April 1st, 2016

5 Steps to Becoming A Lyrical Master With Altered Dominants: A Lesson With Stan Getz

By Forrest

Playing Lyrically Over ALtered Dominant Chords

Alterations are at the heart of jazz…

In no other genre of music can you freely alter chords in a such a fluid and flexible manner. As chords whiz by, the soloist has the freedom to add all sorts of chord alterations to their melodic lines.

But it requires a sense of how these altered chord tones behave and a certain kind of know-how to use them effectively.

The best place to start experimenting with alterations is over the dominant chord because that’s where you have the most options. But, if you’ve ever tried to alter a dominant chord before, you know that it’s not that easy.

Here’s the situation…

You’re about to play over a dominant chord. You see this on a lead sheet, or you know a tune by heart…


… and your thought process might go something like this…

Which scale should I play

Your initial reaction? Scales. You think to yourself…

“What scale am I going to play if I want to alter the dominant chord?” Clearly not the boring old Mixolydian and after a moment of thought, you now believe you have several options to approach dominant alterations, and then even more scales come to mind…

More scale options

So now that you have your scale choices, you think you’re all good. But then when you go to play, why do things not sound right? Why does it sound mechanical? Why does it sound forced?

What are professionals doing that makes their use of alterations sound so good and how can I do it too?

Working alterations into your playing is a gradual process. One that can be mastered one step at a time…

Before you start, make sure the dominant chord resolves

When you first start to use altered tensions over dominant chords, you may think you can use them everywhere.

I remember thinking, “Okay, now that I’ve got the altered-scale under my belt, I’m gonna use it everywhere, and everyone will think I’m awesome!”

Well, not so much…

I used that altered scale everywhere I could, but, I didn’t sound good at all. In fact, my playing became more ambiguous than it was before because just playing the alterations won’t make you sound good.

You have to know when and where to play them.

A good rule of thumb is you can freely use alterations when the chord resolves down a perfect fifth. This means that G7 moves to C.

C Major, C minor, C7…doesn’t matter, just as long as it’s moving to C.

Root movement

Now, is this a set-in-stone rule? No, but it’s a guideline that will help you immensely because when the root movement does not resolve down a perfect fifth, introducing alterations can weaken the existing harmony and make it sound like you’re lost or don’t know the chord changes.

So, for now, limit your use of alterations to any dominant chord right before it resolves down a perfect fifth.

Step 1: STOP thinking scales. Instead, FOCUS ON MELODY using ONE alteration

When we first get introduced to altered notes on a dominant chord, what’s the first thing we learn?

Usually it’s the the infamous Altered Scale. Or is it called diminished-whole-tone? Or the Super Locrian?–there are a million names for it, but they all mean the same thing.

Whatever you call it, starting with this super scale to begin using alterations on dominant chords makes things a lot more difficult than they need to be.

We have no idea what each one sounds like, we barely know where they are on our instrument, and now we’ve got this group of seven notes that’s supposed to magically give us access to these mysterious sounds?

You see the problem?

Instead of mastering each altered chord tone over the dominant sound, we’ve jumped into all of them at once via a scale.

So what’s a better way?

Rather than thinking of the altered scale–or any other scale choice at first–It’s much easier and more effective to think in terms of mastering one altered chord tone at a time.

I know it seems like there are a million alterations on dominant chords, but there are only four: b9, #9, #5/b13, b5/#11

Much more simple.

And now that you’re ready to master each altered sound, it’s time to find a model for how to play lyrically and melodically over dominant chords using alterations.

When I hear the words lyrical and melodic, my mind automatically goes to Stan Getz.

Miles Davis Quote

Listen to Stan play over Autumn Leaves:

His use of alterations is so melodic that you may not even realize he’s using them. It sounds as if he were simply singing. But, throughout this perfect solo, Stan emphasizes altered sounds continually.

As Getz illustrates, it is indeed possible to use these altered chord tones in a musical, melodic, and lyrical way.

