Where to Use Whole Tone and Other Scales

Q: So, do you play whole tone scales over the ?5, and altered scales over the dominant chords. Major chords – do use use whole tone? Minor scales – do use use dorian? or a jazz minor?

A: Much of what goes into deciding what scale to use over any given chord is all about the context (what chords are surrounding it, how is it functioning harmonically, etc.) There is also always more than one option available to you. There really is no right answer or wrong answer but, rather, what sounds right to you and your ears, which is subjective. Also, your preferences will likely change as your tastes evolve and you get more experience with different tonalities.

I’ll give a rough guide to what scales I tend to use over certain chord types but, honestly, I primarily used major scale harmony for most things, along with a little chromaticism, until just the past few years. I can hear and enjoy the sound of non-major scale harmony much better now and, through exploring the myriad of options out there, my tastes have evolved.

By all means explore all of these scales over the appropriate changes and see what sounds good to you but don’t feel like you HAVE to use X scale over X chord just because it said so in this article or in any jazz text book. Use what sounds good to you. Music isn’t about scales but about expression and energy. Sure, a more esoteric or exotic sounding scale can really draw a listener in, but it often has more to do with how you play the melodic content, not simply that you used this scale or that scale. Phrasing and rhythm is everything!

Here is a rough guide to some common scalar options for various chord types:

Major7: Major scale (ionian mode) or the lydian mode (major scale with a ?4)

Minor7: Natural minor scale (aeolian mode) or the dorian mode (minor with a natural 6)

(Often, you would use dorian in a ii-V7. On the fly, I will often base my decision on what is happening in the melody or the surrounding chords. example: if you have a C-7 chord and there is an Ab in the melody, I’d use the natural minor scale)
Sus4: Mixolydian mode (major with a b7). You can really get away with either a major or minor 3rd, depending on the context of your line or melody. Either 3rd might sound a bit off if you try to resolve a line to it.

-7?5 (half-diminished): Locrian mode (7th mode of the major scale) or Locrian with a natural 2nd (minor scale with a ?5). A minor scale with a ?5 is the 6th mode of melodic minor. It really comes down to what you prefer. Locrian was the scale of choice for years until Bill Evans started using a natural 2nd in his voicings, in order to create some chromatic motion in his minor ii-V voicings.

Example: B-7?5 ? E7alt ? A-7 The C? (nat 2 of B-7?5), moves chromatically down to a C (?13 of the E7alt), which resolve down chromatically to the B (natural 9 of the A-7)

Diminished: diminished scale (whole/half symmetrical diminished scale. This is just alternating whole and half steps). This is an 8 note scale (octatonic if you’re feeling fancy)

-(Maj7): You can use either harmonic or melodic minor. Most jazzers prefer melodic minor (Major scale with a ?3).

NOTE: In jazz theory, the melodic minor scale is the same in both directions. It is always a Major scale with a ?3 (or minor with a natural 6 and 7, however you choose to perceive it).

7(?5): Whole tone scale

7(?11): Lydian dominant (Lydian scale with a ?7. or, major scale with a ?4 and a ?7). This is the 4th mode of melodic minor

7(?13): Mixolydian ?6 (5th mode melodic minor)

Sus7(?9): Dorian ?2 (2nd mode melodic minor)

Maj7?5: Lydian ?5. 3rd mode melodic minor (major scale with a ?4 and ?5)

Alt7: Altered scale (aka: super locrian). This is the 7th mode of melodic minor

ALTERED DOMINANT BLURB: There are a LOT of options for altered dominant chords. Really, any dominant chord with an alteration can be considered an altered dominant. It is really up to you to decide what sounds and feels good. There are so many options, that all notes of the chromatic scale are available to you, but it all comes down to context. Each scale sounds different and has a different feel so it’ll be up to you to explore all of them and decide what you prefer.

Many jazz musicians prefer to use either the altered scale (7th mode melodic minor) or the half/whole diminished scale (alternating half steps and whole steps. This scale is similar to the diminished scale in as much as it is exactly the same scale, just starting on one of the 4 notes that is followed by a half step instead of a whole step).

Many jazz musicians like this scale because it is symmetrical and actually works over 4 different altered chords (or 4 different diminished chords). It sounds confusing but, if you learn the 3 different diminished scales, you have the tools available to you to play every possible altered chord and every diminished chord.

Example: C half/whole scale = C C? D? E F? G A B?

This one scale covers: C7alt, D?7alt, F?7alt, A7alt


C?dim7, Edim7, Gdim7, Bbdim

Each of those similar chord types is a minor 3rd apart. It can take a while to really get it conceptually and even longer to get it under your fingers and coming naturally to your playing (still working on it myself). Don’t worry if you don’t get it just yet. Just keep exploring and trying different things. You’ll slowly start to internalize what this stuff sounds like and how it works.

Understanding this list of scales and sounds took me years of exploration before I finally got it intellectually and I’m still working on getting it into my actual playing in a natural way. It is a life-long process so don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of information out there or the number of options available to you. This is a lifetimes worth of work.

My advice would be to work on one chord type at a time initially. Really explore each sound and then expand your explorations by working through tunes like “Iris”, “Round Midnight” or “Nefertiti”. Start to actively try to use certain scales over the different jazz chord types (I call them “adult chords”). Practice reach tune very slowly (like a slow ballad) and give yourself time to really think about what you want to play. This also gets you thinking melodically and gets you trying to actively resolve lines and use phrasing and resolution in a meaningful way.

Let me know if you all have any questions in the comments (or if I made any silly mistakes!). I’d love to hear what you all like to play over some of these chord types!

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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  1. Nice lesson. Domian! Thank you.

  2. Mike

    I guess I’m in over my head here. Could some of you guys just speak English so those of us who don’t have 20 years of music theory under their belt can have some hope of learning this stuff?

    • Chris

      This is a perfect example of what a column should be! Great job and keep it coming!

  3. Reply doesn’t work for me either, ant ideas? Maybe a Windows 10 or Chrome thing?

  4. Thanks for taking the time to write this all out! HUGE amount of information here! Laying it down so straight up like this would feel like a 10,000 piece jigsaw for me.