jazz guitar hollowbody

How to Play Jazz Guitar Scales

Bebop scales are certainly very valuable scales to add to your repertoire, especially if jazz is your bag. If you already know how to play the major scale and all of it’s modes, then you will find playing bebop scales a breeze. The reason being, these scales are essentially the same as the major scale’s modes, with the addition of an extra passing note in each of them. There are also bebop scales derived from the modes of the melodic minor, and the modes of the harmonic minor scale (guide on those coming soon!), but for the purpose of this guide I will only be dealing with the three most used bebop scales, and all three originate from the major scale.

Above is a terrific example of the dominant bebop scale (key of Bb) being played. Wes Montgomery is on fire as always, listen and take note! The bebop scales are frequently used in jazz, and deservedly got their name from their extensive use in the Bebop era (1940s-60s) by such jazz musicians as Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, to name a few. Each scale presented is based on a mode of the major scale, with the addition of an extra passing note which gives it it’s characteristic chromatic run – you always hear the jazz giants flowing through their scales like this.

The bebop scale’s intention was to open up the major scale and give it more of a jazz flavour, and also to introduce a new ‘technique’ for playing over chord changes. Thanks to the added passing tone, if you begin the scale on the root chord tone (1) of the chord playing, and on the downbeat, all other chord tones (3, 5, 7) will also fall on downbeats, while the remaining tones in the scale will occur on the upbeat. This, of course, is assuming the scale is played either ascending or descending, without skipping an interval. These sort of scale runs, peppered occasionally with sequencing, are very common techniques in the world of jazz, as they colour the chords which are being played. Another advantage of the bebop scales is the additional note allows more soloing opportunities, which make it playable over more chords, thus eliminating the need to change scales as frequently as you would with the original major scale modes.

As always I’ll present the scales in the key of C, for the sake of simplicity and consistency!

  1. The Bebop Major scale – 1 2 3 4 #5 5 6 7
    The bebop major scale is derived from the major scale, or Ionian mode, and has a chromatic passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes (#5/b6). This scale is used mainly over maj6th and maj7th chords.bebop major scale
  2. The Bebop Minor scale – 1 2 b3 3 4 5 6 b7
    The bebop minor scale is based on the Dorian mode (major scale’s 2nd mode), with the addition of a chromatic passing tone between the minor 3rd and perfect 4th notes; it has an ambiguous major/minor character.bebop minor scale
  3. The Bebop Dominant scale – 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 7
    The bebop dominant scale is the most widely used bebop scale used in jazz, and is derived from the Mixolydian mode (5th mode of the major scale), with the addition of a chromatic passing tone between the 7th and root note. The scale is used over all dominant 7th chords – hence its name.
    bebop dominant dominant scale

I hope you enjoy playing these cool scales! If you’ve never gotten into jazz then I’ve written album reviews for the essential jazz albums which you should listen to (also included are download links to the albums.) Also, as a finishing touch to the guide, I will include a diagram of all three of the scales we’ve covered, across the entire fretboard – print it out for referencing. In the mean time, try practicing your Bb dominant bebop scale over this ‘West Coast Blues’ backing track!

bebop scale chart
charlie christian

Also, be sure to check out the other guitar guides scattered throughout the site!

Chord Theory

Scale Theory

General Music Theory

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