The first thing you want to do is learn to control each altered sound. I suggest starting with the b9 because it’s easy to find on your instrument. It’s a half step above the root of the chord.

At 00:57 seconds into his solo, listen to how Getz uses the b9:

Flat Nine


Not exactly how you’d think, right? He doesn’t use the altered scale. he doesn’t even use multiple altered notes. He uses one and sustains it for most of the measure.

You can do this too.

Abandon the idea that you have to use everything from the altered scale or any other scale to alter a dominant, and learn to use one note effectively.

If Stan’s first genius line didn’t convince you that one note can be effective, take a listen to this one at 1:57:

Sharp Nine


This time he emphasizes and sustains the #9. Another beautiful and perfect use of an altered chord tone.

Because there are only four altered chord tones to master over dominant, you can go about learning them systematically.

How to practice one alteration at a time

  1. Pick one alteration, there are only four to choose from: b9, #9, #5/b13, b5/#11. I suggest starting with the b9.
  2. Visualize  the b9 on every dominant chord around the Cycle. SPOILER ALERT: We’re releasing a NEW version of the Jazz Visualization eBook in a few weeks which will have brand new revolutionary way to practice this stuff. And thankfully, you get free updates for life once you have it.
  3. Learn to hear what the b9 sounds like over a dominant chord. The Ear Training Method teaches you how if you’re looking for a step-by-step method.
  4. Play the b9 of every dominant chord, holding it for a full measure, in time with a metronome or background track
  5. Apply the b9 to every dominant chord in a tune you’re working on by sustaining it over the chord.
  6. Repeat this process for the other three altered chord tones

Step 2: Learn to use scale fragments to travel between alterations & resolutions

Wait a minute…I just said don’t use scales, but now I’m telling you to use scales.

Sounds a little contradictory…which one’s correct?

Let me explain…

I’m saying, use scale fragments for a clear purpose of traveling from Point A to Point B.

NOT as a pool of notes to randomly select from.

These two viewpoints are very different. In the first, scales act as a transition from one clear point to another. In the second, they act as a framework from which to select notes.

By focusing on scale fragments instead of the whole scale, you’ll learn that less is actually more.

Dizzy Gillespie Quote

It’s a subtle difference, but one worth striving to understand.

To make use of scales, especially the altered scale, learn to use scale fragments, a piece of the scale, instead of the whole thing.

Listen to Getz at 1:56 again:

Travel Via Scale


Hear how after he sustains the #9 he resolves to the 3rd of Eb Major (G) by traveling there with a scale fragment?

This scale fragment comes from the diminished scale or from the lower part of the altered scale.

Here’s the thing though…

When you spend time mastering each altered chord tone, you have access to each one without thinking of a scale. In other words, you transcend the scale.

Do you know the scale? Yes. Does it assist you intellectually in filling in the gaps between these two points? Yes. But, are you really focused on the scale and using it as the foundation for my improvised line? No.

The sounds of the altered chord tones will guide your melody, not the scale.

How to practice using scale fragments between two points

  • Practice using the altered scale to move (resolve) from #9 down to the 3rd of the major chord as Getz does
  • Practice using the #5/b13 on the dominant chord and using the altered scale to move (resolve) down to the 5th of the major chord
  • Can you find more ways of using scale fragments to connect two points like this? Explore and see what you come up with

Step 3: Use the shape of your line to setup the alteration

Take another listen to Stan’s line at 00:57 seconds and pay attention to how he arrives at the b9 on Bb7. Does he just come out and play it, or does he arrive there in  a specific way?

How you lead into and set up alterations matters.

Getz uses the elements of shape and direction to set up his effortless use of tension. Notice the big leap up on the F minor chord, followed by a big leap down, and then a half step rise to the b9?

The genius of this line resides in these seemingly minute details.



And again from the line at 1:20, he ascends naturally into the #9. Every alteration he uses is baked into the shape of his line, it’s a continuation of what came before it, not a Frankensteinian-arm attached as an after-thought.



