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Cameron Allen - From Blues to Jazz Part 3: Altered Scale Triads

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 36 **

Last time we looked at some ways to expand our awareness over the guitar fretboard while soloing over a Jazz Blues chord progression, using arpeggios as a means of targeting chord tones through the chord changes. I noted that, while such chord tone guitar exercises offer great benefit in terms of expanding one's fretboard awareness, they can tend to sound academic and bland. One reason for this is that the chord-tone-only arpeggios are built of just those notes that make up the underlying chord and nothing more. We can begin to make our jazz guitar lines sound more interesting by including additional scale tones. One place where additional scale tones can be especially impactful is on a V7 chord. For this jazz guitar lesson, I chose to focus on a scale that is often used to great effect on V7 chords: the altered scale.

The altered scale, also known as the superlocrian scale or the diminished whole-tone scale, is an essential part of every Jazz player's musical vocabulary. It is derived from the melodic minor scale, being the seventh mode thereof. Its formula is: 1-b2-#2-3-b5-#5-b7. It should be noted that other enharmonic spellings are sometimes given (for example, you might find "b5" written as "#4", or "#5" as "b6", etc.), but in this lesson we will stick with this version of the formula for the sake of simplicity. To better appreciate the utility of this particular set of scale tones over a V7 chord, it would do us well to reflect on the general function of a V7 chord. [To be clear, when I talk about a "V7 chord", I'm referring to any dominant 7 chord that resolves up a fourth. More on that later...]

When a V7 chord resolves up a fourth, it creates an effect of "tension and release", with the tension happening on the V7 chord and the release happening on the chord to which it resolves. I demonstrated this effect in the video by playing a G7 resolving to a C chord. The tension that one senses on the V7 chord is caused by the tritone interval that is present between the 3rd and b7th of a dominant 7 chord. Because of the dissonant nature of the tritone interval, dominant 7 chords have an inherently unstable and tense quality to them. When a dominant 7 chord resolves up a fourth and that tension gets "released", the effect is a powerful one, and the importance of this event is hard to overstate. This dominant-tonic resolution, as it's sometimes called, is one of the most central and indispensable properties of tonal music.

We can make this already-powerful event even more dramatic by increasing the level of tension on the V7 chord. This can be accomplished by adding altered tensions to the chord. The altered scale is well suited for this task because it contains all the shell tones of a dominant chord, plus four altered tensions. Look again at the formula: 1-b2-#2-3-b5-#5-b7. Tones 1, 3, and b7 are the shell tones of a dominant 7 chord. The remaining tones are b2, #2, b5, and #5, all of which are altered tensions. Adding any (or all) of these altered tensions to a dominant 7 chord will exaggerate the tension and make the whole effect more powerful. Thus, the altered scale is a wonderful choice to use when we want to create some exciting tension-release drama while playing over a V7 chord.

As with any scale, it is a good idea to practice the scale patterns up and down in every position on the neck. In the video I demonstrated the G altered scale in 5 positions across all 6 strings. In addition to practicing the scales up and down, it is helpful to start in the middle, mix up the order, skip strings, and otherwise throw in variations that will challenge and reinforce your command of the scale. Once you have developed sufficient awareness of the scale patterns across the neck, it can be useful to notice that there are some patterns imbedded within the scale that are based on simpler, more familiar musical content.

For example, let's look at some triads that are imbedded within the altered scale, and let's examine the tones that result if we superimpose these triads over a V7 chord. For our examples, let's use G7 as our V7 chord. [NOTE: There are unavoidable enharmonic discrepancies when spelling some of these formulae. To fully explain them would take time and page space that I feel is better spent focusing on practical utility rather than pedantic minutiae.] There is a minor triad starting from the b2 degree. This yields the tones: b2, 3, and #5. Over a G7, this would be an Ab minor triad (Ab-Cb-Eb). There is a minor triad from the #2 degree, which yields the tones: #2, b5, and b7. Over G7, this would be an A# minor triad (A#-C#-E#). There is a major triad from the b5 degree, yielding the tones: b5, b7, and b2. Over G7, this would be a Db major triad (Db-F-Ab). There is a major triad from the #5 degree, yielding the tones: #5, 1, and #2. Over G7, this would be a D# major triad, spelled as Eb for simplicity (Eb-G-Bb). There is an augmented triad starting from the 1, 3, or #5 degrees, yielding the tones: 1, 3, and #5. Over G7, these would be G, B, or D# augmented triads (all contain the notes G-B-D#). There is a diminished triad from the root, yielding the tones: 1, #2, and b5. Over G7, this would be a G diminished triad (G-Bb-Db). There is also a diminished triad from the b7 degree, yielding the tones: b7, b2, and 3. Over G7, this would be an F diminished triad (F-Ab-Cb).

