LJS 99: Which Scales You Can Play Over Different Kinds of 7th Chords

Welcome to episode 99 of the LJS Podcast where today we are going over scales you can play over different kinds of 7th chords. While scales aren’t musical by themselves, they can be helpful for mapping out tones you can choose from in chords and chord progressions. This episode covers the essential basic chord qualities and alterations. Listen in!

Listen to episode 99

Enjoy listening to this podcast?

If you get value from the LJS Podcast, help us out by leaving a rating and review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. Thanks for your help!

I have to admit right off the bat: I didn’t think I would ever do an episode like this. In general, I’m not a huge fan of using scales as a means to improvise over chords and chord progressions. It’s not that scales are bad. They are important. But in the wrong hands, they can be used in unmusical ways.

But I came around to doing this episode because I believe it is both helpful and important. If we think of scales as “pitch collections”, tools to help us map out tones we can choose from, they can enlighten us and help us conceptualize our approach to improvisation.

In this episode, I cover the basic chord qualities and the common altered extensions they have. I list out common scales that can be applied to these chords and help you map out your options.

Here is a list of the chords I cover:

  • Major 7, 9, and 13th chords

  • Minor 7, 9, and 11th chords

  • Minor 6 chords

  • Dominant 7, 9, and 13th chords

  • Half diminished chords

  • Diminished 7th chords

  • Minor(maj7) chords

  • Major 7(#11) chords

  • Major 7(#5) chords

  • Dominant 7(#11) chords

  • Dominant 7(alt) chords

  • Dominant 7(b13) chords

If you want to see the scales I use for each of these chords and how they are notated out, go here. I haven’t listed them out in this post in an effort to not be redundant.

Having these tools under your belt can be incredibly helpful for conceptualizing your note choices. Go ahead and pick a few you would like to apply and start working on.

Important Links

A Guide for Which Scales to Use Over 7th Chords

LJS 67: How to Use Pentatonic Scales Over Any Chord

LJS 74: How to Improvise over Sus Chords

Read the Transcript

Brent: Oh man, that’s right. This is episode 99, which means that next week is episode 100, which I am super stoked about. I am so excited about this. We’re going to be hitting the big one, zero, zero episode of the Learn Jazz Standards Podcast, this is incredible.

By the way, my name is Brent. I’m the jazz musician behind the website learnjazzstandards.com, which is a blog and a podcast all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. The is a really big deal for me coming up to episode 100, and coming up to our birthday month, actually, in February. Our birthday episode is 104. Because, you know, I almost didn’t start this podcast. A couple years ago we had the blog that had been going on for a long time, was doing really successful, and our YouTube Channel that we had a long time ago posted a lot of play logs on there that became really popular. But Justin, the guy that does all the tech for Learn Jazz Standards, and something of the planning and stuff, he said, “Man you should start a podcast.”

At first, I was really like, “I don’t know if I want to do that. I don’t know if I want to take the time, all the effort and energy it’s going to take.” But he convinced me to do it. I tried it and now have thousands and thousands, and thousands of listeners listening to this show every single week. I want to thank you for listening. You made all this possible, and I’m really glad I did start this podcast and that it’s gone 100 episodes strong, and I see it going strong for another 100, or another 200, or 300 episodes. I really love doing this, and it’s gotten so much value for so many people, so I’m really happy to serve you every single week.

Okay, now, but let’s talk a little bit about today’s episode. I don’t want to downplay this episode. Next week’s going to be huge, I have a super special guest, I actually have my jazz mentor joining me on the show. I’ve already recorded this episode. I have to record these a couple weeks out, usually one to two weeks out. Be impossible to do them all live. I’m telling you, I say this all the time, but seriously, I really, really, really mean it. This is one of my favorite episodes that I’ve ever come out with. I’m super excited. My mentor, I’m not going to tell you who he is yet, I want you to listen next week, but he just lays it all down. It’s mind blowing. You’re going to love this episode. So definitely, you’re going to have to be joining me for episode 100. But, okay, I’m getting sidetracked.

