Improvisational Theory - The Complete Improvisation Guide

Published February 21st, 2003. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR. Info >>>


Improvisation Manual - This scale/arpeggio guide should prove to be a good source of improvisational ideas. It, basically, is everything I know about scale/chord relationships, and it took be about ten years to put it together. If you are anything like me, it should take you a few years to get all this stuff into your playing. I'll give you some hints along the way. Try the examples individually and decide which ones work for you.

 

Read this first or your head will explode!

How to use it - Let's say for example, you need to improvise a solo over a Cmaj7 chord, by using the reference guide below you can easily find what scales and arpeggios work. Take a look at the yellow highlighted row below.

scale
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
Comments
major
5
1,2,3,#4,5,6,7
lydian mode
 
Column 1 you could play a major scale...
Column 2 based on the 5th of the chord. The 5th of C major is G so you could play a G major scale over the Cmaj7 chord.
Column 3 The chord/scale tones this would give you: 1,2,3,#4,5,6,7 (C,D,E,F#,G,A,B).
Column 4 This major scale played on the fifth degree of a C major chord is called the lydian mode (C lydian = G major).
 
What other choices do you have:
minor pentatonic on the 7th, 3rd and 6th degree of a C major chord: B, E and A minor pentatonic scale  
melodic minor on the 6th degree of a C chord: A melodic minor (but me aware of the #5th).  
major triad on the root, 2nd, 3rd and 5th degree of C: C, D, E, and G triad

 

See if you can figure out what 7th arpeggios to play.  
Major Chords
 
Scales
scale
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
Comments
major
1
1,2,3,4,5,6,7
ionian mode
major
5
1,2,3,#4,5,6,7
lydian mode
minor pentatonic
7
2,3,#4,6,7
No root present
minor pentatonic
3
2,3,5,6,7
No root present
minor pentatonic
6
1,2,3,5,6
major pentatonic scale
melodic minor
6
1,2,3,#4,#5,6,7
lydian augmented scale
Arpeggios
arpeggio
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
major triad
1
1,3,5
major triad
2
9,#11,13
lydian tonality
major triad
5
5,7,9
major triad
3
3,#5,7
lydian augmented tonality
maj7
5
5,7,9,#11
lydian tonality
min7b5
#4
1,3,#11,13
lydian tonality
min/maj7
6
1,3,#5,13
lydian augmented tonality
 
I would suggest you work on each concept seperatly. Start by sequencing, recording or getting somebody to play a vamp of just a single Cmaj9th chord. Start by playing the major scale up a 5th (row two above). After you feel comfortable using the lydian mode, work in the pentatonic scales. Try to make phrases using them together. When you feel confortable using the pentatonic scales, try to use the triad arpeggios (Cmaj7 = C, D and E). After you learn to improvise using these concepts in seperate keys, try some two chord vamps like Amaj9-Cmaj9. You should find that the combination of pentatonics and triad arpeggios will give you some interesting ideas:
 
Amaj9
Cmaj9
E major scale (A lydian)
G major scale (C lydian)
G#, C, F# minor pentatonic scale
B, E, A minor pentatonic scale
A, B, E triad
C, D, G triad
 
Notice that the some of the minor pentatonic scales that can be used in both chords are a half step away from each other. What kind of interesting phrases could you come up with using them together when the chord changes? What if you played an A and B triad over the Amaj9 chord and a C and D for the C maj9 chord? I used some of these ideas in a song on my latest release, click here to hear it.
 
Useful links: The Lydian mode, Harmonizing Scales, Scale Formulas, The Lydian Augmented Mode

Minor Chords
 
Scales
scale
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
Comments
major
b3
1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7
aolian mode
major
b6
1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7
phrygian mode
major
b7
1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7
dorian mode
minor pentatonic
1
1,b3,4,5,b7
minor pentatonic
minor pentatonic
2
1,2,4,5,6
minor pentatonic
5
1,2,4,5,b7
melodic minor
1
1,2,b3,4,5,6,7
melodic minor
*melodic minor
b5
b2,b3,4,b5,b6,6,7
contains a little from all minor modes
*whole tone
7
b2,b3,4,5,6,7
no root present
Arpeggios
arpeggio
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
augmented triad
b3
b3,5,7
melodic minor tonality
augmented triad
5
b3,5,7
melodic minor tonality
augmented triad
7
b3,5,7
melodic minor tonality
major triad
b3
b3,5,b7
major triad
4
1,11,13
major triad
5
5,7,9
melodic minor tonality
major triad
b7
b7,9,11
major triad
7
b3,b5,7
major triad
2
b5,9,13
locrian #2 tonality
maj7
b3
b3,5,b7,9
min7b5
6
1,b3,5,13
 
*Take notice that these two scale choices do not contain roots. Scales don't necessarily have to have roots to be useful improvisational tools. Both these examples are a little outside. Be careful when and how you use them. They work best in situations where the minor harmony is a little ambiguous.
Useful links: The Dorian Mode, The Phrygian Mode, Scale Formulas.

