Breaking Down Harmonic Substitutions: Part 2

In part 1 of this series, we were experimenting with using substitutions that allowed us to play familiar major and minor scale shapes over various basic chord types. Now, let’s move on to melodic and harmonic minor mode choices.

First, let’s make sure that we’re all familiar with these two scales:

Harmonic minor = Aeolian (natural minor) with a major 7th

That’s it. Just play a minor scale with a natural 7th and you’ll have the harmonic minor scale.

This one alteration does, however, affect the various modes in pretty significant ways. Just because you have the major scale and its associated modes down pat does not mean that you will have the harmonic minor and associated modes down.

It’s still best to explore these modes one by one, and all over the fretboard.

Melodic minor = Ionian (Major scale) with a ♭3

Again, only one note difference between the two, but it makes a world of difference to the sound and usefulness of the inherent modes.

Note: Many of you will be anxious to point out that the melodic minor scale is different ascending than it is descending. So far as it’s used in jazz music, this is not true. This is a classical music construct, and while I admit I don’t know much about why, I can say for certain that when a jazz musician speaks of melodic minor or any mode contained therein, they are very much talking about this one scale. Major scale with a minor 3rd. Some also think of it as a minor scale with a natural 6th and 7th. Same thing.

Now, I am going to give you my own methodology and my own path to discovery of what I jokingly call the “adult chords”:

7♯5, Alt, ?7♯5, diminished, etc. These are the chords that keep many a student bassist (and many pros) playing long tones and roots until they get to the next chord that they know how to navigate.

I like to explain the path I took to understanding because the stock explanations out of many theory books just don’t resonate with many students (including yours truly). The authors often get a little too proud of their own wordage and the simplicity of it gets lost. The more complicated it sounds, the more one can feel satisfaction at it’s understanding. I call BS here and try to make it sound as simple as it seems in my own mind.

I am primarily speaking of the various concepts employed when I speak of its simplicity. It really is simple math and logic. The complexity comes in the employment of this stuff in a musical context. It requires that we spend hundreds to thousands of hours internalizing the different facets of jazz harmony on the instrument before it can become a natural part of how we actually make music. In short, many students stop where the real work begins… that is in the repetition and exploration on the instrument and learning how this simple “math and logic” actually sounds amidst other musicians making music.

This is all to say that, once you get the concept, it is very much up to you to work hard and methodically to explore what it all means in a musical context (off the page). We can’t stop pushing before we’ve figured out how to make music with it. Knowing your scales and relationships is just the foundation from which the real work begins.

With any given chord type, there will be any number of scaler options available to you. Much of it will essentially depend on your aural aesthetic (or how you think it sounds. Didn’t I just say something about getting over-wordy?!). While many theory books will give you a list of rules, those rules are merely guidelines. I don’t care what any book says, if I don’t like the way “X” scale sounds over “Y” chord, I’m not going to use it. Period.

That said, never stop exploring. The reality is that your ears will never stop evolving as you study music. You will slowly start to hear denser harmonic content and alternate approaches in harmony and rhythm. Just because you don’t like “X” scale now, doesn’t mean that you won’t begin to appreciate it later. Food for thought.

When I use the words “chord scale” from this point on, I simply mean that the “chord scale” is the scale that is built from any chord type by using the chord tones and any available tensions. In simple terms, we discern what notes will constitute our 1 3 5 7 (chord tones), and then use a few basic rules to decide what we will use for our 2 4 6. Add them all together and you get 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (in whatever form it takes): the chord scale.

So, this was how I began exploring how to discern any given chord scale over any given chord.

My first explorations into figuring out what chord scale to use for any chord type was to simply read the chord like a map.

For example, C?7♯11:
I used logic to dictate that C?7 is just a major chord and I’d use a ♮2, ♯4 (♯11) and a ♮6. This gives us Lydian chord scale for that chord type.

How about G7(♯5)?
I would think, “okay, G7 just means to play Mixolydian from a G. I’ll just sharp that 5 and get a G mixolydian ♯5 scale of G A B C D♯ E F G.”
This is almost correct. I’ll explain why in a second.

One more: G7(♯9, ♯5)
“Okay, Mixolydian with those alterations = G A♯ B C D♯ E F G.” Again, this is almost right. More on that very soon.

This is a great way to start exploring scales built to suit any specific chord type and it will get you 90% of the way there. It certainly works in a pinch when you come across an unusual chord type that you haven’t explored. If nothing else, it’s the closest you can get without really exploring your different options or in real time, on a gig.

