Practical Scalar Practice

Q: I’ve been reading a lot of posts online and doing searches about which scales work over what chords. I’ve found a lot of good information, but I’m not really sure how to actually practice and internalize the information once I have it. Any advice?

A: This is something that I’ve been working on with my students at PSU (Portland State University) lately. We’ve been exploring the use of melodic minor (and related modes) as well as symmetrical diminished scales. The attached PDF is a rough version of how I encourage them to approach (and how I personally approach) getting used to thinking of X scale over Y chord.

Using any given tune (we’ll use Stella By Starlight here, as it’s a great tune for practicing minor ii-V’s), I have them map out where they can use certain scales they’d like to explore within the changes. In this example, I’ve written a scale for every chord, however I emphasized the Melodic Minor and Symmetrical Diminished options.

NOTE: If I was doing this for myself, I’d probably reduce the clutter and only write in the chords that were giving me problems, or the chords that specifically related to what I wanted to focus on. Leaving the rest to spontaneity and keeping the page free of clutter so I don’t get distracted.

I tell the students to practice this both in time and out of time. Practicing things out of time and at your own pace allows you to more fully explore certain sounds and chord types without having to jump to a new chord so quickly. Playing each scaler option over a held chord, looped chord, etc. can be very useful in internalizing how the mode sounds over that chord type and giving you time to explore the shapes and sounds inherent to that mode.

I also encourage them to explore each scale possibility from any related mode (in other words, to not just think G melodic minor from the E-7(b5), but also:

  • E Locrian natural 2
  • F# super locrian
  • G melodic minor
  • A dorian b2
  • Bb Lydian Augmented
  • C Lydian Dominant
  • D Mixolydian b6

I know that each of us tends to gravitate towards certain shapes and we may be more comfortable with Lydian Dominant than we are dorian b2, for example. So, over an E-7b5, you can pick any of the related modes and play that shape, from that root note (as written above as relating to G Melodic minor).

Because of this, I have them pick two or three of the modes that they like the sound of the best, or can see the shape of the best and then explore those modes with full focus and intentionality.

Here’s an example of a homework assignment I gave some students just today:

  1. Pick 2 or 3 melodic minor modes that you like
  2. Develop and notate (put on paper) 3 different minor ii-V licks using melodic minor on the ii, symmetrical diminished over the V7b9 and resolving to the minor I chord.
  3. Develop and notate (put on paper) 3 different minor ii-V licks using melodic minor on the ii, the altered scale (super locrian) over the V7b9 and resolving to the minor I chord.
  4. Do a chord scale study of “Stella” using all available options for modes as relating to the minor ii-V’s

Note that, in the homework, I make mention of the fact that you could also play the altered scale (or super locrian – 7th mode of melodic minor) over the V7b9 chords. This is true and fully worth exploring, however I, personally, prefer the sound of symmetrical diminished over that chord so I have them explore all of the options and decide what they think sounds the best to them.

Feel free to print out this PDF and write in each of the scales for each chord, if you like. This is a nice way to see similarities between the scaler options available to you.

So, in short… there is no quick and easy way, but there is any number of thorough ways to explore this type of stuff. It just takes:

  • A lot of time and/or research with regard to figuring out what scales are available to you
  • Even more time exploring the sound of each scale
  • Even more time playing through tunes with this kind of intentionality in order to really internalize these things!

I also keep a little cheat sheet by my desk of certain chord types that have given me fits and what scales I could use over them (as well as different “cheats” as to how I can think of it or remember what to play). Print this out and continue the work and add your own.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Axel Arvizu

    Thank you for this… it is priceless… love your lessons… thank you…

  2. Deepak Kumar

    wow vry nice.

  3. Amazing lesson! Thanks alot Damian!
    This is an information you don’t hear very often, and you sharing that with everyone is simply awesome.