Seeking a Path to Successful Jazz Scale Study

September 17, 2015 at 12:54 AM · Mike Laird has published a comprehensive book to support people learning jazz violin: Arpeggios, Rhythms, and Scales: Fundamental Techniques for Jazz Improvisation On the Violin (ISBN 978-0-557-31746-2).

After limiting the genres of jazz improvisation central to my goals to "standards", bebop, and Latin, fairly conventional choices, I turned to the book for study material.

The book contains a full suite of scales and their fingerings, the usual suspects discussed in jazz theory books, a few pages of suggested rhythms, an adaption of a Kreutzer exercise to illustrate the use of the scales in jazz technique, and some bebop studies.

He also writes more generally about fingering, and touches on a few other topics. Mike also writes on page 3 that "It is desirable that the student has been through the Carl Flesch Scale System book once ... "

Now, either scale book (Laird's or Flesch's) would keep a student busy for some years. Also, Laird's book is "so comprehensive" that a jazz violin student would find it tough sledding indeed, working cover to cover.

The obvious thing to do is to select material to work on first, add to it, etc.

Is this so simple?

Given the challenges of finding the best positions for the scales most useful early in learning jazz violin, and then progressing from here, I seek advice from other musicians who have worked through these challenges already.

Replies (93)

September 17, 2015 at 02:13 AM · Major and minor scales are important, and there are other scales that are useful such as pentatonic and especially diminished scales (alternating half and whole steps -- these are very easy to play on the piano but much harder on the violin) as well as chromatic scales.

Let's set aside, for a moment, the actual uses of scales (which one to select for what purpose). In terms of just technique, equally important to the scales themselves is the ability to play them "from anywhere" starting on any note, in any position (within reason). Rarely in jazz will you just be playing a three-octave scale like you do in the Scherzo movement of the Spring Sonata (and even that one doesn't start on the tonic). You use bits and pieces of scales as a framework for formulating and connecting ideas. For this reason, patterns (again, in all keys and in multiple positions, starting "from anywhere") are useful, not because you'll necessarily be playing large swaths of those patterns, but it teaches your hands how to manipulate scales to advantage.

Mike Laird's jazz scale book is a reasonable place to start. But I know what you mean about it being "comprehensive". In my opinion, scale "fingerings" going into the nosebleed section of the fingerboard will not help you to play jazz. In fact, if you are developing true facility, you will have no need of "fingerings" whatsoever. I think it's better to concentrate your effort on improving your facility within what you can reach in third or perhaps fifth position, using your ear and your understanding of the logic of the fingerboard to -- dare I say -- improvise your own fingerings on the fly.

If you are just getting started on improv on the violin, may I suggest that you start with bossas in minor keys such as "Gentle Rain" or "How Insensitive" and jam-type tunes like "Killer Joe." Bebop tunes with rapid harmonic movement are much harder.

Full disclosure -- I am a beginner at jazz improv on the violin as well, but I am not a total beginner because I am quite experienced in jazz on the piano.

September 17, 2015 at 10:33 AM · I'm at a similar stage of doing some early thinking about how to approach this.

You're right - Mike's book is impressive but intimidating. I can see myself mining it for ideas, but like you I am looking for a more manageable way to get going.

My own, very tentative take would be something like this.

Firstly, we should surely be clear about the purpose of learning scales. This guy makes a lot of sense to me:

Then we have to get the scales into our mind's ear. Jazz violinist Graham Clark has a very simple and logical approach to this using modes:

Then we have to get them under our fingers, so that we can play whatever we are hearing - in all four directions, as the JazzAdvice article suggests. Given that we have four fingers it surely makes sense to think in terms of tetrachord finger patterns, of which there are a manageable number.

There are exercises for working with these in Drew Lecher's book on Violin Technique.

After that, scales are simply a matter of executing these patterns in different combinations up, down and across the strings.

Of course, once you can play these straight up and down, there are an infinite number of patterns such as broken thirds, broken 4ths, 123/234/345... etc etc for variety, along with broken chords.

With a bit of practice in linking these patterns together, I'm hoping that you should be able to play it provided you can hear it.

Here's a series of articles on how this idea might be applied to learning the major modes - it's for mandolin but the fingerings are identical. Like Graham, the author argues that the modes are the most productive way to start:

My own feeling is that this kind of approach is likely to be more practical and productive than grinding through a comprehensive scale book. But as I haven't tried it yet, it's just a theory. I'll be watching this thread with interest!

September 17, 2015 at 04:14 PM · The link from is a good one. If you find yourself thinking that some notes from a scale with two flats, which happen to be Bb and Ab, would provide some fodder for a riff or theme that you're developing, that's a good way to be thinking while improvising. If you're twisting yourself into a mental pretzel trying to figure out which Myxolidian or Phrygian (or whatever) scale that is, that's not a productive thought process. If the chord says "D Minor" but the original melody of the tune contains a B natural (for example "So What" by Miles Davis), and the pianist has picked up that sharp sixth in his/her comping, then you know that riffs or figures containing Bb may clash. The fact that this sharp sixth turns your natural minor into Dorian Mode is entirely academic and irrelevant.

September 18, 2015 at 01:12 AM · I read the link, quite sucked along with the reasoning, until it "stopped" at using examples of articulation patterns with scales. All good stuff, this, but it avoided the motif creation and variation, control in building a solo, etc, all of which seem to me to be the just application of scales in improvising.

I will dive deeper into that site to see what I can fathom out.

I could make a good case for just learning the major pentatonic scales, for these will give you the "right notes" over any chord, (with the exception of the diminished 7th, where a simple trick is available).

