What Scale to Play Over What Chord | Choosing What Scale to Use

blues related improvisation jazz guitar lead guitar music theory scales May 30, 2023

In this lesson I'm going to talk about what scale to play over what chord, and how to choose what scale to use when there are multiple options.
🎸 FREE PDF: Download the most important scale diagrams for guitar


🕛 Video Content Outline

0:00 - About this lesson / viewer Q&A
1:59 - Words of wisdom from a killer guitarist
3:57 - Comparing the mixolydian and blues scales over over a one-chord groove
7:08 - Paying attention to how music makes us feel
8:25 - Can we play what we want to hear?
9:38 - The most important scales to know on guitar (FREE PDF)

🔗 Links & Lessons Mentioned in This Video

🎸 23 different scales that work over dominant 7th chords
🎸 Singing along with what you're playing
🎸 FREE PDF: Download the most important scale diagrams for guitar
🎸 WATCH THIS NEXT: What scales go with what chords


What Scale to Play Over What Chord

Today we’re diving into the important topic of what scale to play over what chord - specifically, choosing the right scale when there are multiple scales that could work over a single chord.

A Common Question

The inspiration for this post comes from a question I recently received from Steve. Thanks for reaching out, Steve. He writes:

"Hi Jared, I often play lead improvisations with backing tracks, mostly blues. I found that when I'm playing the minor pentatonic, it's often more interesting when I add the two notes and play the full natural minor scale. The same situation applies with major pentatonic and the major scale. My question is, when does the full scale work, and when does the tune demand just the pentatonic scale? Do you decide by ear, or is there a musical theory rule?"

Comparing the Pentatonic and Diatonic Scales

The answer lies in what you want to hear. There's never a time when pentatonic is the only scale that works over a chord because pentatonic always originates from a full diatonic scale. Playing pentatonic is a bit like using chord tones—it's a selection of notes within a larger collection, which is the scale. So you can choose pentatonic anytime, diatonic anytime, or chord tones anytime, completely depending on what you want to hear.

Play What You Want to Hear

When I first began exploring improvisation on the guitar, I had the same question. I remember asking a guitarist friend I admired how to decide between playing the blues scale or the mixolydian scale over a dominant seventh chord. Super laid back, he answered, "You play the one you want to hear." This advice really resonated with me and has guided my approach ever since. The point is to choose based on what you want to express and how you want your music to sound.

Comparing the Mixolydian and Blues Scales

We can experiment with this by comparing the D mixolydian and D blues scales over a one-chord groove. These two scales have completely different flavors, which can drastically change the feel of the same chord progression.

The D mixolydian gives us a sweet major scale-ish sound. On the other hand, the D blues scale adds attitude and a bit of an edge. If you wonder which one to use, think about the emotion you want to express and choose the scale that best matches that mood.

Paying Attention to How Music Makes Us Feel

To improve your ability to express yourself musically, try absorbing the qualities of each scale and tune into how each one makes you feel. Do you want to express something bright and joyful, or something gritty and full of attitude? Practice each scale enough to have them at your fingertips, ready to play when you want to express something specific.

This goes for every scale option, every note choice, and every collection of notes. The golden rule is to play what you want to hear. There is never a wrong answer, and you can explore every chromatic note, every combination, until you find what resonates with you.

Free Resources for Further Study

If you want to dive deeper into this topic and study more scales, check out my free printable parent scales PDF. This resource offers all the most important scales to know on the guitar. You can download it for free by clicking here.

Recommended Next Lesson

I also recommend checking out my "Scales for Chords" video. It provides practical tips on finding which scales work best over certain chords, guiding you on a more advanced journey of understanding what scale to use over what chord. You can find the video link here.


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