Do others on here find the chord scale theory approach is detrimental to many guitar players learning jazz? I spent a long time learning all my scales and arpeggios but I could never get the hang of playing over complex progressions shifting to a new scale for each chord. Frankly it didn't sound musical and the limited results discouraged me from continuing this route.

I then took to analysing chord function and focusing on "playing the key", playing by ear, forcing myself to "feel" where the song was going and which notes to play. While I am still very much a beginner jazz player it totally opened it all up for me and it is actually enjoyable to play again!

While I am far far far away from a great like Grant Green, now that I play like this I feel my lines sound a lot more like how he plays than many tutors on Youtube I have heard who focus on CST where there doesn't seem to be any blues to the sound. I am not saying learning scales (although arpeggios were more useful) was a waste of time for me as I know the notes of each chord but as soon as I "forgot" it all I played better.

I'm not saying they are wrong but I wish I had been told the following when I first started.

1)learn the melody 2) play by ear 3) focus on playing melodies over a progression, some will work some wont but you will remember the ones that do 4) don't be afraid to play "avoid" notes, take a chance 5) don't learn lots of different scale names, just look at what notes change as you play 5) the harmony does most of the work, you can play something super simple and a beautiful progression will make it sound a million dollars!

Any thoughts from other players, experienced or beginner?

  • 2
    Can you give a few examples of how you used to play scales over chords in the chord-scale system? Jan 15, 2020 at 18:02
  • @piiperi Reinstate Monica Well I used to just think to play modes over each chord change so Dorian ii chord, mixolydian over V chord, which is fine but sounded mechanical
    – Babaluma
    Jan 16, 2020 at 16:36
  • 1
    Huh, 5 answers later and not a single one of them argues that chord-scale theory is a helpful starting point...
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 16, 2020 at 17:28
  • @Babaluma what do you do when you "play a mode"? Random notes from the scale? I think that any idea that leads you to play random notes from a scale must be wrong or a misunderstanding. :) Even in modal jazz, they play chords, it's just that they play chords in a mode, so that the harmonic feeling of the mode is retained. Jan 16, 2020 at 18:28
  • This is not something that is really going to have an answer. All you're going to get are opinions and value judgments.
    – user9480
    Jan 17, 2020 at 18:13

6 Answers 6


Put me in the "beginner" category.

Do others on here find the chord scale theory approach is detrimental to many guitar players learning jazz?

My opinion: YES.

Not just guitar, piano too. Probably the only place it isn't detrimental is with drummers :-)

If you find your jazz standard in people like Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, etc. they didn't use the chord scale system. It was invented in the 1970's. From what I understand it was the chosen method when jazz entered the Academy.

In my own experience I consider it detrimental. A huge wast of time! I couldn't figure out why attempts to improvise basic riffs from the scales just didn't sound like jazz. Then when I looked at solo transcriptions from Charlie Christian it became super-obvious what the problem was: he improvised from broken chords and their embellishment. I noticed the same in transcripts from Charlie Parker.

Of course if you fill in a seventh chord with all passing tones you get something that looks like a scale. So playing from chord tones doesn't preclude linear, step-wise playing.

You can get into a chicken or the egg situation with chords versus scale thinking. Filled in chords make scales. Scales in thirds make chords. But IMO these aren't interchangeable ideas. Understanding chords is understanding harmony. Keep in mind jazz is often written with lead sheet chord symbols. You get something like Bb7 and chord scale system says play B flat Mixolydian. If you only know the scale, you don't know the chord tones, you don't know the harmonic meaning, so the avoid tone concept is added into the system. It seems like a cumbersome system that hopes to avoid learning traditional harmony.

The problem for beginners like me is none of the chord scale system methods (none I have seen) prefaces the method with an explanation that none of the great jazz innovators in the evolution of jazz played this way.

The exception is modal jazz. It's clear why that style, in it's abandoning of standard chord progressions, turned the attention to the scale. When you play 8 or 16 bars of one single chord, it's totally obvious you wouldn't focus on chord tones and take a different approach, a scale based approach.

