improvising and jazz guitar scales

Guitar Scale Hacks: How to Jazz Up Any Scale & Start Improvising

improvising and jazz guitar scales

Many beginner musicians want to learn to improvise on the guitar, but just don’t know how to start. In this guest post, Greg O’Rourke from fretdojo.com teaches you three easy tricks that will supercharge your guitar scales and bring more life to your solos.

 

Have you ever tried to improvise on the guitar and it sounds like you’re just running scales up and down the fretboard?

Look:

Regardless of what style you want to improvise in, only knowing the scales isn’t enough.

Here’s the deal:

To sound like a convincing improviser, you need to learn the vocabulary of the style you want to play — meaning the particular patterns and approaches that give a style of music its unique sound.

Which is what this article is all about.

By the end of this post, you’re going to learn three easy jazz tricks to transform any boring old guitar scale into a hip, jazzy-sounding pattern that will supercharge your soloing.

Let’s get into it!

The Basic Idea

The approach I’m going to show you is to:

  • Look at the finger patterns on each string of a guitar scale, then
  • Substitute them with finger patterns commonly used in jazz.

For this lesson we’re going to use the ol’ faithful C major scale.

Let’s use the well-known pattern commonly played in the 7th position on the fretboard (for those of you who know the CAGED system, this would be the “E” pattern of C Major):

Listen & Play: Guitar Improvisation Exercise 1

jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-1

jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-2-corrected

Audio:

If you aren’t familiar with this guitar scale pattern yet, practice playing bits and pieces of it over the backing track to get familiar, as the video below demonstrates:

Video Example:

Backing Track:

As you can see, if you improvise just by going up and down guitar scales it sounds like, well… just like scales going up and down.

Boring!

Let’s see what we can do to jazz this sucker up…

Step 1: Substitute the ‘134’ Pattern

Look at the notes that sit on the 3rd string for this guitar scale:

jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-3

As you can see, this string uses fingers 1, 3, and 4, hence a ‘134’ pattern.

Hmmm… let’s try something.

Replace this finger pattern with a ‘4123’ pattern instead:

jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-4

To get used to the idea of replacing the finger pattern, play the simple exercise below.

Listen & Play: Guitar Improvisation Exercise 2jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-5

Audio:

Here’s the trick.

Now, whenever you play the 3rd string as you improvise, replace the ‘134’ pattern with the new ‘4123’ pattern.

Video Example:

Go on — try it! Here’s the backing track once again:

Backing Track:

Hang on:

Notice how this can be used on other strings of this C major scale as well…

Eureka! The 4th string also has this ‘134’ pattern.

Do the same finger pattern replacement on this string too.

Listen & Play: Guitar Improvisation Exercise 3jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-6

Audio:

I want you to practice soloing over the backing track once again.

This time, whenever you hit the 4th string or the 3rd string, play the pattern ‘4123’.

Backing Track:

Great — you’re sounding a whole lot jazzier already!

Let’s have a look at how we can mess with the other strings to get more of that jazzy sound into our soloing.

Step 2: Substitute the ‘124’ pattern

Here’s the finger pattern on the 1st string in this C Major scale:

jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-7

As you can see, the 1st string has a ‘124’ finger pattern.

It’s time to soup up this finger pattern too.

Can we use the ‘4123’ pattern (the one you used on the 3rd and 4th string) here?

No, you can’t — the final note (the ‘3’)  will be a note that is not in C Major, which will sound bad.

For this approach to work, we need a pattern that will finish on a scale note.

So, we’ll need a different pattern. Let me think…

How about this one:

jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-8

Looks good — this new ‘43241’ pattern ends up on a scale note (the ‘1’).

This ‘43241’ pattern is one of the most commonly used vocabulary ideas in jazz, and it’s easy to play too.

To get familiar with this new pattern, play this exercise on the 1st string:

Listen & Play: Guitar Improvisation Exercise 4jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-9

Audio:

Improvise with the backing track in a similar way to what you did on the 3rd and 4th string.

This time, whenever you play the 1st string replace the ‘124’ pattern with the ‘43241’ pattern.

Video Example:

While you’re at it, make it more interesting by experimenting with different rhythms and accents each time you play the pattern.

Backing Track:

This ‘43241’ pattern works really well on the 5th and 6th strings too, as they also have a ‘124’ pattern in this C Major guitar scale.

I’ll show you what I mean:

Listen & Play: Guitar Improvisation Exercise 5jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-10

Audio:

Step 3: Enclosures

Great, so we have now jazzed up every string of this guitar scale…

Or have we?

Hang on — it looks like one string hasn’t been covered yet: the 2nd string.

The problem with the 2nd string in this C Major guitar scale pattern is that there are only two notes on the string.

D’oh! We can’t play the other two patterns you’ve learned so far, as they were for three notes, not two.

Don’t sweat! There is a solution.

We’re going to use enclosures to surround (or ‘enclose’) each of these two-note scales.