More stepwise fluency when using pentatonic scales is achieved by adding chromatic passing tones, and pairs of chromatic passing tones where necessary, beneath the notes of the major pentatonic scale.

But this is well-known, and I wonder why it is not promoted more, in place of the long lists of "must know" scales"?

How would this go?: First learn the major pentatonic scales in the first, second and third positions.

After these pentatonics are known as stepwise ladders, apply them to iim7-V7-Imaj7 progressions, developing articulation patterns and motif patterns (the patterns described in jazz pattern books).

And then turn to progressions of simple standards.

One advantage of using the pentatonic scales is that they are closely allied to the arpeggios of 7th chords.

One disadvantage is that while they omit the "avoid" notes often discussed in jazz theory books, they then have holes in longer stepwise runs.

Would it be a poor choice to focus on these pentatonic scales, and in the positions I mention? Thanks for your help.

PS I will also put the time following the "jazzmando" link. I've had a quick look, but there is a lot to digest there, and will discuss this further when I have given that link due attention. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

September 18, 2015 at 03:30 AM · Pentatonic scale patterns and motifs definitely have their place. The problem with favoring any particular kind of scale is that it only gets you so far, and it can limit the genres within jazz that you can approach. Pentatonics are great for certain things, such as minor blues (e.g. Equinox), modal type tunes (Impressions), and you often hear them in fusion styles (Ponty plays a lot of pentatonic riffs, and listen to the pianist McCoy Tyner too). But you take a fairly routine swing-type standard like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and suddenly they're not as useful. Frankly one reason I think you don't see pentatonic scales emphasized in modern jazz pedagogy is because they were, at one time, considered the "starting point" along with the "blues scale" which is a modification of the pentatonic scale (a passing tone is added), and teachers found that their students used these scales as crutches to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

September 18, 2015 at 07:26 AM · Here's an interesting take on visualising the tetrachords and linking them together up and down the fingerboard to form the various scales:

Haven't used it but it seems intriguing. What do people think?

September 18, 2015 at 10:55 AM · Check out 'Connecting Chords with Linear Harmony' by Bert Ligon. It contains all the answers you're looking for.


September 18, 2015 at 11:43 AM · @Henry - you make a very reasonable point about the value of working these things out for yourself. My only caveat would be that the book seems to offer some interesting ways of visualising the relationships between scales that I haven't seen before. Perhaps the best approach would be to learn the visualisation methods in the book, and then re-create them yourself step-by-step as you use them?

@David - thanks for reminding us of the Ligon book. It was on my list, but reading the Amazon reviews perhaps it should go to the very top. Having failed to make much progress (on another melodic instrument) with the Berklee approach to the chord/scale system, I didn't have great expectations that scale practice would help much musically - I was looking at it more from the point of ear training and developing some technical facility to get things under the fingers. The Ligon approach looks much more fruitful from the musical point of view. In your experience, what is the role of scales if you're working from the Ligon perspective?

September 18, 2015 at 12:37 PM · Henry writes, "Dont' think I ever heard/saw Grapelli play a dim scale, only a few dim arps and some short chromatic runs. Many times he doesn't play the chord notes of the accompanying rhythm, but that's a jazz device anyway."

I'm sorry to offend all the Grappelli fans out there, but I don't think his playing meets a very high standard for jazz improvisation compared to sax, trumpet, and piano players who were his contemporaries (to say nothing of those who have come afterward). That could be another whole thread though. Grappelli's good, and he's fun to listen to, but he's not in the same category as Bill Evans or John Coltrane in terms of his originality or influence (less influence possibly because as a violinist he just did not have as many followers).

My advice is: Forget trying to find the right pre-packaged pedagogical approach. Listen a lot, and PLAY your violin.

September 19, 2015 at 04:26 AM · Paul Deck writes: "My advice is: Forget trying to find the right pre-packaged pedagogical approach. Listen a lot, and PLAY your violin."

Part of me likes that, especially the part that is quite skilled on other instruments, including jazz piano and jazz organ. Sooner or later, you must become your own teacher.

But what are the implied understandings about any of us as teachers, if our "pre-packaged pedagogical approaches" are to be blown aside quite so immediately?

Ah well, I'll have to ponder that in silence.

In the meantime, I have gone to work extracting major pentatonic scales from major scales fingered in Starr's "Scales Plus" book, and started bowing and listening.

By the way, someone here suggested that major pentatonic scales were of little use for improvising over standards. That needs a little more thought, I suspect. By using this scale on tones 1, 2 and 5 of a tonic major seventh/sixth chord, for example, only the avoid note "4" is ... avoided. Must be good, that, don't you think? (So, if you have Cmaj7 as chord Imaj7, you can use notes from any or all of C maj pent, D maj pent, and G maj pent.)

As I said at the very outset, getting the right notes is just a small part of this melodic invention we call improvising. This minimalist approach, using major pentatonic scales, is a first step in having an organised approach to tones related to chords. But Mike Laird threw me into the deep end, once I stray forward from this pentatonic approach.

September 19, 2015 at 06:43 AM · Hi Geoff

As a fluent improviser (on guitar), I have to remark that improvisation comes from having a very large vocabulary of musical phrases (licks) and melodies. Where scales, arpeggios and appoggiaturas come into play is having the knowledge assimilated in your playing as to be able to tweak, twist and combine all those licks on the fly in limitless ways so that they always sound fresh and you can call yourself an improviser. Don't ever be fooled into thinking one has time to think during improvisation.

Chord/scale theory is a terrible way to learn how to improvise, it leads to loads of noodling and little melodic value. It's good for modal music and proficient improvisers.

Chord tone improvising is the traditional way to learn how to improvise. This allows you to improvise melodically and outline the harmony. In other words play something meaningful. One can then learn how to embellish the important notes with other scale tones and tensions.