Let’s talk about today’s episode. Today’s episode, I am excited about today’s episode. It’s also an episode I never thought I would ever do. Today’s episode is all about different scales that can play over the different kinds of seventh chords. Now, why would I never think about doing this episode? I thought I’d never do it. The reason is because I think scales in the wrong hands can be quite dangerous when it comes to being a jazz improviser. If you treat them as actual tools solely to improvise, it can get you in a lot of trouble. But if you think of them more like pitch collections, as in a collection of notes that map out which tones you can play over a given structure, like a chord or a chord progression, it can be helpful just to find which notes actually work or sound good. But if you use them as something like you play in order, from C to C, or something like that, then it’s missing the entire point.

So, I always hesitate to do an episode like this. But I think it’s a really valuable episode to just walk through these different kinds of chords, whether it’s dominant seventh chord, major seventh chord, or major 7# 11, or dominant 7 ♭13, or a major/minor 7 chord, or a minor/major 7 chord. All these different kinds of chords, what kind of scales can we play over this. So, treat this episode today as an encyclopedia or a guide.

I’m going to have all these scales actually notated out by giving you a link. If you go to learnjazzstandards.com/episode99, that’s episode 99, that’s the show notes for today. If you are not in front of a computer right now, if you’re on a commute or whatever, then you can go back there later and check that out if you want to get a little more visual on some of this stuff.

One more order of business I want to take care of today, is I’m really happy because a lot of you have submitted recordings for our episode 104, our birthday episode coming up. A couple weeks ago I asked you to submit your recordings of your jazz tips, your advice, and your stories. This is your guys’ podcast too, and I want to hear from you guys. I think it’d be really special to have you guys on the show for our birthday month. A lot of you have responded to that. A lot of you have made submissions. I’m super appreciative to everybody who has taken the time to do that. But, you know, if you still want to get in there, it’s not too late. Go to learnjazzstandards.com/record, follow the instructions and submit your recording, you could be featured on the podcast next month. That’d be pretty cool. So again, that’s learnjazzstandards.com/record. All right, without further ado, let’s jump in today’s show.

All right, now we got a lot of scales, a lot of chords to go over, so I’m going to go straight through them. Again, this is kind of like your guide, your resource episode for all of this stuff. Remember to think of these more like pitch collections rather than exactly how you should improvise over top of these different chords.

Now, if you’re a beginner player, and you’re kind of starting out here, it’s okay to actually think about them individual this way and applying skills directly over top of chords, it’s an okay place to start help you get moving to map out this stuff. But ultimately, just know that where you want to be as improvisers is you don’t want to be thinking about scales individual over chords. For example, if we have a minor 251 in the key of concert C minor, so D minor 7-♭5, G 7-♭9, and then C minor 7, we don’t want to be thinking, “Okay, Locrian over top of the D and then altered over top of the G. Then Dorian over top of the C minor. You don’t want to be thinking way, that’s an okay place to start but ultimately, that’s going to hold you back to think that way. This is more about mapping out all those tones that you can use and help fill in those blanks right between the chord tones, which the chord tones are important.

Okay, so I’m just going to be going through each one of these. I got my guitar out. I’m a guitarist, but it doesn’t matter what instrument you play, this all applies. So let’s go over the first one, and that is the major 7th chord. Okay? major 7th Chord. Sounds like this. Right?
Now, not just the major 7th chord is what we’re going to be going over today. I also want to be going over the major 9th chord. And the major 13th chord. All these different chords, you can play one very simple scale that everybody probably knows over top of this, and that is the C major scale. Pretty easy, right?

This is all in concert C, by the way. If you are an B♭ instrument or E♭ instrument, you just need to transpose a whole step up. Or if you’re an E♭ instrument, you would transpose a minor 3rd down. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in the same key as me, you’re still playing the same stuff, just in a different key.
This is a C major scale. Pretty simple. We know how to play that scale. That’s a basic scale everybody should know. Now over top of any of these major chords, whether it be a major 13th, a major 9th, just a regular major 7th chord, you can play that scale. Ultimately, though, again, we want to make this musical. So I’m not thinking, I’m not thinking that over top of my C major 9. I’m trying to create melodies off of that.

I’m just using different melodic ideas within that scale. I’m not thinking, “C major sale,” I’m thinking, “What notes can I play to create melody.” So hopefully that’s a little bit of an example for you of what I mean by pitch collections. So, just for context, I’m going to go ahead. I’m going to play this chord, and then on the piano I’m going to have the C major scale being played. I’m going to play a C major 9 on the guitar, just so we can hear what this sounds like in context.

