Improvising with scales: a useful way for beginners

by Saul Richardson.

The traditional way of teaching and talking about scales is to play them up or down from the root note. Of course this is a useful and important starting point. But for novice improvisers there is a better way to think about scales.

Try having them think of the root note, or the key note, as being the centre of the scale. The scale goes up and down from that central note. The key note is the most important sound and the one that makes all the others sound like a particular key or scale. The key note is like the sun and the other notes are like the planets orbiting it. The sun holds them together and gives them coherence. So too does the central key note.

Novice improvisers, using a key centre (or horizontal) approach to soloing tend to emphasise the notes around the middle of whatever scale they are playing. If they are using a major scale, you can expect to hear lots of the 3rd, 4th and 5th. The 4th is right at the middle of the usual octave.

If the novice player is using a blues scale, the flat 5th is right in the middle of the range, right next to the 4th. These are neither pleasant sounds in the hands of a novice nor often “in style” in jazz improvisation.

If, however, the student thinks of the key note as being the centre instead of the top and bottom, then it will be right in the middle of their range, closely followed by the 9th, the 3rd, the 7th and the 6th: all far less offensive and more likely to sound good and “in key”. If a blues scale is being used then the 4th and the flat 5th will be at the periphery with the root note, the 7th and the minor 3rd in the middle of the action.

Here are some examples. Try having your students think of scales like this:

Blues scale:

  • 5 b7 1 b3 4 b5 5

Major Blues Scale:

  • b3 3 5 6 1 2 b3 3 5 6

Bebop Minor Scale:

  • 5 b6 b7 7 1 2 3 4 5

Major scale

  • 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 5

Try having your students practice the scales by playing them like this:

Practicing scales like this helps students emphasise the important notes in the key
Practicing scales like this helps students emphasise the important notes in the key

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