Yesterday I was practicing scales variation over a jazz progression, in particular

Am - G#°7 - Gm7 - C7sus4

Using respectively

1)A melodic minor

2)G# whole-half

3)G dorian

4)C mixolydian

I noticed a really smoother transition from a chord to another when I use common scale tones to improvise with, while a really bad one when at the beginning of a new chord I put directly some new scale's own tones that come over. I was wondering, maybe one should use common tones at the beginning for a smoother transition and then going on with each scale's own tones to let ear them? Is this a common habit? Thanks!

  • 1
    "common tones" are one of the key ingredients to improv over changes. It's one of the first things they teach in the formulaic approach. But change scale for each chord? Where is the progression going? To C or F perhaps. The G# could be a sub for D7 making it a classic circle of 4ths leading to a "something". It would make sense to find that something and use it as a home base.
    – user50691
    Apr 14, 2020 at 12:30
  • Can be a diminished chord be a sub for a dominant? I thought that it should be a dominant chord as well. By the way, it can also be thought as E7b9. Apr 14, 2020 at 13:36
  • @JamesArten Yes, a diminished 7th chord can function as a dominant, usually when ascending i.e. G#o7 to A or Am is the same as E7b9 to A or Am except for the E root. When descending, as in this case diminished chords function more as chromatic passing chords. Only 2 notes change and the tritone doesn’t have the contrary motion resolution of a dominant to tonic. G#o7=G# B D F to Gm7=G Bb D F. The first 2 notes change and the second 2 stay the same. An example of this is “Night and Day” by Cole Porter, bars 11-13 are the same chord sequence. Apr 14, 2020 at 19:47

2 Answers 2


One of the things we might consider when using scales is to start each new bar on the tonic of that scale. Sometimes, but not always, a good idea! It may work, but it's somewhat dependant on the note in the previous bar which precedes it.

Thinking in scale terms works best when we consider all the available notes from each scale, according to the chord we play over. In the case in hand - parent key F major - yes, there's a G Dorian and a C Mixolydian. But - lots of players don't seem aware that those two contain exactly the same notes!

And, come to think, Am has the majority the same, too! There's always going to be a mismatch with diminished, half and whole, so one needs to take care with them.

Going back to my 1st para., consider that the first note in each new bar can be a chord tone other than just the tonic. Which is possibly where the smoother transitions came from. Other notes can work well too. If the passage is actually running up a scale, there's a good chance when the underlying chord changes, the next note will be in the next 'scale'. If there are jumps in the melody, then it's easier to jump a couple of tones or so for the next bar.

Thinking not so much in terms of 'this scale', but more in terms of 'this collection of notes'. I mean that thinking 'scale' often means thinking in terms of an ordered set of notes. And it's surprising that so many players think modes (like G Dorian, C Mixolydian, F Ionian) are all different! They're not, in themselves. Their roots may differ, but the collection of notes certainly doesn't!

  • One might view the A-7 --> G# dim --> G-7 as a sub'd ii --> V7 --> i in the key of G minor and just use G melodic minor. What is the C7 sus4 doing there? It is a IV to the G- perhaps.
    – user50691
    Apr 14, 2020 at 12:54

The problem with the "this scale for that chord" thinking is, how do you make it smooth, and not just sound like you're jumping from one scale to another? What's the setup?

I heard this little tip years ago, and worked with it for a while, and found it to be a reasonably solid approach:

"Transition from the third or seventh of the chord you're currently on, to the third or seventh of the chord you are moving to."

(On a side note...haha pun intended...I've been told that avoiding the tonic of the chord you're moving to is a way to avoid being predictable...).

This is a great way to be able to improvise successfully without having to do a lot of computation, and it sets up your moves from one scale/mode to another in a sonically valid way. You don't want to just randomly move from any note your finger happens to be on to the next scale, you may be hitting a note (in either the from, or to, scale) that is not ideal for the transition.

Let's take your chords:

Amin, G#Dim7, Gmin7, Csus4

You could take the chord tones and try to paste together some kind of common scale, but in my experience, that's not typically successful.

Instead, maybe think this way:

I'm noodle around in Amin. Here comes the transition. I have options:

  • Slide from wherever I am in A minor to the C (third of Amin), tap the F (or just hit that interval), which puts me at the seventh of the G# (and definitely reinforces the harmony you're moving towards in the Gmin and Csus4).
  • Bend the B up to the C (so the ninth to the third of Amin), then release the bend to the B (the third of the G#).

Both are reasonable sonic transitions to check out.

Now in the land of G#dim, since you know all the chord intervals in the dim chord are minor, you have fun with that for a while. Do the "minor third walk" up the strings, play around in whole/half, or what have you.

Now here comes the Gmin. Find either the B or the F, and you're looking for the third or the seventh of the next chord (Bb or F). You can ghost bend the B to the Bb, or just hang on the F (very nice, a sustain across chords).

Now you're set up in Gmin: you know the interval from the third to the fifth of a minor chord is a major third, you know the seventh to the tonic is a whole step, and all that. Use the intervals to set yourself up for your stock scale run, maybe a burn through G Dorian, and so on.

Here we go again, Gmin to Csus4. Third or seventh of current chord (Bb F) to third or seventh of target chord (E B). To add interest here, extend the 3/7 to 3/7 rule to include the tension (the F of the Csus4). Maybe grab the F of Gmin, and just sustain it to the transition (putting you at fourth of the Csus), then find a B and bend up to the root of the C.

Now, some might say, "you'll never figure out those notes on the fly."

Well...yes, I will. I know the notes on the neck well enough to do it. But, you don't necessarily have to think in terms of notes, and if you're really burning, the note computations may slow you down (not always a bad thing, but let's say you're in the mood for some shred).

But I ALWAYS know, in any given pattern I'm familiar with, where the third and sevenths are in relation the root, even if I don't know the notes. Anywhere I can find the root of that scale/mode on the neck, I automatically know where at least one third and seventh are; the seventh is either 1/2/3 frets down from the root (maj/min/dim), and the third is either a minor or major third above it. And with some practice, that can be computed with lightning speed. So finding a third or seventh of my current scale/mode, to the third of seventh of the target, doesn't have to be about notes. And once I've made the jump, I can burn away in the new pattern.

(If you have not developed the ability to look at a scale and know where the third, fifth, and seventh are in relation to the root, and eventually ideally to each other, you should. It is a VERY powerful ability).

That's how I might think of it.

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