Jazz Guitar Scales

Written by Patricia Tunstall
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Jazz Guitar Scales Have Long History

Jazz guitar scales are derived from the Gregorian modes used during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Simply put, these modes evolved into our major and minor scales. If you play the white keys of a piano, you will be playing modes. For instance, if you start at C and play each white key until you hit C again, you will have played the Ionian mode, which is the same as the major scale.

These modes have been used since the end of the 1800s by composers such as Debussy. Some modes have persisted in regional folk music; the Phrygian mode, which goes from E to E, is typical of the music of Andalusia in Spain. The Dorian goes from D to D, the Lydian from F to F, the Mixolydian from G to G, and the Aeolian, similar to our minor scale, from A to A. Each has seven intervals and eight notes. Since each mode uses the same notes, you might think they would sound alike, but, in fact, each mode establishes a different sound and mood.

Modern Jazz Guitar Scales

Today, jazz improvisers use jazz music scales to convey the complex harmonies essential to sophisticated compositions. Since jazz developed in New Orleans in the late 1800s, many styles have evolved, and all are still extant and popular. From Dixieland jazz to swing, and from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, jazz has proved to be a most creative and enduring musical form.

The beginning jazz player would do well to take lessons, if possible, read music theory, and get some tangible assistance in the form of wall charts that spell out scales, keys, chords, and progressions. Seeing the details laid out in one format might seem overwhelming at first, but soon the convenience of having all the essential information in one spot will become apparent. Without having to lift your hands from the guitar or piano, you can see at a glance the next logical musical step.


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