Now, as I worked with chords in this way, I was always aware that not all of my self-built chord scales worked all that well, all of the time on the gig or in the shed. I eventually started asking around and picked up a few good rules to keep in mind for building your chord scale.

You may have picked up on this at the end of my list of alternate harmony options from the end of Part 1 of this series.

  • Any alteration of a tension immediately implies a ♯11
  • ♭9 implies ♯9 and vice-versa
  • Any chord with a major 3rd (from the root) can have a ♯11

So, applying this logic to the examples I gave above changes a few things. Remember that G7♯5?

Now we also know that, because I have a ♯5, I can also use a ♯11. This gives us the whole tone scale (nothing but whole steps from root to root).

G A B C♯ D♯ F G

To anyone who noticed, I’m not about to write an E♯ or F♯♯. Sorry to anyone whose sensibilities this offends. As a professional chart reader, I have come to strongly favor that which makes the reading and performing of the music on the chart easier over any strict classical ideals about notation that generally tend to wrinkle the brow of those actually performing the music.

Indeed, this is what most composers are implying implicitly when they write this chord symbol. It is assumed that you will automatically think whole tone when you see a 7♯5 chord symbol.

Also, our G7(♯9, ♯5) becomes this when those rules are applied:

G Ab A♯ B C♯ D♯ E F

Now, this is yet now step further down the road of the fluent jazz improvisor (after we’ve spent sufficient time with all of these scales and chords, of course).

There are many additional assumptions about which chord scale an improvisor may choose based on the spelling of the chord. This is why every altered dominant chord isn’t just called an “7 alt” chord. There are implications about the chord scale you will choose depending on the spelling.

Here is the important thing to remember: There is no correct answer, only that which sounds good or bad and that is quite subjective. I have scales that I prefer but that don’t jive with jazz theory texts (preferring a ♭9 on -7(♭5) chords, for example). I believe that the bass guitar and the range it occupies lends it a bit of a handicap when it comes to certain harmonic devices. Certain things sound better played on instruments that are an octave or more up from our range. That is just a working hypothesis on my part but I love the way certain scales work and sound on the guitar or trumpet but have not enjoyed the sound as much on the bass. My ear is always evolving, though so that may very well change over time.

The point is this: play what sounds good to you. Jazz theory is not jazz fact. The “rules” about “available” tensions, “avoid” notes, etc. are more of a guide, in my estimation. Helpful hints at what has worked for those that came before and analyzed what was being played. But jazz is not a static music and I have a scowl and a pithy, “really dude??” for anyone that tells me that something is or isn’t allowed in music. It’s just a matter of what people are used to hearing and what you want to sound like. If you like it, do it. If people don’t like it, that’s up to them. They have an equal right to dislike what you play as you have to play, but it’s a two-way street.

My only request is that you actually do the work required to make those decisions for yourself. I have come across many a student who never evolved beyond major scale harmony, not because they preferred the sound, but because it was a daunting task to take the next step and therefore, never took it.
My philosophy is, I’m going to play until I can’t play anymore and I’d rather be better then than I am now. So let’s see how far I can push it with the time I have! Why not, right? Keep exploring

Okay, here is a basic guide for some chord types and the expectation of chord scale by many players.

?7 = Lydian

?7(♯5) = 3rd mode Melodic minor
I tend to play 5th mode from the major 3rd. i.e.: C?7(♯5) = E Mixolydian ♭6

Sus4 = Mixolydian
I tend to play Minor or Dorian from the 5th

Sus7(b9) = 2nd mode of Melodic Minor
I like the 5th mode of Melodic minor again here, played from the 4th, i.e.: CSus(♭9) = F Mixolydian ♭6

-7(♭5) = 6th mode of Melodic Minor
This is the general assumption here (minor scale with a ♭5). I prefer playing Lydian from the ♭5 in a solo context

ALT = Altered scale, aka “super-locrian”
This is the 7th mode of Melodic minor.

diminished = Whole/half symmetrical diminished scale
(What’s that? just play alternating whole and half notes! i.e. C D D♯ F F♯ G♯ A B C for a C dim7)

-(?7) = Melodic minor or Harmonic minor
Dealers choice. Super jazzers tend to play melodic minor

7♯5 = Whole-tone

7(♯11) = Lydian Dominant
(4th mode of melodic minor. = Mixolydian scale with a ♯11)

7(b9) = Half/whole symmetrical diminished scale
I prefer the 5th mode of Harmonic minor (Mixolydian with a ♭2 & ♭6)

7(♯9) = Half/whole symmetrical diminished scale
I prefer to simply play minor unless it’s a very jazzy feel. Straight minor works best over bluesier feels in my mind, for this chord. Much depends on the context (style, general tonality of everything going on, etc).