Ligon puts theory into practice by exposing the underlying outlines that loads and loads of licks are based on and he teaches you how to embellish and build on those outlines.

Also read a book called 'Forward Motion' by Hal Galper. It is indispensable to the student improviser.

September 19, 2015 at 08:00 AM · Hi David

I certainly agree with you about chord/scale theory - I realised early on that it was a barren approach and abandoned it.

I very much like the materials you've suggested - they both look fascinating.

Forward Motion was another book on my list that I will now prioritise. He gives an excellent summary of his ideas here:

It seems that this work goes well beyond Jazz and is something of a "Unified Field Theory" of music. It even promises insights into Bach!

To be honest, my real aim in doing a bit of work on Jazz is to deepen my insight into music. I've sung and played all my life without really understanding how it all works, except on the most basic, intuitive level. I've done a bit of classical theory, but suspect that Jazz will teach me much more in practical terms.

I don't expect I'll ever be a mature improviser, but I do hope to learn a lot in the attempt!

Thanks for your suggestions - I'm pretty sure that the approach you're recommending is the way to go.

September 19, 2015 at 01:00 PM · Hello David. Your statement, "Chord tone improvising is the traditional way to learn how to improvise. This allows you to improvise melodically and outline the harmony" leaves me a bit befuddled.

George Russell published his Lydian Chromatic Concept first in about 1952, and it was commercially available a few years after that. I could mention even earlier chord/scale approaches, used by jazz improv teachers. When does "tradition" date from?

Goodness knows when Blues scales started their trip down the improvisation highway! Chord/scale.

Please, I am not serious. I don't care. I don't like chord/scale because I have been an ordinary improviser when I have been lucky, and less than ordinary most of the time. In the main, I have tried the chord/scale approach.

Some of the most renowned improv teachers follow this path: Jerry Coker is remarkable for his success in this chord/scale approach, for example.

One reason I have chattered on a bit about using pentatonic scales is that they focus your playing on chord tones. They are really just arpeggios on steroids.

I worked on the Ligon book for some months. It was fun to learn his basic patterns, the master licks, if you like. And it was fascinating to see his analyses of so many phrases used by other top improvisers.

But it didn't help my improvising. (Maybe nothing will, I hear you say!) Who does use this Ligon approach, outside of a few jazz schools? I've never read any interviews where strong improvising musicians have paid tribute to Bert Ligon (not bagging him: he clearly knows his stuff, for I have several of his books and he puts his ideas forward well).

And I am going straight out to my music studio to collect my copy of Galper (Forward Motion), just to look into it again. Is there a particular section I should be looking at? It just looked pretty "wordy" and vanilla when I last read it.

Thanks for any help you might offer with these questions.

September 20, 2015 at 01:44 AM · It's one thing to ignore chords and scales entirely. It's another to get bogged down in a pedagogical approach that requires one to memorize laundry lists of modal scales that are matched to specific chords.

Graeme wrote, "'Chord tone improvising is the traditional way to learn how to improvise. This allows you to improvise melodically and outline the harmony' leaves me a bit befuddled."

Outlining the harmony means, for example, looking for ii-V7-I progressions in which, for first-order practical purposes, you remain in the same key throughout and can apply the same scale concepts. I recall when I had jazz lessons way back in high school, on the piano, my teacher had me go through a whole bunch of standards and indicate what key the tune was in throughout. I remember distinctly that the first tune I had to analyze was "All The Things You Are." One you have the keys down, then you can start to think about how to modify that "key sense" if the ii7 chords are ii7b5, and the V7 chords are V6b9, etc. All of that is pretty straightforward but the technical difficult of the violin adds another layer of challenge that does not exist on the piano, for example.

Lately I've been thinking that the best teacher for a beginning jazz violinist is probably a good jazz trumpet player.

I wasn't aware of that book by Hal Galper, probably I'll look that up.

September 20, 2015 at 10:10 AM · I think we're all going around in circles a bit, here.

I don't think anyone "dislikes" chords, or scales, or chord/scales ... and, it doesn't matter which approach is "traditional" in teaching and learning improvisation. Both approaches go back "some years".

My point is that I have spent a lot of energy learning scales to apply to improvising, and found that this work was all consuming and,for me, of limited practical use. There is a lot more than learning scales to the work of learning to improvise.

Consequently, I seek advice on the best scales to use in a minimalist approach, which positions to focus on in learning suggested scales, and I am curious about major pentatonic scales because they simply extend seventh chord arpeggios.

It is a straightforward matter to apply major pentatonic scales to iim7-V7 progressions, for example. But very few jazz theory books seem to say this, I think. Is this approach a dead end, and with a bit more experience I will learn this?

September 20, 2015 at 04:43 PM · Here is a minimalist approach. For most ii7-V7-I situations a major scale in the key of the I chord is okay -- not very interesting but at least consonant. for ii7b5-V7b9 situations I recommend you find the diminished scales that pick up the 7 and the b9 of the V7b9 chord. For tunes in minor keys including modal type tunes, the same concept applies except that you need the minor scale of the i chord and you'll have to decide, on the fly, whether to use a natural or sharp 6th. Pentatonics are useful in minor keys and modal tunes, their application there should be intuitive. For maj7 chords choose the pentatonic that picks up the third and seventh, for example if you see Dmaj7 then you can play the A pentatonic scale which is A-B-C#-E-F#.

And as I said in a previous post, I don't think any beginning or intermediate jazz violinist needs to go much beyond third position. Maybe one or two notes more on the E string will be useful, as may octave harmonics if you want to emulate Grappelli.

September 21, 2015 at 12:53 AM · Excellent.

Clear and unencumbered with philosophy and other "noise".