All right, so that was easy one, so the next chord quality type is minor 7th chords, right? Minor 7th chords, now that could be a regular minor 7th chord, so that’s be root-5-3-5-♭7, to it could be a minor 9 chord, or it could be a minor 11 chord. Or, it could even be a minor 13th chord, so with that 13th extension up on top. So it could be any of those things.

Now there’s two different scales that are generally appropriate. There’s lots of different scales you can play over these chords, but these are kind of the basic ones that I’ve been going over here today. So, the first one is just the regular, natural minor scale. So remember, I’m playing this in concert C minor for demonstration purposes, so it’s this. So it’s root-2-♭3-4-5-♭6-♭7-root.

Now the other scale that you can play over top of this, and this is very commonly used in jazz, and that is the Dorian mode. The Dorian mode. If you don’t understand what modes are, they’re all based off of a parent major scale. You can just think of them as each mode starts on a different scale tone of the major scale and ends on it. In the case of Dorian, it’s essential a major scale but it’s staring on the second tone of the major scale and ending on the second tone. In the case of D Dorian, we’re going to go to D Dorian, because we’re going to base this off the C major scale, D is the second tone of the C major scale. So essentially we’re starting and ending the C major scale on D. So it sounds like this.

Okay? You hear that? So, it’s just the C major scale starting on D. That’s commonly used in modal harmony, in all kinds of jazz improvisation. Kind of relating that minor 7th chord back to its parent major tonal center. Okay, so let’s go and do this with the piano. First, here is a C minor 9 with … Well, I’m just gonna go with a C minor 7th with a natural minor scale.

Okay, now let’s do a Dorian. So, I’m going to go D minor 9. Now we also come up with, from time to time, minor 6th chords, which means that the 7th of the chord is being replaced with the 6th. So, for example, a C minor 6th chord, you know, there’s lot of different voices on the guitar to play, but a C minor 6th chord, what do you play over the top of that? Well, the first option is you can play Dorian over top of that, so. It actually fits really quite well. The other one that you could play is the melodic minor scale. Melodic minor scales sounds like this. So basically it’s root-2nd-♭3-4-5, major 6th, major 7th, back to the root again. Okay?

Okay, so I’m going to quickly play that with the piano, so here is a C minor 6th. All right, so whether you want to play Dorian or you want to play melodic minor, they’re just different ways to conceptualize the sounds, or focus on certain tones rather than other ones, right? We have the major 7 that’s really coming out in that melodic minor scale, in that major 6th it’s really coming. So they’re all focusing on these sounds that are within the chord, but they just have different approaches, different ways to look at them. That’s kind of what I think chord scale theory, the value that it actually has, it can help us conceptualize things different.

Okay, let’s move on to the next tier. We’re talking about dominant 7th chords. So I’m talking about just a regular dominant 7 chord, or a dominant 9 chord, or even a dominant 13th chord. No alterations yet, just regular dominant 7th chords with basic extensions on top like the 9th, the 13th, we can even add the sus in there, so like a dominant 7 sus.

We actually have a whole entire episode in which I talk about how to improvise over those sus chords. There’s actually a lot of theory behind that. I’ll actually have that episode linked up in the show and notes today, if you want to go check that out.

But the basic scale, I just want to cover without complicating things, making things too difficult. I’ve actually talked about this scale before in the show, and that’s the Mixolydian scale, or the Mixolydian, mode. Now same concept as the Dorian, the Mixolydian, starts on the 5th tone of its parent major scale. So, again, you can think of, well in this case, let’s stick to the key of concert C. So, I’m thinking, “What is the 5th tone of the C major scale?” That’s G. Okay. So if I have a G 7 chord, I’m basically thinking, “C major,” the C major scale. But I’m starting on G and ending on G. So it sounds like this.

So that’s 1-2-major 3-4-5-6-♭7, that’s the key note there, ♭7, root. Okay? Can play that over the top of a G7 chord. Again, whatever key you want to play that in, same thing. Add the 13th, add the 9th to there, whatever you want to do. You can play that Mixolydian scale over top of that. So here it is with the piano.

So the next core quality is half diminished, also known as the minor 7-♭5 chord. Now this is one of those chords a lot of people are like, “What? What do I do over top of this chord? I have no idea.” Well, this is a good way to conceptualize this chord. We’re going to stick to the key center of concert C, so this is a B minor 7♭-5 chord. Okay? It’s that kind of a sound. That chord is basically root-♭3-♭5-♭7. That’s the formula for that chord there. So what can you play over top of this?