7(♭13) = 5th mode Melodic Minor (Mixolydian ♭6)

That’s a pretty good working list to use as a starting point. Like I’ve mentioned, my decisions will often change depending on the context of the chord within the song and what I’m hearing at the moment. Again, these are guidelines, not rules.

And, how does this relate to substitutions? With many of these chord scale preferences, I will not play the scale from root to root, as if I were practicing but rather skip around and blend different modes together depending on what my ear wants at that moment. I may operate from a diatonic mode from another place in the scale, or I may switch between harmonic and melodic minor modes to switch up the sound. It is all a part of some much deeper explorations that I hope you will undertake!

For those that would like to dive a little deeper, with actual musical examples and exercises and with more care and time taken per topic, I would suggest a few books (one of them mine. Shameless plug.)

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.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. Sergio

    Quote: “7(?11) = Lydian Dominant
    (4th mode of melodic minor. = Lydian scale with a ?11)”

    Wouldnt it be ” Lydian scale with a b7″ ?

    and “Sus7(b9) = 2nd mode of Melodic Minor
    I like the 5th mode of Melodic minor again here, played from the 4th, i.e.: CSus(?9) = F Mixolydian ?6” Wouldn´t be a F Mixolydian b9?

    Thanks for the arcticle. I already studied these steps but I find it a help for those who want t oexpand vocabulary. :)

    • I was wondering that about the Lydian dominant. Must have meant mixolydian with a #4. Question though: is it hipper to walk through the natural 4 and leave the altered tension for the soloist? I guess that question applies to all of these. I notice that when walking over a Maj7(#11) for instance that playing a Lydian makes it pull strongly to the 5 as the root.

      • Maj7(#11) also pulls to the mixolydian from the 9. Just having a hard time suggesting the root against that feel. May be that looping the chord over and over in iReal pro without the bass track is just not giving me enough harmonic context.

  2. Kirk

    Damian, you lost me pretty quick on this one. When you said:
    “Melodic minor = Ionian (Major scale) with a ?3”

    I spell out an A Minor Melodic scale, Aeolian w/ #6 and #7, I have:
    A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#

    If I spell C Ionian with flat 3 I get:
    C, D, Eb(D#), F, G, A, B

    At that point I was so confused that the rest the article made me feel really stupid.

    Can you please elaborate on what you mean by that?

      • Kirk

        Damian, I learned diatonic modes down solid, but never really worked with Harmonic or Melodic minors except for a short time. I guess I think of modes as degrees of the Major scale at all times. So when you said Aeolian, I think 6th degree and Ionian as 1st degree. That is why I spelled from different roots.

        The few times I think about Melodic minor, I still think in terms of the modes from the Major scale. So they would simply be altered modes… the Aeolian has a #6 & #7 the Locrian has a #5 & #6, the Major has a #4 & #5, etc..

        Maybe I am the only one who thinks this way?

        I understand what you are saying now.

        When you play out of a Harmonic or Melodic minor do you simply think in degrees of that scale and that scale is your 1st degree?

        For instance, would you call them Har Mode 1, Har Mode 2, etc…? or am I making it too complicated?

  3. John Daniel

    A very useful no – BS exposition. I agree about avoiding ## etc in order to make reading charts easier. It’s not how we were taught at college, but in the real world it makes sense.

  4. Bob Cotter

    Hi Damian. I am more of an “in the pocket” bassist than soloist. I do a lot of walking, using tried and true devices and also constructing lines sometimes on the fly. I’m not sure if it’s because things have sunken in over the years and I know things that I don’t know that I know, but When i see diminished or augmented chords, I’ll go ahead and see that #11 or b5 works with the melody. For instance, This Masquerade, key of Gm, the song opens with a Gm Gm#7 Gm7 to a C13. I play root octave, root #7, root m7, next halfstep brings you to E and voila!
    you’re in the C chord, with a lot of options to get you to the next Gm …a nice descending progression where utilizing the 7ths brings out the the nuances of the tonal difference of the different Gm chords. Sometimes things like that work, sometimes not. That, to me, is what is so cool about jazz, especially jams where you may be unfamiliar with the other players. All the soloists are different, and different constructs work with each individual. Everytime you’re back to the top, you get another chance to vary your line. Bass players are great breed….they do all that while also locking in with the rhythm section to drive the bus.
    Bassists….the original multi-taskers
    Thank you for your columns, they shed a lot of light on the Art of Bass.

  5. quote : Now we also know that, because I have a ?5, I can also use a ?11. I really don’t get it because #5 it is not an extension. Could you explain me why?