Thanks, people.

September 21, 2015 at 09:26 AM · Hi Graeme

The Jazz tradition started much earlier than 1952 with cats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Charlie Christian etc in the early 1900's followed by the Bebop era pioneered by Charlie Parker in the late 1930's. Jazz pretty much reached it's peak in popularity around the 50's and 60's and have declined ever since. Miles Davis and Bill Evans were among the pioneers of modal jazz after the publication of the Lydian Chromatic Concept came to be and released the milestone modal jazz album 'Kind of Blue'.

The Jazz tradition is one of continuous innovation and thus modal jazz was soon followed by Free Jazz, Soul Jazz, Funk, and Post-Bop, Acid Jazz (to name but a few) just like Modal Jazz was preceded by Dixieland, Swing, Bebop, Cool Jazz, etc.

Anyway... The point being that Modal Jazz and use of chord/scale theory made up a fairly small part of jazz history. The vast majority of professionals and big names in Jazz learned from chord tone improvising and only some of them ever got into chord/scale AFTER already being great improvisers. Gary Burton is probably the most well known chord/scale improvisers out there.

Forward Motion is not a wordy book at all. Just go through all of it. I read through it in a day. I've never stopped meditating on it though. It's not an exercise book and he explains how to apply the concepts in various ways.

As for Ligon, none of the big jazz cats ever learnt from Ligon's books exclusively (if it all). But his books are endorsed by pro's as being true to the PROCESS they went through in learning to improvise. Some of them may even have learnt something from his books. There's the old saying if you wanna sell a book, just write a jazz theory book on improvising. Learning to improvise is a never ending learning curve of assimilating new material so Ligon's books may be a good resource but can never be comprehensive enough to be THE resource.

Look, quite frankly most of them learnt to improvise by transcribing hundreds of standards (tunes) by ear and learning to embellish the melodies as if they were licks and use them in other tunes. All standards can fit into one or a combination of just 12 forms. ii-V-I's are aplenty. Bebop heads are the source of great many licks. Transcribing licks and melodies by ear is still the way Jazz is learnt. It's genuinely music that teaches itself by playing it. Thought it has become much more academic since the early days.

Ligon's book teaches you this process and can substitute for vocabulary (licks) and shows you how to apply those licks to the tunes in their simplest form and get them assimilated in your playing quicker. It teaches you the all "tricks" used in the jazz language. Between Ligon's book and learning standard tunes you can't go wrong in my opinion, but you need to know theory (your scales, arpeggios and concepts of harmony) if you're not going to go the 'learn by ear' route.


September 21, 2015 at 09:59 AM · Chord/scale as a means to learn how to improvise is actually quite highly criticized in the jazz community. As well as the fact that they are not entirely compatible (F on C Major but I never cared to get into all that).

Your time invested in chord/scales was well worth all the time though and you'll get lots of practical use out of it during improvising.

However, chord/scale is not going to get you trough 'Cherokee' or 'Donna Lee' at 340BPM. Try it yourself...

"You need sparse chords for modal improvising" - Marc Levine in The Jazz Theory Book. I love that book, it was my first introduction to jazz music theory. It takes a chord/scale approach.

I would recommend that you try to play various arpeggios in their inversions over standard chord progressions/tunes and try to connect one arpeggio to the next using the nearest chord tone as the chord changes. That will help you connect chords and visualise the chord tones. Then you can embellish those arpeggios with scale tones and then tensions once you can do that.

At the end of the day you may want to look into learning licks and tunes as well. You'll get the most mileage out of them, I promise. Jazz is a language and you need to know the vocabulary so that you can apply all the other stuff to the vocab.

September 21, 2015 at 02:22 PM · The longer you learn to improvise the more you realise how simple learning to improvise really is. It's not some form of the dark arts and there are no shortcuts. You need to learn the language of Jazz. It's an language ideal for improvising because it gives you lots of options. You learn the language through learning the tunes (standards)! That will give you the all vocabulary you need and teach you all the turnarounds. Then you'll be well off to transcribe licks by ear (or Ligon's book) in context of the harmony and that will teach you all the clever little "tricks" and substitutions you won't ever think of by yourself. In other words applying your scale/arpeggio/appoggiaturas/chord knowledge to embellish or change up the licks during a course of improvisation. That's it. That's all there is to it. End of story.

Truthfully, you won't even need to transcribe licks or know any scales if you know enough tunes (Keith Jarrett said he learnt 2000 standards off by heart). It's all already in there somewhere. Failing that, you don't need to know scales if you transcribe enough licks, it's all already in there in a practical, musical context. Ligon's book also contains most of the strong lines. Many of the old jazz cats didn't even know any music theory. They didn't know any scales. They were from Harlem. They learnt by imitation.

But to speed things up just learn all three (tunes, licks, scales). But that's the order of priority because you won't be able to do much (musically) with your scales if you don't have vocabulary. Not all notes in a scale are equal. The root and fifth are the strongest, the third is the most emotional, the seventh makes it dominant or not, etc. So if you want to tell a story with your improv you need to create movement by outlining the harmony (chord progression) by virtue of playing and resolving the strong tones (chord tones) on the strong beats of the changing harmony. Voice leading. Then you can balance it all by playing weaker tones in between to create tension. All this is already inherent in the vocabulary (melodies and licks) in a musical context and offers you a basic structure or form that you can build on.

September 21, 2015 at 02:34 PM · Graeme,

Thank you for the factual summary of my jazz violin exercise book. It is intended for many purposes, so yes, it covers a lot of material.

Since your question is - with many paths to take, how should I start - here are my suggestions about a few key things.