Now, the most basic one is to stick with the mode, keep it simple, and that’s through Locrian mode. That’s the 7th mode of the major scale, which essentially means that you’re starting and ending on the 7th tone of the parent scale. Again, if we are talking about the B minor, 7♭-5, B natural is the 7th of the C major scale. So we’re still relating to the C major scale here. So you’re essential starting on the B, and ending on the B. Pretty simple, actually. If you think about, you’re just starting one note, the half step below the C and continuing the C major scale. Those notes perfectly, perfectly fit this chord.

Now the other thing you can do, is you can do the Locrian #2, sometimes people will do that. That’s pretty simple, you just # the 2. Instead of a C natural, you go to C#. So instead of B, C, you go B, C#, so it sounds like this. Sounds are still in there. I suggest the Locrian. The Locrian is the easiest pay to think about that, that major scale starting on the 7th tone. So here it is, with a piano.
So the last basic chord quality is the diminished 7th chord. So that’s root-♭3-♭5-♭♭7. That’s what makes up a diminished 7th chord. It sounds like this. This is a concert C, diminished 7th chord. By the way, you can move that up in minor thirds. I can’t reach up that high. Yeah, you can move that up in minor thirds.

It’s a symmetrical chord, it’s a symmetrical scale. The basic scale that goes along with that is what we call the whole half diminished scale. So essentially, it’s just alternating whole steps and half steps. It sounds like this. So it’s whole step, half step, whole step, half step, whole step, half step, whole step, half step. That’s what makes up a whole half diminished scale. There is a half whole diminished scale, but I want to focus just on the whole half diminished scale.

So, again, a lot of people like use chord tones, just the chord tones, stuff like that when they’re thinking about the diminished 7th chord. But that scale kind of fills in all those extra spaces. It’s a great little map for you of all those notes. So, here’s what it sounds like with the piano.

Now let’s move on to chords that have alterations in them, or just chords that have extra chord tones in them that are outside of the regular basic qualities, chord qualities. So the first one, I just want to go over really quickly just graze over this one is the minor major 7th chord. So essentially it’s a minor chord, but it has a major 7th in it. Sounds like this. You find this in like Miles Davis’s Solar. You know, that song. So that chord is a concert C minor major 7th chord. What could you play over top of that? You could play the C melodic minor scale. In fact, that’s like the ultimate chord scale relationship there. It’s literally a minor scale with a major 7th in it, so it makes complete sense to play it over that chord.

The next one I want to go over is the C major 7-#11, or the C major 7-♭5, either one of those works. It sounds like this, or that. All these different sounds. You probably heard that before. Now, what do you play over top of that? Back in episode 67, we had an episode about pentatonic scales, and so you can play a pentatonic scale, a minor pentatonic scale, a half step down from that, but go check out that episode if you want to learn more about that.

But the most basic scale to use is the Lydian mode. Okay? The Lydian mode. For example, we’re going to, again, stick with the key center of C. The Lydian mode is the 4th tone of a parent scale, like starting the scale and ending the scale on the 4th tone of the parent scale. If we’re in concert C major, what would that be? That would be F Lydian, so we’re starting on F, ending on F. So for this case, for this example, we’re going to use an F major 7-♭5. Or, F major 7-#11. Okay? So Lydian sounds like this. Woops. Okay? So essential root-2nd-3rd-♭5-5-6-7, back to the 1. That’s just the basic scale formula for that. Let me go ahead and play this chord with the piano.

So it’s that ♭5 in that scale that really brings out those sounds. That’s really important. Now, what if we have a C major 7-#5 chord? C major 7-#5, so F major 7-#5. Or, here’s another voicing, maybe a little bit more accessible here. Now that’s what that sounds like. Now that’s not as common a chord as you see, but you still know how to approach it scale-wise. Essentially it’s called a Lydian augmented scale, or a Lydian #5 scale. It’s the same as the Lydian, except for you’re adding the #5. Like this. That’s #5. Okay? So this is the Lydian. And this is the Lydian augmented. Here’s what it sounds like.
Okay, now as far as minor 7th chords go, there aren’t really any alterations that are really, traditionally applied to them. Again, we went over the minor-major 7th chord, and you could consider that an alteration, but in general, there aren’t. So we’ll move to the dominant 7th chords and it’s alterations and what scales we can play over that, because there’s quite a few alterations we can do. The first place we’ll start is with the dominant 7-#11 chord, or the dominant 7-♭5 chord. So, we had the major 7-#11 or ♭5, well now we’re doing the dominant 7-#11, ♭5.