Blues bases stuff seems different too. When the progression is some kind of basic jazzy blues, just using a blues "scale" works well. It seems like you can mix up broken chord and blues scale stuff very nicely.

  • 3
    I haven't had any formal music training, and this chord-scale thingy sounds like huge nonsense. Did I get it right, in the chord-scale system, every chord in a song is treated as a separate modal jazz vamp? New chord, new mode, repeat for every chord change? Jan 15, 2020 at 20:09
  • 1
    @piiperiReinstateMonica Believe it or not, yes! iim7 V7 I6 may be presented as Dorian, Mixolydian, Ionian ...with no mention of it being all diatonic to one tonic. Jan 15, 2020 at 20:11
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    I don't know what to say. I think such thinking confuses even the whole idea of what modes are in the first place. I thought that the "see iim7 --> think Dorian" thing was a tool for some guitarists to guide their fingers to more practical positions on the fretboard ... but if that's even taught to pianists who have a complete map of everything in front of them? It's really difficult to believe this thing. I mean ... In jazz schools, you don't necessarily start by playing ordinary songs with good old functional harmony and then start jazzing it up, twisting the harmony in interesting ways? Jan 15, 2020 at 20:30
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    I took one theory class in college. That's the extent of my formal schooling. I don't know what they actual do in jazz classes. I can say chord/scale system is pervasive in the jazz books and lessons I have seen. Jan 15, 2020 at 20:34
  • It is useful as far as thinking how to move about the fretboard and I will say drilling in a pool of notes is good as a discipline but you then need to forget it all!
    – Babaluma
    Jan 16, 2020 at 16:39

The approach of matching a scale to a chord is useful but should never be the main focus of understanding changes. The opposite or inverse approach is to see how chords fit into a single scale. For example, there are 7 7th chords that are build on the major scale and these can be used to create the "circle progression",

I --> IV --> vii --> iii --> vi --> ii --> V --> I

The arpeggios and chords all fit into one scale so why follow each chord around?
We frequently modulate to other Major and minor keys in a progression and indicate this harmonically we insert a chunk of the above progression leading to the V7 of the new key. For example, If you wanted to modulate from I to IV all you need to do is play a dominant 7th on the I, i.e. I --> I7 --> IV. Another, modulate to the relative minor by playing a V7 on the iii chord. These are obviously introducing new accidentals and deviating from the original key, but they have a purpose and if you can understand that you can identify entire sequences of chords as being in one key. Then, instead of chasing the chords down you can simply stay on one scale and use your ear to lead you through the changes.

There is a lot more to music than scales. A tune has a feel as you point out. That is due as much to rhythm and phrasing as from the choice of notes. In my opinion an approach worth taking is to learn some tunes and other guitarists solos by ear (if possible) or using transcriptions and dissect them. You will see some common patterns and if you know some music theory you can put it to use. Ask yourself how does this lick follow the scale-chord approach (it likely doesn't). In my experience melodies do not deviate as much as the chords seem to. Chords support melody not the other way around. You can also experiment with alternate chord progressions for a given tune, something simpler than what is written in the real book. Jazz may seem more complex than rock for example but there are some basic templates that are over used. Just like the I IV V there is the ii V I (and the ii is a substitute for the IV). We tend to use altered chords to create more leading tones in chord movements but it's all still just basic western music theory at play.

The melody tells the story and one approach it to borrow lines from the melody and turn them into lick, moving them around the progression. You should definitely not avoid avoid notes. You just have to resolve them, pass through them. Or force the "out" harmony. You can really play anything over a progression as long as there is some coherence and patterns that repeat in phrases and rhythms.

Jerry Coker's book advocates keeping a book of licks and phrases that you write, say 3 to 5 phrases a day. They can by simple 2 or 3 note repeating phrases. Then he recommends using just a couple of these over a set of changes to hear how (or if) they fit together.

I'd say learn more about classical harmony theory ti understand chord progressions and their relation to melody. Keep a book of licks. Transcribe by ear and dissect what you hear looking for repeated patterns. Keep experimenting and keep what works, drop what doesn't. Don't mistake music theory for hard and fast rules that always lead to success (or failure if ignored).