The most critical skill for starting is to be able to select a note from the 7th chord on the next bar up in the music and play it in rhythm. Once a beginner can do that, they can find a place to start, some passing notes (not in the chord) and a place to end in that bar, and repeat the process in the next bar - and so on. This doesn't make you a Louis Armstrong, but you begin to sound like something that expresses your own ideas in a tune.

So to get that started, practice 7th arpeggios over 2 octaves in all keys in 1st, and maybe 2nd, position - then inversions, then make up your sequence, then altering rhythms, then faster, then do it through tunes with changing chords. Blues have only 3 chords, so play in that genre' to start. The book has blues exercises.

Get to automatic. It takes lots of practice, but it is a path that will liberate you to do many things. All the other notes are just half and whole steps away from the 7th arpeggios, and any note in the arpeggio sounds OK in that measure. You can come back to it if you get "out of bounds", but its got to be automatic. (IMO, jazz scales are for intermediate and advanced practice because they don't ground you in the chord, but this may be controversial.)

The above gets you to "acceptable sound", but rhythm is the most important thing in jazz. Listen to rhythms in your favorite styles, and replicate them. Practice the same rhythm through a song's chord changes. IMO, rhythm is under estimated and under taught in jazz violin. That's why I made it an equal partner with "the notes" in my exercise book.

You perform the way you practice, so practice elements/components that you would perform.

Have fun wherever it takes you.

September 21, 2015 at 04:13 PM · I was interested in the comment about Keith Jarrett learning 2000 standards by heart. I wonder if Jarrett was ever a solo clubber. Ask piano players who have 20 years of club / piano bar / cocktail jazz experience (and they're out there), and you'll find that 2000 is on the low side. I'll bet Marian McPartland knew 5000 tunes during the days when she played clubs. My teacher back in high school was a piano-bar pianist at an Ann Arbor restaurant, four hours a day, six days a week, for around 20 years, and I guarantee you he knew more than 2000 tunes, including pop numbers (he could play anything by Elton John for example). Even more impressive, he could start any 32-bar type jazz standard at the bridge.

One thing learning lots and lots of tunes does is that it fills your head with ideas because many improv challenges -- how you get from A to B melodically or harmonically -- were solved by the composers long ago. Being able to play in multiple keys is a nice thing too because then you can quote other tunes more freely. The so-called "quotemaster" was Dexter Gordon. This is the main reason why young people who get interested in jazz need to keep studying classical because you get ideas from it in addition to what it does for your chops.

Notice how easy it was to fix the stupid italics that someone started? Just put in the slash-i code.

What Mike said about rhythm is true. If you play with a drummer, LISTEN to your drummer. The drummer is not a metronome but a source of ideas. (Time comes from the bass player anyway.) Very often rhythm hides within the accents and emphases that we put on a series of eighth notes.

September 21, 2015 at 11:15 PM · Hello people,

I am delighted with the quality of the information that is accumulating in this thread.

In some forum contexts it is too easy for a few noisy people to drift off into their own "adjacent arguments", but here we have some valuable insights distilled into clear view.

First and second positions, seventh chords and their inversions over two octaves, play (in rhythms) toward a note of the next seventh chord, play over blues progressions, then easy sets of changes, etc.

Heck, in six months I'll be dangerous.

September 22, 2015 at 07:21 AM · Well hope I haven't gone off on a tangent here, it was partly in response to Graeme and partly in response to Geoff. I'm just saying what it took me a long time to figure out and wasted a lot of time on 101 "jazz methods".

Granted, there is certainly not just one way to learn how to improvise effectively. However, I'll leave you to consider two immutable truths in whatever approach you take to learning how to improvise. You can then ask yourself how well your approach solves these two problems:

1) There is no way you can think during improvisation. Thinking is the kiss of death. There's no time whatsoever, not even in a ballad.

2) Nobody has ever been moved with long lines of mathematical sequences and series of politically correct notes. This is all too prevalent these days. You will certainly put your audience asleep or chase them away.

You may have heard some of the top improvisers say "I play what I hear in my head". This holds true and is key to improvisational freedom. They are able to do this because they know exactly what each and every fragment of some licks they are stringing together sounds like on its own and therefore what it will sound like all together. They may not hear every embellishment prior to playing the line but they hear at least the basic framework of the line. For the overwhelming most part they've certainly played what they've heard before! Though perhaps in a different order or combination and perhaps with different embellishments, rhythm, etc. But be sure even every little approach tone from a semitone below was practiced slowly before. This process is very similar to how we may improvise a speech. We've used all the words before in context and we know what they sound like and what they mean. Prior to saying your line you have at least a basic idea or structure of what you want to say. Therefore you can say something meaningful.

On a little side note...

This is how I would use Ligon... To start off you need to have those three basic outlines under your fingers in every key. Once you can navigate through ii-V-I's in every key at any tempo, learn how to modulate to every secondary dominant with those three outlines. Once you can do that, apply those three outlines to various standards and improvise through them using only those basic outlines and their variations. Only once you can do that at any tempo, then go through the rest of the book and see the various ways the pro's have embellished or altered those lines to spice them up. Build your vocab and apply your own ideas to them with your scale and arpeggio knowledge. Those three lines are genuinely the strongest lines used by horn players. All of the aforementioned are obviously already prescribed by Ligon in his book. People just wanna string 8th note lines together from the get go and soon give up...

September 23, 2015 at 08:04 PM · This is a fantastic thread, so many thoughtful responses, I just love that about

I think one of the reasons learning to play tunes off the radio or to play short sections of solos that you hear on albums is a very good exercise is because it prepares you to play what you hear in your head. And the first step toward doing that, on a very slow time scale, is transcribing solos. A young person hoping to learn jazz should be transcribing solos all the time. It's one thing for horns, but let me tell you, transcribing piano solos with the comping and two-fisted polyphonic stuff is unbelievably hard, yet there are people who can do it (I am not one of them). The piano teacher I had in high school transcribed an entire Oscar Peterson solo piece and then practiced it until he could play along with it, it was a jaw-dropping display of two entirely different skills.