That would be, well if we’re spelling it out just as a ♭5 chord, that would be root-3rd-♭5-♭7. Okay? Root-3rd-♭5-♭7. That would sound like this. This is a totally, you know, Thelonious Monk used to use this chord all the time. So it’s that sound. Now what do we play over top of this?

Now the most common, basic way to approach this is the Lydian dominant. So we just talked about the Lydian scale, right? It’s the same as the Lydian scale, except for we’re adding a ♭7 into it. So here’s what it sounds like. That’s that ♭5 right there. There’s the ♭7. Okay, so, right? You can hear all those sounds come out. Okay? So, again, think Lydian, but add the ♭7 instead of the major 7 in that scale. So here’s what it sounds like.

All right, now the dominant 7th chord has the most alterations, so you can add a ♭9, a #9, a #11 like we just went over, or a ♭13th to the chord. Sometimes composer if they want you to add all of those, or some of those, or just whichever ones you want to choose, they’ll just write a dominant 7 alt chord, like a C7 alt chord, meaning altered, meaning you can alter some of those extensions in there. So whether it’s a #9, that’s that Jimi Hendrix chord, or the ♭9, or the #11 like we just went over, or the ♭13, also known as the dominant 7-#5, you could call it that as well. Then, you can add these different scales over top.

Now the first one I want to go over is the altered scale, the altered scale. It’s very common. It’s essentially, goes like this. Right? You hear all those altered tones in there? Because it goes root-♭9-♭3, or they call it the #9 if you want to think of it that way. Then it goes major 3, then ♭5, then #5. Then it goes ♭7 and root. Okay? See how it’s hitting all those extensions there and that’s why that sound is coming out. The altered scale is a really good go-to if you really want to hit all those altered sounds inside of a dominant 7th chord. So here it is with the piano.

Now the last scale I want to go over today, or chord, kind of hones in on the dominant 7-♭13 chord. So again, sounds like this. Has that ♭13 in the extension on the top. So another option you can use is the whole tone scale, and that’s kind of that scale that we associate with movies on cartoons and stuff, the dream scale. Sounds like this. The reason we call it the whole tone scale is because it’s all just whole steps, whole tones. The entire formula is whole step, whole step, whole step, whole step, whole step, whole step. Right? Okay, so with the piano one last time.

All right, so that’s all we got for these. I hope this has helped you a little bit. It can be helpful to have a list of scales to go with these different cords. Now these are just some of them. There’s a lot more we can do. We can superimpose different chords. I mean, chord scale theory can go really deep. Really deep. So these are just the basic ones that you can use as a guide, as pitch collections to map out the notes that you can use over the top of these different chords. Of course, at the end of the day it’s up to us to make them musical. But hopefully this episode has been a really great resource for you. Remember you can go to the show notes at learnjazzstandards.com/episode99. I’m going to have a link to another post there were I list out all of these scales over top of these chords, so that could be very helpful for you.

All right, that’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you so much for listening. Thanks for joining me today. Hopefully this has been a helpful episode for you. I know it can be just helpful to have all this stuff laid out for you sometimes, so hopefully this has been of help. Now, as I always ask, if you got some value today’s podcast episode, feel free to go to iTunes or Stitcher, your favorite podcast listening service. Leave a kind rating and review. It just helps other people find the show. That’d be greatly appreciated.

Now, next week I am so, so, so super excited. It’s a big monumental moment. We’re going to be celebrating episode 100 of the LJS Podcast. Like I said in the intro, I’m going to bring on my jazz mentor, a guy that really means a lot to me. Someone who really, actually changed my life. I don’t say that lightly, he really did. He has so much, so much value to bring to us in episode 100. I really don’t want anybody to miss this episode. If there’s ever an episode you shouldn’t miss it’s this next one, episode 100. So, be sure to tune back in next week. I look forward to seeing you back then.

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Brent,

    I Don`t want to crush any party, but you keep talking about „birthday episode no. 104“.

    Shouldn`t that be episode 105?

    Best wishes

    Claus

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.