September 26th, 2016

5 Secrets for Mastering the Altered Scale

By Eric


The dominant chord is one of the most versatile chords in the jazz repertoire…

And it’s your best bet for adding harmonic tension and melodic interest to your lines.

The only problem is that many players approach this sound with the same old scales and licks every time. And this can get pretty boring…

That’s why today we’re going to show you one of the most powerful techniques for playing V7 chords like a pro – the altered scale.

Transforming this often misunderstood scale from a mundane theory exercise into an invaluable melodic tool that you can start using in every solo.

Here are 5 Secrets to Mastering the Altered Scale

#1) Master the basic scale

If you ask a group of musicians about what to play over an altered dominant chord you’re likely to get a number of answers.

From melodic minor scales to diminished patterns, and even tritone substitutions…

But what you might not realize is that most of these altered approaches are describing the same scale.

Four names for the altered scale

That’s a lot of theory jargon. But at the end of the day, it’s just four different ways of looking at the this scale:

the altered scale

You can mentally approach this scale is a number of ways, but the sound of these 8 tones will be the same…

What matters is how you can access this sound on the fly in your solo. If you prefer to think of melodic minor – use that. If it’s the altered scale – use that. Just remember, in a solo you only have a split second to decide.

The altered scale is a great way to easily access all of the “Altered notes” of a V7 chord. For example, take the A altered scale over an A7 alt. chord:

chord tones in the altered scale


By using this scale you’ll highlight the b9, #9, b5 (tritone), b13, and b7 of the underlying dominant chord. As you practice this scale, make sure you know how and hear how each note relates to the underlying chord.

Step one is learning the altered scale in every key.

You can practice with a background track or even a drone tone sustaining the root. Listen for the unique quality of each chord tone (#9, b13, etc.) and how it sounds in relation to the bass note.

Practicing this way is a great Ear training exercise. And when it comes time to solo, your ears will guide you to these altered tones and allow you to incorporate them in your lines.

#2) Get creative in the practice room

Learning a scale is great for technical practice…

But the key to using it freely in your solos comes from mastering the little details, and this is especially true for exploring the harmonic and melodic options available within the altered scale.

As you practice the altered scale (or any other scale), you should strive to get beyond playing 8 notes in succession within the space of one octave.

Think outside the box when it comes to scale practice! A scale is an exercise, but melody comes from shape, variation, and permutation. Explore these possibilities in your scale practice.

Once you have the basic scale under your fingers, practice starting on different chord tones – just like you would with the modes of a major scale:

altered scale from different chord tones

When you improvise you need to be able to access this altered sound from any note, so practice starting from the b5, b9, b13 or #9 of the chord.

Remember, scales don’t exist in a vacuum – they correspond with a chord or harmonic context.  As you practice, be aware of how each note relates to this underlying harmony.

After you’ve ingrained the “modes” of the altered scale, the next step is to practice the scale in intervals: 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. For example, here’s an exercise playing the altered scale in 4ths:

Altered scale in 4ths


Practice these exercises in all 4 directions.

When you start exploring the different intervallic and triadic combinations of the altered scale, things get interesting. Within this one scale you can highlight major, minor, augmented and diminished triads

After exploring the intervallic variations of the scale, practice arpeggiating triads and 7th chords within the altered scale:

Arpeggiate the altered scale

The way you think about this scale (altered, melodic minor, diminished whole-tone, etc.) will influence the lines you create and how you approach it melodically.

A good way to practice your mental approach to this sound is by visualizing a dominant chord and thinking of the melodic minor (ex. G7 chord – Ab melodic minor scale) or thinking of the altered scale from the root (ex. G7 chord – G altered scale).

Ingraining the technique of the altered scale is essential, but like any scale, it’s not knowing the theory that counts – it’s how you apply this technique in a musical way.

With these patterns and exercises under your fingers it’s time to start getting creative with the altered scale. Let’s look at how some of the best improvisers use this scale in their solos…

#3) Altering the Dominant Chord

Now that you have the basics of the altered scale down it’s time to start using these sounds in your solos…

The most common place you’ll apply the altered scale to your solos is over V7 chords. Think of the blues or the movement of V7 to I found in nearly every jazz standard and pop tune.