There are also shapes embedded within the altered scale that contain more than just 3 notes. For example, there is a minor pentatonic scale starting from the #2 degree, yielding the tones: #2, b5, #5, b7, and b2. Over G7, this would be an A# minor pentatonic scale (A#-C-D#-E#-G#) [labeled as a Bb minor pentatonic scale in the video]. We also have a minor 7 arpeggio starting from the #2 degree, which yields the tones: #2, b5, b7, and b2. Over G7, this would be an A# minor 7 arpeggio (A#-C#-E#-G#).

This kind of knowledge is quite useful because it allows us to isolate certain tone combinations and apply them using patterns and techniques that are presumably a lot more familiar to us. That is part of the beauty of superimposition. Any mastery that we already have over a major triad or a minor pentatonic scale, for example, now becomes available to us as a means of creating a more exotic tension-release event over a V7 chord. All we have to do is know where and when to apply these things, and all our previous learning bears the rest of the load.

Now, all the scale knowledge in the world does us no good if we don't know how to fit it into a real musical context, so let's look at how we can apply this scale in the context of a C Jazz Blues. Let's review the form of a C Jazz Blues:

| C7 | - | F7 | - | C7 | - | C7 |

| F7 | - | F7 | - | C7 | - | A7 |

|Dm7| - |G7| - |C7-A7| - |Dm7-G7|

We know that the altered scale is appropriate for dominant 7 chords that are functioning as V7 chords. I mentioned before that a dominant 7 chord is functioning as a V7 chord if it resolves up a fourth. There are three such instances in a C Jazz Blues: the C7 chord (resolving to F7), the A7 chord (resolving to Dm7), and the G7 chord (resolving to C7). In each of these cases, the altered scale can be used on the V7 chord to create tension that then gets released when the V7 chord resolves.

To illustrate this tension and release effect, I played a few example licks based on bars 9 and 10 from a C Jazz Blues. Recall that bar 9 is a full measure of Dm7 and bar 10 is a full measure of G7. In this case, the G7 is acting as a V7 chord because it is followed by a C7 in the next bar. In the example licks, I played basic eighth-note-based "inside" ideas on the Dm7 chord, then used the altered scale over the G7 chord to create tension, then resolved to a chord tone on the first beat of bar 11 (C7) to conclude each lick. The result is an "in-out-in" effect, or a "stable-tense-stable" effect, to demonstrate the power of the altered scale in producing harmonic drama.

It is important to remember that, while scale studies can be very helpful, they are meant to be used as a means to an end. Our ultimate goal should, of course, be to make great music. In the language of music, scales are simply the words or letters that we use, but the real communication happens when we form these into phrases to express coherent ideas. As always, our ear should remain our ultimate guide and we should always strive to reach greater heights of expressiveness. For inspiration, one can listen to any of the great Jazz players and notice how they phrase over V7 chords (if you'd like specific recommendations, people like George Benson, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, Bereli Lagrene, and Kurt Rosenwinkel jump to mind). At bottom, in my view anyway, the ideas these musicians are conveying are more important than the exact notes they use to express the ideas. I think it is important to keep this in mind when practicing scales, as many players tend to get overly consumed with scale studies and forget why they're practicing them in the first place. Having a clear view of the role of scale studies will inform our practice habits and help us focus our efforts in ways that yield more satisfying results.

With that said, have fun with this information and don't feel disheartened if it takes a while to assimilate all this stuff smoothly into your playing. Just find joy in the process and take pleasure in continually polishing your abilities and becoming a more capable and equipped musician! Cheers until next time!

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