  • At least IMO, I'd rather change the scale when chords like I7 (V7/IV) and V7/iii are used (and change back the moment those chords stop being used). Insisting on the base major scale and ignoring the accidentals in the chord itself sounds like a great way to introduce clumsy dissonance to me.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 16, 2020 at 12:04
  • 1. If I7 is moving to IV then just change key to the IV for both. In other words match key changes not chords. That's what I'm suggesting. 2. Dissonance is what it is, it only becomes clumsy if you don't use your ear. Take for example the blues. A simple 6 note scale imposed over 3 chords. Not matching any of them exactly yet it works.
    – user50691
    Jan 16, 2020 at 12:10
  • For V7/IV to IV, the scale corresponding to IV does sound fine for both, but I'd be a lot more willing to accept the scale corresponding to I over the IV chord than over the V7/IV chord. Playing exclusively the leading tone instead of the flattened subtonic over the V7/IV chord (regardless of other notes being played) sounds like a recipe for playing outside at best and a dissonant clash at worst to me.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 16, 2020 at 12:15
  • Now it seems you are contradicting yourself form one comment to the other. I guess I'm confused. My points are simply that (1) you can analyze entire chunks rather than single chords and (2) you can really play anything over anything if you lead with your ear.
    – user50691
    Jan 16, 2020 at 14:37
  • I'm mainly objecting to your statement that "Then, instead of chasing the chords down you can simply stay on one scale". With the I7 and V7/iii examples you gave, I'm strongly of the opinion that either your scale needs to include all chord tones of both those stranger chords and the base scale for I or you need to change scales at those stranger chords.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 16, 2020 at 16:59

It's funny how this question resonates with me, and how it applies to blues, not just to jazz. I've been struggling to improvise over a 12-bar blues progression for years, and only recently I've started to break through.

Like you, I find that there's a lot of inefficient teaching around.

I was first told to use the 'blues scale' (minor pentatonic with an extra b5), and I was hitting a lot of wrong notes.

Then I was told to use chord tones (or arpeggios) and the solos started to reflect the underlying harmony, but I found that they didn't say anything (ie: they did not add much to the harmony).

Then I was told to use the mixolydian scale corresponding to each chord (ie A myxolydian over the A7 chord, E myxolydian over E7, etc.). I guess this is what you call the "chord scale theory". I started to get a more diverse sound, but still not bluesy enough.

For me blues soloing only make sense when you mix all the following:

  • minor blues scale
  • chord tones / arpeggios
  • major pentatonic (for major blues only)
  • chord scale theory
  • bends (essential!)
  • vibratos, hammer-ons and pull-offs
  • a library licks: find out what they sound like, and try to find the right moment to play them (like @ggcg suggested above)
  • a library of turnarounds to use on the 11th and 12th bars

So I find that the chord scale theory is useful as one building block, but by themselves not enough to make a good solo. I find scales/arpeggios very useful when I want to make a fast runcovering 2 octaves to add more tension.

  • Are you using the minor blues scale for minor and major blues? I would have thought its minor blues scale for minor blues and major blues scale for major blues. Or could you use both scales on both blues? Since both are just the corresponding pentatonic scales with an added note, then also minor pentatonic would apply to minor blues (and major pentatonic for major blues, but you have already metioned that)
    – Olli
    Jan 16, 2020 at 15:51
  • 2
    I use the minor blues scale for both! Actually part of the 'bluesy' sound comes from using both minor and major thirds. A common lick when playing major blues includes playing the minor third, then hammering-on the major third. Also, the famous 'Hendrix chord', which includes both the major and minor third (the latter is on the higher octave). On a major blues, both the minor and major pentatonic seem to work. When playing minor blues, I avoid the major pentatonic.
    – mkorman
    Jan 16, 2020 at 17:34
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    @Olli - misconception! Over *major (or rather 7ths)' chords, minor blues works well. As does major blues! Other way round is usually disastrous!
    – Tim
    Jan 16, 2020 at 17:41
  • 1
    @mkorman - shame on you!! That 'Hendrix' chord has a M3 and a #9..!
    – Tim
    Jan 16, 2020 at 17:43
  • @Tim - I think we're getting into semantics. What's the difference between a #9 and a "minor third on the higher octave"? I think we might be using different words to mean the same thing?
    – mkorman
    Jan 17, 2020 at 18:12

Rather than complete scales, chord tones are more important, so it's around half of scales!