I know what you’re thinking:

“What’s an enclosure??”

I knew you were going to ask that.

Let me explain.

Enclosures are one of the most commonly used devices found in jazz solos.

They give a great chromatic sound and are characteristic of jazz bebop in particular.

Enclosures are useful as they can be added to any note in any guitar scale.

Here’s an example of an enclosure:

Listen & Play: Guitar Improvisation Exercise 6jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-11

Audio:

In this next exercise, you’re going to apply an enclosure to each of the two notes found on the 2nd string of the C Major guitar scale pattern:

Listen & Play: Guitar Improvisation Exercise 7jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-12-corrected

Audio:

Now try to improvise on the backing track with enclosures on these notes whenever you hit the 2nd string:

Video Example:

Backing Track:

Note: You can do enclosures on any note of the scale, not just these two scale notes on the second string — try it and see!

Step 4: Combining it All Together

Fantastic! We have now jazzified every string of C Major guitar scale.

Your final challenge awaits…

Have a go at playing the substituted finger pattern for each string one after the other, going from the 1st string to the 6th string:

  • 1st string: 43241
  • 2nd string: enclosures
  • 3rd string: 4123
  • 4th string: 4123
  • 5th string: 43241
  • 6th string: 43241

Listen & Play: Guitar Improvisation Exercise 8jazz-guitar-scales-image-example-13

Audio:

Now improvise on the backing track by adding the relevant pattern for each string here and there as you solo.

Video Example:

Backing Track:

A couple of things to be aware of as you improvise on the guitar:

  • If you do the new jazzy patterns too much, it will sound too “spicy.” Just add them here and there and it will sound totally hip.
  • The challenge here is to remember what pattern goes with which string in the guitar scale. Be careful as you’ll find it won’t sound very good if you mix them up by mistake.

Huzzah! Just by adding some simple finger patterns, you know have an interesting, jazzy foundation for your guitar solos.

Summary

You can apply this technique to any guitar scale:

  • Whenever you have a ‘134’ pattern on a string, replace it with ‘4123’.
  • Whenever you have a ‘124’ pattern on a string, replace it with ‘43241’.
  • Whenever you have only 2 notes on a string, use enclosures around each note.

So there you have it: three simple finger patterns that you can apply to any guitar scale, to instantly get that jazzy sound.

The question is…

What guitar scales do YOU have under your fingers to jazz up?

Let me help you out.

Download a free copy of my Essential Guitar Scale Patterns PDF eBook, and you’ll learn the most important guitar scale shapes that you need to know for any style of music.

I would also like to give a shout-out to Matt Warnock at mattwarnockguitar.com, whom I credit first showing me these innovative ideas for scale patterns. He’s a great teacher and has a ton of resources about jazz guitar improvisation on his site.

I wish you well in your guitar practice. Happy soloing!

Ready to learn more? Find a local or online guitar teacher, or check out our live, online group classes for guitar!

AndyWPost Author: Greg O’Rourke
Greg O’Rourke is a professional Australian jazz guitarist and holds a Bachelor of Music (Hons) with the Australian National University. He’s also the owner of fretdojo.com, which offers detailed lessons and eBooks on how to master jazz guitar.

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2 replies
  1. Angelo
    Angelo says:

    Hi Greg, many thanks for the article. I have a question for you: I do not play by “scales”, instead I’m used to think at chord tones, applicable tensions, and target notes. The problem is that if I want to target a note, say Eb when C is the tonality, when a play diatonic I will be probably arriving to Eb via the pattern C D Eb (a 134 pattern in you example) but I cannot replace that pattern with 4123 as you suggest, otherwise I will not reach Eb but land instead to D. So, sorry for being so lenghty, the question is: have you developed jazz-sounding patterns based on targeting a note?
    Regards

    Angelo

    Reply
  2. Greg O'Rourke
    Greg O'Rourke says:

    Hi Angelo, thanks very much for your question. You raise a good point here, as this article is more a basic introduction to the idea of approaching notes in a scale chromatically, however as you say to really start outlining the changes properly in your lines you need to be targeting chord tones rather than just thinking in scales.

    Having said that, you could still use these kinds of finger patterns and just ensure that the final note of the pattern is the note you are trying to target. E.g you could use a 4123 pattern with these notes: E, Db, D, Eb.

    Yes I know what you’re thinking… that the E natural and Db do not fit in the scale of C Minor, however they will act as passing tones to the target note of Eb, and jazz actually requires you to step outside the harmony here and there to sound hip.

    You could also use the 43241 pattern to target the E flat as well. In this case the notes would be Gb F E Gb Eb. If you played these notes without resolving to the Eb it would sound like you’re making mistakes, however because you are finishing on your target tone it would still sound acceptable to the ears and in fact quite interesting.

    So yes, this is a good point you’ve raised Angelo, to get to this level of understanding was outside the scope of the above article, but perhaps a follow-up would be useful for people interested in exploring this concept further. Cheers!

    Reply

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