Jazz Guitar Scales: ii V I Scales
Learning to play jazz guitar means knowing how to play and practice scales so we can outline harmony. There are three ii V I scales jazz guitarists mainly use in some way or form when improvising over a ii-V-I which build a foundation for fancier scales such as the whole-tone and the bebop scales.
This lesson is a follow up lesson to my arpeggio guide in which we focused on how to use arpeggios to outline the changes of a ii-V-I progression. Once you have the arpeggios under your fingers we can start to look at some of the scales which go with these arpeggios.
C Major Scale
The most important scale to learn that forms the basis for jazz harmony and many other scales is the major scale which is sometimes referred to as the Ionian mode. The major scale contains all 4 notes found within a C major arpeggio and has 3 additional notes, the 9th, 11th, 6th which make it a 7 note scale.
Major scales can be used to improvise over any type of major chords such as major 7ths, major 9ths, major 6ths, and major triads. The following diagram shows a single octave major scale in the key of C.
Major Scale Formula: R, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th
C Major Scale Notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B
The second scale we will be looking at is another 7 note scale called the Dorian scale. The Dorian scale is a minor scale which is the 2nd mode of the major scale because it is built from the second degree of the scale. If you play a major scale and bypass the first note (C), you will be playing a D Dorian scale.
Although the major and Dorian scales contain the same notes, seeing and hearing the two scales against the chord types they represent is important because the function of each note changes.
Like minor 7th arpeggios, Dorian scales can be used to improvise over any type of minor 7th chords such as minor 9th, minor 6th, and minor 11th chords.
The chart below shows a one octave D Dorian scale. Like the major scale, the Dorian scale is also a 7 note scale that has 3 additional notes from an arpeggio.
Dorian Scale Formula: R, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th
D Dorian Scale Notes: D, E, F, G, A, B, C
The last scale that we will be looking at is the G Mixolydian scale which is used to improvise over dominant 7th chords. The Mixolydian scale is built from the 5th degree of the major scale meaning that if you start a C major scale from the 5th (G) and play a G Mixolydian scale.
Because the G Mixolydian scale contains a major 3rd and flattened 7th you can use it to improvise over any type of unaltered dominant 7th chords such as 13ths and 9ths.
Mixolydian Scale Formula: R, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th
G Mixolydian Scale Notes: G, A, B, D, E, F
ii V I Scales with Arpeggios and Chords
Seeing how arpeggios, scales, and chords relate to each other helps to see how they are all connected. The following chart shows the scale, arpeggio and chord for each of the three chords we use a in a ii-V-I.
If you’d like to learn more about jazz guitar chords, check out this series of lessons I published about jazz guitar chords and comping techniques: http://jamieholroydguitar.com/30-days-to-better-jazz-guitar-comping
For a fully detailed article on how to practice scales, check out this article I published which explains 4 essential ways.
As with practicing arpeggios, you can practice each scale against the same chord changing its type every few bars too. Try playing 8 bars of each chord first, then 4 and finally. The chart below shows how you can do this with the C major and C minor chords.
Practicing scales and arpeggios against one chord changing it’s type every few bars helps you see and hear how harmony changes.
Once you can do this comfortable, try playing over the ii-V-I in the key of C. You can always do 4 or 8 bars of each chord first before making your way to one bar of each chord. Practice the ii V I scales all over the neck, in different keys and over tunes that you are working on. I hope that this ii V I scales guide has been useful in helping you develop jazz guitar scale chops. What are some of your favorite ways to practice ii v i scales? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.