Major 7(#11) chords can be confusing chords to improvise over, and they do come up from time to time in jazz repertoire.
In case you don’t know already, a maj7(#11) chord is quite simply a major 7 chord (R-3-5-7), with a #11 (R-3-5-7-#11).
If you are going for a specific sound you can also spell it maj7(b5). In this case there would be no natural five, it would be a 4 note chord rather than an extension: (R-3-b5-7).
Often when we think about sounds we can play over this kind of a chord we think about the Lydian Scale, which is one of the modes of the major scale. The Lydian mode can be thought of as a major scale who’s root starts on the fourth tone of the scale.
For example, if we wanted to play a Cmaj7(#11) chord, we would ask ourselves: what major scale would the C note be the fourth tone of? The answer to that would be the G major scale. So C Lydian is related to the G major scale.
Let’s spell out the G major scale: G-A-B-C-D-E-F#.
The G major scale only has 1 sharp in it’s key signature, and it is F#.
Now to create a C Lydian scale from here is quite easy. Simply start going through the scale starting on the fourth (C): C-D-E-F#-G-A-B. And just like that a C Lydian scale is born!
Another way to think about constructing a C Lydian scale for example, would be thinking of it as a major scale with a #4 (or b5) replacing the perfect fourth. But it is still important to understand which key center the Lydian mode is related to.
One more approach for a maj7(#11) chord is to play a minor pentatonic a half step down from the root of the chord. So if we are playing a Cmaj7(#11) chord we would play a B minor pentatonic scale over top of it.
Above are 8 musical ideas to play over a maj7(#11) chord. These are just some different melodic sounds for you to practice, and get in your ear. The most important aspect of practicing these ideas is to get familiar with the sounds and perhaps depart from thinking too much about scales, and think more melodically. Ultimately this is the goal. Practice these melodic ideas, and then start composing your own!
You can also use our Maj7(#11) Chord Workout play-along to practice improvising over this chord in all 12 keys.
Download the pdfs
Treble clef: 8 Ideas to Play Over a Maj7(#11) Chord