And I think this also explains why some piano players like Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett hum along while they play, because the shortest connection between your brain and sound is your voice, so you should, in principle, always be able to *sing* what is in your head, and so singing along keeps you "on the rails" of playing what is in your head because it is appearing in your voice *first*, before it appears in your hands. This minimizes the tendency that we all have to wander off into canned licks or whatever feels good in the hands. I'm not sure I would agree that for a top-level improviser, that they're just stringing together snippets that they've heard before, but I have no idea how I would prove it. That's my criticism of Grappelli, that he allows himself to regress into canned licks and fills way too much. So when someone says they don't understand why Keith Jarrett is humming so loudly, to the point of annoyance, well, I *do* understand why: This is how he keeps his improvisation intellectually honest. This is how he keeps it real, and in my humble opinion the result is absolutely stunning melodic improvisation that I bet would challenge Mozart.

They say that Picasso filled huge notebooks full of photographic-type still-life and landscape drawings for the same reason. Thereby he proved to himself the ability to represent faithfully on canvas what was in his mind's eye.

I disagree about having time to think. You just get better at that with time. You want to play what you hear in your head, but where does that musical content come from? I guess it depends how you define "thinking." If "thinking" means verbalized analytical stuff like, "Okay I've got a 7th chord here and I need to be playing these three notes" then I agree, usually there is not time for that, especially on the up-tempo tunes.

September 24, 2015 at 03:44 PM · Paul,

Your comments are interesting - thanks for sharing.

I believe the mental/melodic part of improvising varies greatly with the performer's capability/experience. I've talked with several very talented professionals (not violinists) who basically all say they have 3 or 4 mental tracks going simultaneously while they improvise. One is the straight melody - they always 'hear' it and know where they are in the song. Second, is the rhythm for the next few upcoming bars - sort of like the humming that you discuss. Third, is the elusive idea of the long term 'shape' of their entire performance. And fourth is a searching track that listens for rhythm patterns coming from the rhythm section - that they then incorporate into the second track, above, the rhythm for the next few bars. Individual note choices, in this advanced world, are made at the last second/instant. Which is why getting to automatic is so important.

No one (that I know, anyway) starts with this ability. We start at a fundamental level of getting "acceptable notes", which is pretty hard as a starting point. After that, it seems that people develop the 4 other tracks in differing degrees and flavors. As you mention, some very successful performers have a library of canned rhythms that they use in the second track. Others work hard to avoid the flavor of canned segments, and instead develop abilities to invent melodic rhythms on demand. Its a diverse world of abilities, and that's partly why we have the richness of diverse music.

September 24, 2015 at 07:11 PM · Mike, the "four tracks" is something I have never heard of before, but what a wonderful description of the mental process! That's pretty much exactly how I play jazz on the piano, and I think that provides a very clear target to the novice.

But, what that also proves is that you *don't* have to be a truly great, masterful improviser to have the "four tracks" running in your head -- because I'm *not* a master (I'm okay) and I've got them going.

Note that I started out with the "blues scale" which I learned at maybe the age of 13, and after that came the Aebersold-type scale/chord method, and you're right, at that stage just being able to find notes and short patterns that were "in the key" was hard enough. I would guess the "four tracks" thing materialized over the next, say, 3-4 years. I was not very disciplined, and of course I was trying to study the violin at the same time. With diligent work and a good teacher someone with reasonable ears and chops can do it in much less time -- but it's surely going to depend on the individual.

September 25, 2015 at 07:28 AM · To clarify two things,

Yes, by thinking I mean "Okay I've got a 7th chord here and I need to be playing these three notes".

I agree top level improvisers don't simply string together snippets of licks but those snippets of licks and melodies form a basic outline which they can then embellish with scales, appoggiaturas, intervals, whatever. They've played it all before, like they've practiced an approach note from above or below any chord/scale tone, etc, etc.

I disagree that one can improvise something meaningful that is not in your vocabulary. Whether it be music or human speech. I can improvise a trillion and one different fresh sounding things in my rather limited English vocabulary. Jazz is a language.

I can prove this as well, go ask a jazz improviser (the best in the world) to improvise a bluegrass solo. I can hear bluegrass in my head but getting it out on my instrument... Not so much.

September 25, 2015 at 07:29 AM · Frank Vignola and Bucky Pizzarelli:

September 25, 2015 at 05:14 PM · I have to confess that I have heard such little of bluegrass music, despite where I live, that I don't really even have that in my head. But the point about trying to play a bluegrass solo is a good one. We definitely rely a lot on vocabulary.

September 25, 2015 at 05:32 PM · Vocabulary is something good that someone else played long ago and many others have picked it up. A few performers go beyond vocabulary, e.g., Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chick Corea. In music theory terms, vocabulary is a rhythm pattern with either: 1. specific notes, e.g., quoting 2 bars of Charlie Parker, or 2. intervals assigned to some of the rhythm, or 3. choose your own notes for the rhythm, e.g., an eighth rest, an eighth note, triplets, a quarter note.

September 26, 2015 at 01:04 AM · I think thats a great idea Henry ... probably good to start with simpler melodies then ... not Bird charts.

September 28, 2015 at 12:11 AM · Thanks for this little gem, Henry: "I think I discovered a good mental exercise, because I never read it anywhere. Without the instrument, in my mind I practice hearing the straight melody and hearing my improvisation at the same time. I think this is quicker than remembering umpteen chord progressions."

