Quickly Figuring Out Available Notes For Given Chord Types

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Q: I’ve been trying to learn how to figure out what notes are available for any given chord type. I’ve read columns here (yours are very helpful), Googled it, bought books… I just seem to get more confused at every turn. Once I think I’ve got it, I’ve lost it. Do you have any quick and dirty tricks for remembering this stuff?

A: Normally when I’m asked if there’s a quick trick or shortcut, my answer is, “Nope… drill it to death and it’ll stick”. This time, however, you’re in luck!

I have just a few quick rules that will help you figure out exactly what scale will work over any chord type. Now, the ability to actually use this information in real time (on the gig) requires that you drill the scales into your built in memory both in relation to the chord type in question and – more important – into your muscle memory on the instrument, not to mention your ears. You will never be able to play it effectively if you can’t hear it beforehand.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned some of these before in past columns, but those might be information overload for what you are asking (and many others are probably thinking as well). So, here are are few tricks that might help. Work through some changes in a Real Book using these to guide you and you will get the hang of it.

Major 3rd = ?11

Every chord type with a major 3rd from the root can have a ?11. For example: major, dominant and augmented. You don’t have to use a ?11, but it’s an option and one that will take you to a “jazzier” place.

?9 = ?9 and vice-versa

If a written chord gives you a ? or ? 9, you can use both alterations of the 9, if you like.

ANY alteration of an extension implies a ?11

In other words, if you see a ? or ? 9, 5, 6 or 13, go ahead and give yourself a ?11 as well if you like.

Using just these three rules will allow you to pretty quickly go through the scale and figure out what any chord types chord-scale should be assuming that you are solid on the basic 1,3,5,7 qualities of each chord type.

Let me break these down, just in case:

  • Major7, ?7 = 1 3 5 7 from the major scale
  • dominant, x7 = 1 3 5 ?7 from the major scale
  • minor, -7 = 1 ?3 5 ?7 from the major scale
  • half-dim, ø7 = 1 ?3 ?5 ?7 from the major scale
  • fully diminished, o7 = 1 ?3 ?5 ??7 from the major scale (a ??7 is enharmonic to a natural 6)

So, if you’ve got those basic chord qualities down pat. Here are some chord types and associated chord scales, using our rules from above.

C7?9 = C Db D? E F? G A B? C (Root, ?9, ?9, 3rd, ?11, 5, 6, ?7)

This is a half/whole symmetrical diminished scale, by the way.

C?7?5 = C D E F? G? A B C

This scale is called Lydian augmented (3rd mode melodic minor)

C7?9 = Trick question! (same as C7?9)

C7?5 = C D E F? G? A B? C *

* This one is an exception. Using our rules gives us the scale above but most folks assume that you will play a whole-tone scale over this chord type. C D E F? G? A? C = whole tone (nothing but whole steps. a 6-note scale). However, these scales are only slightly different so, in a pinch, you would have been at least pretty close using our rules from above. Every rule has an exception, but these guidelines will get you pretty close and that’s a good start.

Sometimes, you may see “alt” instead of numbers and symbols. This means that, essentially, you should just play the altered scale (aka: super locrian). This is the 7th mode of melodic minor

C C? D? E F? G? A? C C Altered = C? melodic minor
As you can see, every rule has it’s exceptions. This will, however get you on the path to figuring out a scale in a pinch. It might not lead you to the best choice over a chord type but it will get you close. Many chord types have multiple scale options associated with them once you understand how they all work together. This is the closest that I can come to a “quick fix” for figuring this stuff out on the fly.

This also doesn’t cover EVERY chord type out there in the world but it’s a start. For example:

-(?7) (aka: minor, major7)
This chord assumes that you will play either harmonic or melodic minor. Dealer’s choice. Most jazz guys will go for the melodic minor approach although a strict reading of that chord type gives you harmonic minor (there’s only one note difference anyway).

SUS4 = Mixolydian with a DE-emphasis on the 3rd

And the list goes on. I don’t want to confound you, though. And (insert shameless plug here), I do cover this stuff in my book, “The Improvisor’s Path” which is available most everywhere online.

Focus on those 3 rules and work through some changes in the Real Book (hint: Wayne Shorter tunes are usually packed full of fun chord types. Give “Iris” a try!). This stuff will slowly but surely start to sink in if you work at it with regularity!

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. Gregg

    Is it just me, or does anyone else get the feeling when looking at Major7, ?7 = 1 3 5 7 or fully diminished, o7 = 1 ?3 ?5 ??7 i.e., that the brain does an auto shut down because this stuff looks like math, and all you really want to do is play the bass?

  2. Marco

    I got a sheet from a friend (he’s keys player) and there is every note for every possible chord writen down. It was really confusing to remember all notes. But remember the patter for the chord it is much easier than all the notes. They are coming later but this is a very good start to figuring out what you can play in this chord.

  3. wilking

    Wow awesome. eres un gran maestro! saludos desde Republica Dominicana.

  4. Henry

    You should use B# instead of C when you’re talking about the C# melodic minor scale. The convention is to name the enharmonics so you don’t repeat letters.

  5. Ray

    What does the? Mark represent? Or are those typos? ?9 etc. or is this just showing up on my computer?

    • Pere Campi

      It seems that they aren’t going to fix it.?

      • Lenny Mo

        Looks like the ? should be a ‘flat’ note as Bb, Eb. Typo error apparently.

        • JR Nolan

          Flat or sharp would be a big help, not a “?” This content means nothing when the ? is in
          place of both flat and sharp. WHICH IS IT!

          • Damian Erskine

            Wow, something must’ve happened when the site got rebuilt. I’ll message the guys now. It’s useless like this!

            Apologies… it used to be formatted properly