If you’re looking for a way to add more harmonic interest to the dominant chords in your solos, the altered scale is a great place to start.

Below we’ll take a close look at how 4 master musicians use the altered scale over the dominant chords in their solos…

To begin, check out how Roy Hargrove utilizes the altered scale in his solo over Love for Sale:


At 3:42 Roy plays the following line, pay special attention to how he navigates the Bb7 chord:

Roy Hargrove altered scale


altered scale and augmented triad

He begins the scale on the b7 and descends using an augmented triad. Practice pairing scale fragments and the inherent intervallic structures of the altered scale together in one line.

Next, let’s look at how Mulgrew Miller uses the altered scale to begin his solo on If I Should Lose You:

Mulgrew Miller altered scale


Here Mulgrew utilizes a descending A altered scale starting on the b5. As you’ve probably noticed his line sounds more musical than just an inserted scale – this is because he is using some important techniques to create his lines.

Melodic techniques with altered scale

Just like a major scale, the altered scale contains half-step motion that emphasizes certain notes when played in a linear way, specifically the #9 and root of the chord. Note how Mulgrew uses this half-step motion along with enclosure to land on goal notes and give the line a natural sense of melodic motion.

Running an altered scale from root to root can sound forced or even formulaic. Try using melodic techniques like enclosure, approach notes, and half-step resolution to make your line sound more musical.

The next example we’ll look at is from the great Kenny Kirkland, from his solo over When Will the Blues Leave:

Kenny Kirkland altered scale


The extended dominant chords in the blues provide an excellent opportunity to use the altered scale, creating tension and emphasizing harmonic resolutions. In this line Kenny accesses the altered scale from the tritone (Gb) of the C7 chord:

Kenny Kirkland altered scale techniques

Notice how he begins with a tritone sub fragment to create harmonic tension and continues utilizing the linear motion of the scale. He also emphasizes the major 3rd (E) on strong beats and arpeggiates up an E Maj7 #5 sound.

Finally, let’s take a look at how Michael Brecker approaches the altered scale in his solo on Straphangin’:

Michael Brecker altered scale


In this passage Brecker is clearly thinking of the Bb melodic minor scale over the A7 chord. And this is where thinking of the melodic minor scale rather than the “altered scale” can inspire different melodic options…

Melodic minor over V7

When you approach a dominant chord from the vantage point of the melodic minor scale you can:

  • Utilize your existing minor language (Bb minor language over A7)
  • Use the melodic minor scale to create your melodies
  • Play with the arpeggios within the melodic minor scale

#4) The altered scale and ii-V’s

When you feel comfortable applying the altered scale to V7 chords the next step is learning to incorporate this sound in the ii-V-I progression…

Altered scale on ii-V's

Remember, you don’t have to come up with new “altered lines,” you can simply incorporate this sound into your existing ii-V language. The altered scale is also a great tool for adding interest to your ii-V’s if you feel like you’ve been getting stale. Here are a few examples…

Check out how Tom Harrell utilizes the altered scale in this ii-V-I from his solo over the blues:

Tom Harrell altered scale


Notice how he seamlessly includes the altered scale into an otherwise standard ii-V line.

Tom Harrell altered v7

He uses 3 key techniques to incorporate this altered sound in a musical way:

  1.  Using an approach note to the b13 of F7
  2.  Aiming for #9 (Ab) on a strong beat
  3.  Half-step resolution to the third of I chord

Here’s another example of an altered scale over a ii-V-I progression. In the line below Mulgrew Miller uses the notes of the altered scale over a G7 chord that resolves to C:

Mulgrew Miller altered V7


Over the G7 chord he uses a common altered line to resolve to the 5th of the C chord.Remember, the notes of the altered scale don’t have to be approached in a linear fashion, you can use patterns, intervallic shapes, and even licks. (We’ll talk about this more in step #5)…

The last altered ii-V we’ll look at is from Kenny Kirkland’s solo on When Will the Blues Leave:


Take a listen to Kenny’s solo over the blues (begins at 3:00) and you’ll hear him altering many of the V7 chords. Over the ii-V at the end of his first chorus he plays the following line:



On the C7 chord he encloses the b7 and uses the altered scale to land on the b13. One thing to notice here is that he delays the resolution to the I (F) chord by 2 beats, extending the tension of his altered line.