People do think when they play, improvising or sight reading, and can do quite analytical things while producing excellent music.

But, back to Henry's point (and something similar Mike Laird wrote a few posts back). Cultivate the skill to "hear" the melody, regardless what you are playing.

Now, I am able to do this in some genres, Dixieland, for example. And my success at this fades in and out on many standards, hence my variable success in improvising, I suspect.

And, when I can "hear" the melody, I rarely need an awareness of scales or chords. The notes, the motifs, the structured solos, are "just there".

Mind you, a few blatant poor notes are enough to shatter my confidence, and the solo goes downhill quickly after that.

One thing that follows from "hearing" the melody while you play, I speculate, is that we have a strong link to suitable rhythmic motifs, figures that allow us to bounce off the melody, to stay in the "flow" of the tune. We contribute different melodic energy, but complementary melodic energy. And the solo works.

To finish this idea off, (for now, of course): it might be a good idea to have a friend quietly play the melody, while you improvise against it, (or use a digital recorder, play melody, and overlay your own solos). Taste the experience, just to see if it suits you.

Then do some serious work, learning to concentrate on the "right things", the things that will help each of us, individually, the most.

December 28, 2015 at 03:08 PM · I have just noticed this thread.

Here is a link to a few pages I wrote on Scales for my website:-

A couple of people here have already seen it, but I think it praeces quite well how I approach scales.

December 30, 2015 at 02:22 PM · I have begun work on the Daniel Otten book, "Get more out of your violin playing", 1998, Broekmans & van Poppel B.V. Amsterdam.

Much of the book is organised around the cycle of 5ths.

The first exercise is for first position, one octave scales for minor and major ii-V-I progressions. The actual scales are the tonic major, a mode of the relative harmonic minor scale (for III7b911b13), the related melodic minor ascending form, the dorian/mixolydian mode resolving into the next tonic major around the cycle. Later, the second octave for each scale is drilled, then two octave scales, and onward.

Anyone with any jazz harmony and chord/scale knowledge will know these scales, and Otten ensures we become skilled at playing them.

After just one exercise of less than two pages (when the scales are successfully under the fingers), the player is ready to make good use of Aebersold's II-V book, in all major and minor keys.

Just what the doctor ordered, really.

December 31, 2015 at 11:18 AM · I don't think I even belong in this thread, but I did read every single post. What has it taught me? I'm just going to stick to plugging away at making my blues more interesting, and playing along with whatever the local acoustic guitar players can throw at me for Folk, Pop, Country, and whenever they do something bluesy, I can jump on it.

The kind of playing y'all are talking about is beyond my reach at this point methinks.

But I do wonder about what kinds of venues and with what musicians that some/all of you play Jazz with? Is every one in jazz bands... lance. I would be very interested to know what your 'outlet' is.

January 1, 2016 at 01:34 AM · @Graeme: anyways, I tried the Dmaj & Gmaj pents over a Cmaj7. I thought the Dmaj pent sounded very oriental, more so than the Gmaj pent.

Conversly, a previous internet tip said When in C lydian go a half step down from C to B and play a Bmin pent (which is, of course, same as a D maj pent) when I did this over a Lydian background with Lydian riffs,the Bmin/Dmaj pent didn't sound oriental, but rather open, spacey and outside.

.... small potatoes, maybe, compared to everything else going on in this thread, but just wanted to report.

January 1, 2016 at 01:44 AM · @Henry Butcher: Please tell me exactly what you meant by..."Learn how to super-impose those scales. Third position will suffice across the strings.

Does super-impose mean that if the scales are played in different positions, they fall to hand differently and therefore take on a different flavor, if that's the word?

I've heard you use the word 'super-impose' before. I may already be doing it, but if not, I don't want to 'miss out'. Thanks.

January 1, 2016 at 02:56 PM · Hi Dave. First, as you add the f# in the D maj pent over a Cmaj7 chord, you do venture "outside" many standard chord progressions, and that can make the sound a bit "unusual". (I can do this, but seldom go down this "Lydian" route.)

Three tricks for using major pentatonics: 1) bounce them off a seventh chord tone (this immediately gives you a mode of the pentatonic you are using, and this breaks down the "oriental" sound some people are so sensitive to; 2) using one or two diatonic and chromatic passing notes and place anacrusis notes before the seventh chord tone (this really undoes the pentatonic sound while leaving you in control of the scale; and, 3) use your swing feel and motif building skills to put your melody over the chords.

In many ways the approach to using pentatonics is the same as when using blues scales: step one, avoid running up and down the scale.

January 1, 2016 at 03:21 PM · I'm a reasonably decent improvising jazz pianist, and I really don't think about modal scales. Terms like "myxolydian" are not really even in my vocabulary and never were. I know what the Dorian scale is just because it comes up the most often in these kinds of discussions.

These "modes" are just major scales that start on a different note. The Dorian scale is a major scale that starts and ends on the 2nd note of the scale. If you are playing a ii7-V7-I progression in the key of Bb, then on the ii7 chord it makes sense to use notes within the Bb major scale because, harmonically, that's the key that you're in. Trying to think about playing the C Dorian scale there is just going to cause unnecessary confusion as well as fragmentation of your improvised line.

As for whether the F# (augmented fourth or sharp eleventh) should be played when you are improvising in the key of C, that really depends on the harmonic context. The normal fourth often does not sound all that great either. This is where listening and experience are going to be your only reliable guides. And the only way to hone your ear and gain that experience is to play and don't worry so much about being safe. If you are jamming with a keyboard or guitar player, listen for whether the F# is in the chord that they're playing at that point.

