3 Must Know Ways to Improvise Over Major 7 Chords
In this lesson I will be teaching you how to improvise over major 7 chords by implying the Lydian sound. The major 7th #11 chord is sometimes referred to as a Lydian chord and usually written as a #11, #4 or b5 major7 chord. Feeling comfortable soloing over and comping the major 7#11 chord type is an essential part of becoming a better jazz guitarist.
For a more detailed study of how to comp with maj7 #11 chords in various settings and how to develop overall well rounded chord and comping techniques, click here
Before we begin, let’s just check out the dfference between the major 7th chord and a Lydian, #11 chord by looking how they’re constructed. Notice that there is only note difference. The G in the Cmajor7 has become an F# in the C major #11.
The improvisation methods in this lesson can be applied to regular major 7th, major 6th, major 6/9th, and any other major chord types.
Major 7#11 chords are used more in modern jazz tunes than the regular standards, but applying them to regular major 7th chords will give you twice as much vocabulary to use over them, and you’ll also get twice as much mileage from these concepts.
The Lydian Approach
Most jazz guitarists will probably be used to improvising over major#11 chords using the Lydian mode.
The Lydian mode is built from the 4th degree of the major scale, so if you start a C major scale from the F, the 4th note in the C Major scale, you get an F Lydian mode as seen in the example below.
Although thinking of modes in this way is fine, it’s better to think of modes as scales in their own right rather than just thinking of them as part of a major scale. Although modes are derived from the major scale you need to hear them in their own right and against the proper correct harmony.
While it’s essential that every jazz guitarist knows the Lydian mode, and all the modes of their major scales I often find them quite ‘bulky’ to use in practical settings. The Lydian note is a 7 note scale, but the Lydian sound is essentially just one note, the #11.
Practice the Lydian scales in all 12 keys and in the different positions across the guitar neck. Having a thorough understanding of the Lydian sound and application of this is important before looking at the next two methods.
Minor Pentatonic Method
Although the Lydian scale is great to use over major7#11 chords, another scale that I personally prefer is using the minor pentatonic scale.
Most guitarists learn this scale first, so they will already have it comfortable in all 12 keys and in the different positions across the neck, but if you don’t it’s essential that you practice this before moving on.
Here’s the formula for the minor pentatonic scale.
Minor Pentatonic Formula: R, b3rd, 4th, 5th, b7th
Minor Pentatonic in the key of C: C, Eb, F, G, Bb
To use the minor pentatonic scale over major #11 chords, just think of the minor pentatonic scale a semi-tone below the root of the major 7#11 chord.
The notes from the minor pentatonic a semi-tone below the major 7 chord are also found in the Lydian scale, but by using minor pentatonic we avoid playing some of the less tasty intervals such as the root and fifth and get straight to the juicy sounds.
There are also fewer notes to think of when we need to outline quick moving #11 chords at fast tempos too being that the pentatonic scale is only 5 notes.
As guitarists we can use all our bluesy triplet licks over major 7 and major 7#11 chords and they will outline the harmony fine. Intervallic and more jazzy type of licks work great too, so experiment with both before moving on to the next concept.
Improvise Over Major 7 Chords Using Triad Pairs
Combining different triad pairs together is a great way to open the fretboard, play more intervallic, and get the scale sounds you want quickly. This approach was shown to me by the great sax player Tom Fisher.
To use a triad to get the #11 sound, think a tone above the root of the chord in content. So in the key of C major, think a tone above which is D. The D Triad gives us D, the 9th, F#, the #11, and A the 13th. When jazz guitarists improvise in triads they often group two together for effective voice leading.
The following triadic examples are in the key of G and they use this technique of combing two triads a tone apart which in this example is G and A.
The examples will include root position, first inversion, and second inversion triads. To learn what these different triads are and how to practice them, check out this in depth article that I wrote about triads: http://wwwjamieholroydguitar.com/how-to-play-triads-on-guitar
Let’s see what extensions these two triads give us together.
G Triad = G (R), B (3rd), D (5th)
A Triad = A (9th), C# (#11), E (13th)
Notice that neither of these triads have the 7th of G (F) in them, so you can use these two triads over dominant 7 and dominant 7th #11 besides major 7#11 chord types.
I have written out a few examples showing how you can voice lead the two triads together across the different string sets.
Descending Voice Leading Triads on Strings 123
Ascending Voice Leading Triads Strings 123
Ascending and Descending Triad Pairs on Strings 234
Continue voice leading the triads on the other string sets in the same way then start to improvise with them. Mapping out triads and voice leading them together is a great exercise to do on any tune.
To complete the triad pair section here’s a major #11 lick that uses these two triads and a D major triad. Since this lesson is a study of the major #11 sound I’ve added the D natural into this line because it contains F# so that you can get the major 7th sound.
How To Practice These Concepts
You can apply these concepts to tunes that you are working on, but firstly it’s important to isolate one major 7th or major 7 #11 chord first so that you can fully explore the possibilities of each of the concepts.
Try creating a backing track that just has one chord, either by using software like band in a box or recording the chords yourself and practice each concept by itself then mix them together.
Once you feel confident switching between the different methods and using each one across the neck try taking the concepts to a tune you know. One tune that uses #11 chords extensively is the Joe Henderson Composition ‘Inner Urge’.
I have attached a sheet of the chords below and marked the correct pentatonic scales that you can use, but you can apply all the concepts to this tune. Click here to download the resource sheet. Scroll to the bottom.
What are your favorite ways to improve over major 7 and major 7#11 chords? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.