#5) Patterns and common language with the altered scale


Your ultimate goal is to be lyrical with the altered scale…

This means approaching it like a melody rather than a scale or technical exercise. The best way to learn how to do this is to study the jazz language.

As you listen to more and more great players, you’ll notice that there is a common language for using the altered scale over a chord progression. One common way is to use the “Cry Me a River Lick.

Cry me a river lick

You’ll hear this pattern over and over again, starting on the b3 and descending to the b9, b13, and 3rd of a V7 chord. A great example of this lick is from Dexter Gordon’s solo on the tune Cheesecake:

Dexter Gordon, altered V7 pattern


Mastering this line in every key is a good starting place for learning how to apply altered harmonies to your lines in a musical way.

Take an altered scale pattern that you’ve learned or transcribed, take it through every key and apply it to the V7 chords in your solos.

Another idea for using the altered sound in your solos is to create melodic shapes and patterns with the notes of the scale. Check out this example from Mulgrew Miller’s solo on If I Were a Bell:

Mulgrew Miller altered scale pattern


Here he create a shape and melodic sequence with the altered scale loosely based on the “Cry Me a River” lick. He starts on the b9 of the V7 chord, moves to the major third and descends in the pattern of the previous lick:

Mulgrew Miller altered scale pattern

Aim to find harmonic shortcuts that will allow you to easily access these altered sounds over any dominant chord.

Another common technique with the notes of the altered scale is derived from the melodic minor approach. Descending minor triad from the b2  (Ab- over G7) or thiking a descending minor triad from the b6:

b2 triad over V7

Here are a few examples of this technique in action. Below are two lines from Mulgrew Miller and Michael Brecker that utilize this descending b2 triad with a passing tone:

b2 minor triad over V7

Why does this work? Well the melodic minor approach is essentailly the tritone sub. Just like you can play a minor chord over a related V7 (D- over G7) you can imply the minor ii of the tritone sub on a V7 chord. (Tritone sub of G7 is Db7 – use the related ii of Db7 – Ab-7 Db7 over G7)

It’s he same notes of the altered scale, just another mental approach that can produce new melodic ideas.

melodic minor and tritone sub

Start by using the b2 minor triad over the V7 chords (Bb- over A7) in your solos. And when that feels good, try using the ii-V of the tritone sub (Bb- Eb7 over A7).

Don’t feel obligated to use the entire scale in your line, you can apply fragments of the scale and achieve the same altered effect…

Remember the diminished whole-tone, one you have the scale under your fingers you can use that technique and approach V7 chords using either the diminished part of the scale or the whole-tone part of the scale

Try practicing and creating lines using just the half-step motion of the first part of the scale. For example practice a line like this one in all keys:

Altered scale exercise

In the same vein, you can also utilize the whole-tone part of the scale over V7 chords. Check out how  Joe Henderson uses this technique on his solo over Computer G:

Joe Henderson whole-tone pattern


Over the F7 chord he descends from the root in whole-steps. If you’ve practiced the altered scale this is another option for applying that scale technique you’ve ingrained.

Getting beyond the scale…

Pat Metheny quote

The altered scale is just one way to access the altered notes of a V7 chord…

One way to group them together in one place and one way to ingrain the technique in your fingers.

From the examples above, you can clearly see how there are multiple paths to utilizing these 8 notes in your solo. No one way is the correct way.

As you start getting past the learning stage and into the creative stage with these tones, you need to find your own method for access these notes in your lines.

You might think of melodic minor over dominant, the b2 minor triad, the altered scale, or something that is entirely your own.

This process is the key to developing your own musical language.

Use the scale to establish the technique and look to the great players that came before you for inspiration. The dominant chord has unlimited harmonic and melodic potential – and the altered scale is just one option!

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