Reading some ideas - 'It's in key C, so C Ionian for that, Dm bar uses D Dorian, G bar uses G Mixolydian etc makes no sense to me. That's all using the same set of 7 notes, all that changes is the root. Which is pretty apparent from the name of the chord in the bar.

If that's a more sophisticated Bm7♭5, then playing over the chord will hint that even though it's a Bm7 chord, playing F♮ is generally going to be more musical than playing F♯. But that's one note - from that chord - not a complete scale. And who plays jazz by running up and down particular scales in each bar anyway? That's maybe not music?


If the chord-scale theory leads you to selecting a mode for every chord change and playing random notes from that mode's scale, without considering what the played notes do in terms of chordal harmony around a tonic, then the theory is harmful for you. Music is not random. Harmony is not random. If you play random notes, you get random harmony, and I'd say, it's not even music, it's chaos. There is a lot of unpredictability and randomness in improvisation, but it must be tamed and controlled by sensibility and taste.

Every melody outlines a set of possible harmonic changes, melodies do not live as a separate entity in their own universe. Similarly, every harmonic progression supports some melodic possibilities. If you solo melodic notes, everything you play either (a) supports and strengthens the existing harmonic ideas, (b) tweaks the harmony in some way, giving it a different character, or (c) disagrees with and fights against the harmony by creating incompatible unrelated harmonic ideas. Melody and harmony go hand in hand, every melody outlines some harmonic feelings, even if it's a single-voice solo. In my opinion, you can't really improvise good melody lines, if you can't improvise chord progressions. If you made a good melody, at the same time you also made the ingredients for harmonic progressions, whether you know it or not.

  • I think more than anything it is the rigid idea of just playing one mode for this chord and another for that one, I am not saying this is not a good initial starting point but for someone who is self taught and using books or internet resources without a guide it can come across as a straight jacket. Without a nuanced explanation that this is just a starting guide I think it can discourage people
    – Babaluma
    Jan 17, 2020 at 7:46
  • who can't connect the wonderful flowing lines on records with the mechanical lines the beginner feel they play by using CST. I remember reading a site which made an impact by rejecting the straight jacket of CST and saying why think of F major as just being connected to Fmaj7 chord? Why not try it on G-7, Csus, Bbmaj#711? It immediately made an impact to start outside the box. This is obvious to a good player who maybe has a teacher but not me:)
    – Babaluma
    Jan 17, 2020 at 7:46
  • @Babaluma I think my point is that you do not "play a mode". You might play in a mode, but you don't play the mode. You play notes and chords. You can create the sounds of all modes with just the white keys of the piano. Which mode it sounds like depends on what notes and chords you play and when. It is entirely possible to try to create a dorian feeling, but fail to do so, because you played the wrong notes and chords from the scale at the wrong time. For example on a ii-V-I progression, if you claim that you can create a dorian feel on the ii chord ... I don't believe you can do that. :) Jan 17, 2020 at 7:56

I did not find the chord-scale approach helpful, in which each chord uses a different scale.

I learned more about improvising by listening to lots of jazz than by matching up my modes and chords. In many jazz tunes, chords don't last much longer than two beats (maybe a measure.) That is not enough time to create a specific color from each scale. Besides, all the diatonic chords in the piece ultimately use the same set of notes. Does it really matter what note mode for each chord begins and ends on when improvising?

It is important to know the notes of each chord because the chord tones are the anchors and the notes used for resolution. Any note can be played if it is resolved well.

It also depends on your style. Some jazz artists are known for having solos that stay in the higher ends of extended chords and are generally dissonant.

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