Practicing and integrating the subtle concepts of shape and direction into your own playing are not easy to do, but when in doubt, start by copying the exact technique from your model. You can always expand beyond your model, but it’s a great place to start.

So, to practice shape and direction…

  •  Try using large intervallic leaps on the minor chord and moving from the root up a half step to the b9 on the dominant–notice how that’s just copying Stan? And, how that’s perfectly okay to do?
  • Next, try to emulate Stan’s second concept in shape and direction by ascending up the minor chord into an alteration on the dominant.
  • And finally, make up your own shape idea and implement it

Step 4: Use common licks as starting points and transitions

If you’ve been playing jazz for a while, then you’ve probably come across the “Cry-me-a-river-lick.”

It comes from the melody of the tune Cry Me a River and you can hear Ella sing it at 00:22 seconds in where the melody starts:

And there’s all sorts of creative ways to use this lick, but one very common way is to put it over a dominant chord because it highlights three of the four possible alterations on the dominant chord: #9, b9, #5/b13

Here are two times Getz uses the “Cry Me a River Lick” within his solo.

First at 1:20:

Cry me a river lick 1


And then again at 2:08:

Cry me a river lick 2


What makes his use of this lick effective?

The most important thing is that he doesn’t just play the lick, he combines it with other things to create a larger line.

In the first example, he leads into the lick by prefacing it with several eight notes to begin the lick on beat 2 of the dominant chord. And then he immediately connects the lick to a clear resolution on the C minor chord–but introduces a little bit more tension which we’ll get to later on.

And in the second example, he uses the lick as a springboard to start his line, and push him forward into other melodic ideas.

How to practice the Cry-me-a-river-lick

  • First, understand its construction over dominant: #9-b9-#5-3-#9-b9 and play it in all 12 keys
  • Then, deliberately insert it into your playing any time you encounter a dominant chord resolving down a perfect 5th
  • And finally, learn to use it as Getz does by combining and interspersing it between other things
  • Got all that down? Now find other common licks that you can do the same process with

Step 5: Learn to use alterations on the resolution chord to create multiple points of tension & release

One of the primary reasons altered chord tones sound so good is that they create contrast between tension and release.

Getz is a master of tension and release.

A strategy he frequently employs when he resolves to a minor chord utilizes the M7 and sometimes the 13th over the minor chord:

M7 and 13 on Minor Chord


M7 on Minor Chord


These tactics over the resolution chord create multiple points of tension and release, or extend the tension to create a delayed resolution.

Rather than simply resolving the dominant chord and staying there, he’ll immediately add tension on the resolution chord, creating even more melodic interest.

Tension Resolution 1


Or, instead of resolving to a consonant note on the C minor chord, he’ll aim for the M7 or 13th, adding in more tension, and put off the resolution for a measure.


You can practice this concept by:

  • Making a clear resolution on the minor chord to the root, 3rd, or 5th and then quickly pivoting to the M7 or 13th of the chord for a moment before resolving again to the root, 3rd, or 5th as Getz does.
  • Aim for the M7 or 13th on beat 1 of the minor chord and delay the resolution to the root, 3rd, or 5th
  • Figured out how to make these multiple points of tension and release work on minor? How would you do it in on Major? Hint: Think of what chord tones you can typically alter on a Major chord

Becoming a lyrical master with altered dominants

All of these concepts that we’ve talked about are pretty complex, but do they sound complex when Getz uses them?

Not really.

No matter what Stan does, he always sounds like he’s just singing and playing beautiful melodies.

Stan Getz Quote

And that’s your challenge. To use these concepts in a melodic way. To try to sing like Getz. To remain lyrical even when introducing complexity.

  1. Start by focusing on one alteration at a time
  2. Then learn to use scale fragments to move clearly between them
  3. Pay attention to the shape and direction of your line
  4. Make use of common licks in a creative way as starting points & transitions
  5. Learn to delay the resolution and create multiple points of tension & release

Follow these steps, let Stan Getz be your guide and you’re sure to become more lyrical with altered dominants than ever before!

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