Minor7b5 Chords
 
Scales
scale
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
Comments
major
b2
1,b2,b3,4,b5,b6,b7
locrian mode
melodic minor
b3
1,2,b3,4,b5,b6,b7
locrian#2 mode
Arpeggios
arpeggio
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
augmented triad
2
b5,b7,9
locrian #2 tonality
augmented triad
b5
b5,b7,9
locrian #2 tonality
augmented triad
b7
b5,b7,9
locrian #2 tonality
min/maj7
b3
b3,b5,b7,9
locrian #2 tonality
Useful links:The Locrian #2 Mode

Unaltered Dominant Chords
 
Scales
scale
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
Comments
major
4
1,2,3,4,5,6,b7
mixolydian mode
melodic minor
5
1,2,3#,4,5,6,b7
lydian dominant mode
minor pentatonic
1
1,4,5,b7,#9
blues tonality
minor pentatonic
6
1,2,3,5,6
major pentatonic scale
Arpeggios
arpeggio
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
augmented triad
2
b7,9,#11
lydian dominant tonality
augmented triad
b5
b7,9,#11
lydian dominant tonality
augmented triad
b7
b7,9,#11
lydian dominant tonality
major triad
2
9,#11,13
lydian dominant tonality
min7b5
3
3,5,b7,9
min7b5
#4
1,3,6,#11
lydian dominant tonality
min/maj7
5
5,7,9,#11
lydian dominant tonality
Useful links: The Mixolydian Mode, The Lydian Dominant Mode, Dominant Chords, Scale Formulas.

Sus Chords
 
Scales
scale
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
Comments
major
4
1,2,3,4,5,6,b7
mixolydian mode
*major b6 1,b2,#2,4,5,b6,b7 phrygian (for b9sus chords)
*melodic minor b7 1,b2,#2,4,5,6,b7 dorian b2 mode (for b9sus chords)
minor pentatonic
2
1,2,4,5,6
minor pentatonic
5
1,2,4,5,b7
Arpeggios
arpeggio
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
maj7
b7
4,b7,9,13
major triad
4
1,4,6
major triad
b7
4,b7,9
 
*These two scale choices work nicely for b9sus chords. Although both these modes are technically minor modes, they both work better for these dominant chords rather than minor chords. The minor 3rd in some minor scales can function as #9ths.

Altered Dominant Chords
 
Scales
scale
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
Comments
diminished half/whole
1
1,b2,#2,3,#4,5,6,b7
whole tone
1
1,2,3,b5,#5,b7
melodic minor
b2
1,b2,#2,3,#4,#5,b7
altered mode
minor pentatonic 1 1,4,5,b7,#9
minor pentatonic b3 b5,#5,b7,b9,#9 altered tonality
minor pentatonic 4 1,4,#5,b7,#9
minor pentatonic
b7
4,#5,b7,b9,#9
Arpeggios
arpeggio
degree to be played on
chord/scale tones created
diminished triad
3
3,5,b7,b9
diminished tonality
diminished triad
5
3,5,b7,b9
diminished tonality
diminished triad
b7
3,5,b7,b9
diminished tonality
diminished triad
b2
3,5,b7,b9
diminished tonality
augmented triad 1 1,3,#5 altered tonality
augmented triad 3 1,3,#5 altered tonality
augmented triad #5 1,3,#5 altered tonality
major triad b3 5,b7,#9 diminished tonality
major triad b5 b5,b7,b9
major triad 6 3,b9,13 diminished tonality
major triad b6 1,#5,#9 altered tonality
min7b5
b7
3,#5,b7,b9
altered tonality
min7/maj7
b2
1,3,#5,b9
altered tonality
Useful links: The Altered Scale, Dominant Chords , Scale Formulas.

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