another scale.

The purpose of this is to familiarize yourself with areas of activity on the guitar neck. You’ll probably notice that spacing of the B string affects this four note lick when you start the scale on the 12th-fret G. You have to move everything up one fret. Now, the CAGED method dictates that you learn a new fingering, which isn’t technically wrong, but it’s also not all that practically useful. Instead, think about the four notes and where you have to land to complete the line. This is the beginning of thinking melodically rather than spatially.

Working On the First Five Notes is Absolutely Critical

Leave altered scales and modes aside. What you need to really focus on is playing with the first five notes of the major and minor scales. As an exercise, try writing a riff, using the pointer and pinky finger scale method from above, using JUST the first five notes of the scale. Vary it up. Play around. Learn what it sounds like when you start a riff on the root note, and try to end it on the second degree of the scale.

The reason this is so important is that the sixth and seventh notes of a scale are tricky to play with. The seventh degree, together with the third, is what defines the harmony of the chord you’re playing. The sixth degree, while beautiful, generates a sonic quality that you really want to play with AFTER you’ve mastered the first four degrees. Let’s take them one-by-one, in the key of C major.

  • 1: The root note, and a chord tone that defines the chord. In C major, this is C.
  • 2: The second degree, and a non-chord tone. In C major, this is D.
  • 3: The third degree, and a chord tone. In C major, this is E.
  • 4: The fourth degree, and a non-chord tone. In C major, this is F.
  • 5: The fifth degree, and a chord tone (the least important). In C major, this is G.

In minor, the ONLY difference in the first five scale degrees is the third degree is flatted (or brought down one fret) – so in C Minor, this would be Eb.

Your goal should be to understand how these five scale degrees sound, in various melodic configurations. How does it sound when you start a line on the third degree, go up to the fifth, and then try to land on the second? What about going up from the first degree, then arpeggiating down? What if you add some rests/spaces between notes?

Here’s another exercise focusing SPECIFICALLY on the first five notes, from pianist Barry Harris. The licks in this video are all in C major, and only utilize the first five scale degrees.

          As a bonus challenge, try singing along with these hilarious Dutch piano students!

Now, once you’ve gotten good at the main licks from this video, you can use the first method (there are only two ways to play a scale) and transpose the licks to different keys (major and minor) and different areas of activity along the neck. You’ll find that very quickly, you will attain a new level of comfort in playing scales, which will improve your soloing, your improvisation, your writing, and your ear.

The reason I want you to hit pause on learning complicated/exotic/foreign scales is that you need to train your ear, and your ear CRAVES understanding of musical fundamentals. After you’ve become comfortable with those fundamentals, you can start to experiment with the crazier stuff – altering the tonalities of your non-chord tones, playing with the sixth and seventh degrees, etc. Your ear will be more attuned and ready to use all that stuff.

I’ll leave you now with an example of where your playing can lead to if you work on this stuff: “Cradle Robber” by Dave Davidson of Revocation. Notice how though the thrust of this solo is built on A minor pentatonics, a lot of it highlights the chord tones (root, third, and seventh), with emphasis on moving through the scale melodically rather than as a pattern.

Did you find this column helpful? Would you want to hear more Jazz Dispatches or solo breakdowns? Hit me up on Facebook or in the comments section!

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Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.