In the following video, at 34:30, Joe Pass suggests practicing scales by choosing a high note, playing a chord below that note, then play "the scale" from the root of the chord to the chosen note:

I want to practice this so I can internalize chords while associating them with scales. I think that will help me swap from chord to melody faster.

The question is: After choosing my chord, which scale should I use over it? I can see Joe playing mostly Major and Diminished Scales in the video.

For example, if I choose a Major 7th chord, I could play the major scale that makes it a I chord (Ionian). I could also go for a IV chord and play Lydian. Is that what he is doing? Does he use Ionian only? Do I have more options?

  • 1
    This is a great question deserving of a simple, concise answer but I fear the theoretical underpinnings of my analysis are a bit rusty. Anyway, it all became quite clear to me when explained as follows: There is no difference between a scale and a chord. What we hear as chords are really suggestions of one or more scales (there is frequently ambiguity - what scales go with C and G? A TON. C E G B narrows it down but there are still multiple choices) Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 22:50

4 Answers 4


Ah, yes! This tip from Joe is one of my all time favorite things to meditate on. I especially like to pick voicings from the Joe Pass chord book, and apply this concept to them. I think that the main idea here is associating different sounds with chord voicings, and developing your ear to hear different harmonic possibilities over chords. Also, developing your ability to play horizontally across the fretboard as opposed to linearly up and down the fret board, this way all of the lines you play with this concept in mind are literally right under the chord that you are holding.

All of the answers I read are great approaches and all correct in their own right, but I would recommend to you what I think Joe himself would recommend, and that is to not overcomplicate things. I am assuming that you have a basic understanding of intervals and chord construction since you are working on this. You'll of course also need to have been studying scales on their own, if this is your first exposure to playing scales I'm sure it would be confusing and difficult.

So look at the chord you have, and evaluate the intervals within the chord. Let's use a major 7th chord with the root on the low E string as an example. You look at the chord you are holding and see that you have your root, 7th, 3rd, and 5th. Your 5th is the top note, being played on the B string. So you are going to play a scalular line starting with that root, and ending with that note on top (your 5th). So you already know four of the notes you are going to play, because you are holding those 4 notes in the chord. You have to think to yourself: "Self, what scales contain a major 7th, major 3rd, and a 5th?" There is of course more than one answer. Just as an example, you could choose Ionian or Lydian. I'll pick Lydian since I like the sound of that #4 that the Lydian scale has. So I play the chord, then start on the root and play the Lydian scale up to the 5th (top note of my chord). And there you go.

Although it may not seem like it yet, this is really a straightforward but powerful thing to practice. As for deciding on what scale to play, as others have mentioned I think, you literally can choose ANY scale, since there technically are no "rules" and dissonance is often as desirable a thing as consonance. But to accomplish the objective of developing your ear and the lines that you play over chords, you should choose scales that AT LEAST contain the same intervals as the chord. The intervals that aren't contained in the chord can be free game depending on how out you want to go. For example, that major 7 voicing we played didn't contain a 4th in the chord, which is why I presented Lydian or Ionian as our options. Because both of those scales contain all of the intervals that are in the chord voicing, and the only difference between them is that 4th.

Remember that you need to continually study chord voicings/construction as well as scales in combination with this exercise to really get a lot out of it.

I hope this helps in some way!


Knowing what modes/scales to use over a chord can be approached a number of ways. Here's an over simplified way to know what scale you can use over a certain chord (DISCLAIMER: THIS IS OVERSIMPLIFIED):

  1. Is it Major? (R 3 5 7)

    • Is the fourth sharped? (Yes - you might try Lydian)
    • Otherwise, use Ionian or all of the above
  2. Is it Minor? (R b3 5 b7)

    • Is the sixth flat? (Yes - you might try Aeolian)
    • Is the two flat? (Yes - you might try Phrygian or Locrian)
    • Is the five flat? (Yes - again, Locrian!)
    • Otherwise, use Dorian or all of the above
  3. Is it Dominant? (R 3 5 b7)

    • Is the fourth sharped (Yes - you might try Lydian Dominant [R 2 3 #4 5 6 7]
    • Otherwise, try Mixolydian or all of the above

The truth is you can play any scale over any chord because music doesn't really have rules, just suggestions - otherwise you might definitely turn some heads!

Additionally, notice that I only mentioned the five in minor. Does this mean you should only sharp/flat the five when the chord/scale is minor? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Mess with the five to your hearts content! However, it might be better to get comfortable with one mode before you start modifying the five.

My experience: I was always akin to Lydian over a Major chord - Pat Metheny seems to live in Lydian. Once I got comfortable with the shapes and chords in this mode, I then worked on Mixolydian. Eventually, I was able to get comfortable with Lydian Dominant, a mode that sounds great over a 7#11 or 9#11 chord.


In my opinion, finding a scale fitting in a chord is a nice solution for jazz improvisation. Any scale or modes which does not conflict with the chord is a good option, even if you can not name the scale.

The scale you see in the video he used for A7#5b9 is an A Altered scale (thanks to Matt).

The concept of this video is, improvise a scale starts from the root of any chord, so, in you example, you have to decide improvising a scale on a I Maj 7 chord or a IV Maj 7 chord.

Say you want to improvise on a I Major seventh chord, and the chord is CMaj7, any scale fits [C-E-G-B] is a good scale, e.g., bebop scale on C , blues scale on A (but starts with C), lonian on C, lydian on C, e.t.c, are all good options.

You can also find scales matching on chords in this wonderful article - INTRODUCTION TO THE SCALE SYLLABUS.

I am learning jazz too, hope this helps!

  • I am intrigued by your answer and wish to better understand. Is he playing notes derived from the half diminished scale or the entire scale? Seems like he is suggesting using partial scale in the vid - based on the notes in the chord. What factors might influence which scale would be a good fit in a particular situation? In other words if you could use a C bebop or A blues or C ionian or lydian - what would make you choose one of those options? Do all the modes and scales you used in example contain the same notes - just starting in a different place? Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 4:10
  • @RockinCowboy : I was indicating the scale he has chosen for A7#5b9 at 35:48 is half diminished scale. I seldom see the chord and the scale, so I searched and provided as a reference. He played an entire plus partial of the scale, because in his practice method, he starts from the root and ends at the highest note what he played for the chord. Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 5:37
  • @RockinCowboy : What factors might influence which scale would be a good fit in a particular situation? I am still learning, but I think which scale to choose on a chord depends on what color your want to give. All you need is trying different possibilities and have an impression of different sounding. Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 5:38
  • @RockinCowboy : Do all the modes and scales I used in example contain the same notes? No, please search on internet to know different scales and modes. Please let me know if I misunderstood your question, or you have any further question. Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 5:39
  • I think that's right, but please note: There always are clearer scale choices, especially if you got the harmony analyzed. If you want diatonic tensions and known dissonances, you can always stay in the "easy" side
    – Costagero
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 5:41

Here is a link to Jamey Aebersold Jazz http://www.jazzbooks.com/

There is a great pdf that has a book relating to what you may need.


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