Energy is better spent learning how to recognize the typical cadences (such as the ii-V-I) and their variants by looking at lead sheets and, ultimately, by ear.

January 1, 2016 at 10:39 PM · Graeme,thanks for the additional tips, I'll go over it.

Paul: I've been working on modes, and what one can do them for quite a few years now. To me, each mode has a very unique and distinct sound or 'feeling', but they have to be played against the correct chord progressions. I've found that I can improvise all most instantly to blues, folk, country, Pop, Rock by determining what the mode is. Unfortunately, these genres fall mostly into Ionian, Mixo, dorian & Ionian. I am in the process of teaching some guitar players chord progressions for Lydian & Phrygian, or just play those modes to my sequencer for the sheer pleasure of it.

I've discovered quite a few tricks to go over any mode: eg: Maj7 & min7b5 (locrian) arps. Patterns for 3rds & 4ths, among other things. as I said, these can be played over any mode, and they take on the flavor of the mode they're played over. If blues in Dom7 all of the above can be used in Mixo. if Aeolian, same thing.

Yes, modes are just Major scales in different places, but I think that's huge 'just'

.... not so much for jazz, but for the a fore mentioned genres. I would get a lot more playing/jamming time in with these than I would for jazz.

...which brings me back to my question a few posts back. I'm very curious to know what kind of outlet y'all have for jazz??

January 1, 2016 at 11:23 PM · As far as outlet, that's as much as generally we want to have. There are plenty of groups that will accept a violin for basement jam sessions. Getting invited back is the key -- that generally depends on having approximately the same skill level as the others present.

As far as gigs, that's a lot harder, at least in my area. I'm in a new group (guitar, violin, percussion) with an all-Brazilian book (bossas, etc.) and we have a gig later in the month for a private party. The guitarist and percussionist are full-on professionals so I'm shedding the book pretty hard. Fortunately bossas are easier to improvise on than swing tunes, at least for me, at this point.

January 2, 2016 at 01:18 AM · Thanks for the information about the book.I'm going to try to get it. Thanks, again.

January 2, 2016 at 04:28 AM · Paul, I also like latin, and I agree that it's easier than swing. no bass? what does the guitar player do, finger picking, finger strumming, lead? is the guitarist more the rhythm instrument and you are expected to do lead. What do you do when the guitarist is playing melody? A Classical guitar? How 'bout the percussion...full drum kit, or congas & stuff?

This line up sounds very interesting, would like to know more. Thanks.

January 2, 2016 at 06:11 AM · Dave the guitarist is quite versatile and I have worked with him before countless times. The percussionist basically plays congas in this group.

January 2, 2016 at 12:54 PM · Paul, your comment about piano improvising using major scales, not thinking "modes" interests me considerably, since my most successful jazz improvisation is on piano also.

If you don't lean heavily on chord tones, and just blow with major scales, you can dissolve into a thick cloud of vanilla, I have been known to say to some of my students. The pianist usually comps a rootless chord that he or she thinks keeps the harmony "going", but it often doesn't float my boat.

However, you are right: you can use major scales for just about all chords (except diminished 7ths functioning as passing chords, in my view), especially if you allow lowering the third for the tonic minor into the discussion. But, I still say, feature some of the tones of the current 7th chord.

The Otten book appeals to me because it is a violin specific workout as well as a valuable jazz workout, all in one.

January 3, 2016 at 03:02 AM · I didnt mean to suggest that parking on the major scale in the tonic key of a ii V I progression would be great jazz. My point is that if this is where someone is in the learning process, drawing the distiction between c dorian and Bb major is the ultimate in academic futility.

January 3, 2016 at 11:31 AM · @Graeme: I got to thinking about your comment about Henry Butcher's comment about improv by thinking about improvising on the melody, and your comment about it being a 'gem'. I think that is true to an extent, but what if there is no melody. A lot of jazz pieces have a theme that is played at the beginning & end, maybe in the middle. Take Ponty for instance. Not only is he a virtuoso player, but a brilliant composer imo. He sometimes has more than one theme in a single piece, but in between, the violin, guitar and keyboards are not improvising on the theme or the 'melody' but just on the chord progression(s), the rhythm, the music as a whole. There is no real 'melody' except maybe the mood that the theme sets. In this case the improv pretty much has to be based mainly on the chord progression. I'm a big Fan on this kind of 'fusion' stuff. Often the chords progressions are not that complicated, but it leaves the player free to 'fly' within the confines of the progression.

Rambling on....just some thoughts

January 3, 2016 at 12:58 PM · Hi Dave. You asked where people play jazz. Mostly in beer gardens, or festivals, and for very little return. One of the reasons for this emergence of jazz as "underground music" is the continuing failure to hook and hold audiences.

You might be a big fan of the "fusion" music you refer to, but most of the people who go to see bands, to hear music, and who buy music, don't seem to agree with you. I think.

Of course, I don't really know, but once upon a time jazz was the "popular music", but then along came "jazz - the musicians music".

Play what you enjoy, and more power to you. I like a little choon, somewhere in the mix.

January 3, 2016 at 01:15 PM · Paul, I have seen the lights go on for hundreds of capable young musicians who "suddenly" learn to Dorian - Mixolydian - Major Scale (no, I don't use "Ionian", technically correct it might be) their way over iim7-V7-Imaj7. The how and the why.

Nothing abstract or "academic" about it. Quite the opposite: its concrete stuff -- good note choices suddenly revealed and ready.

Of course, you have a different set of experiences, and I respect that.

January 3, 2016 at 03:15 PM · Graeme, I think the phrase "whatever works for you" applies very well here. My objection comes from having been in learning environments where the emphasis was on learning the names of modes and memorizing when to use them rather than understanding why.

"If it says #11 then you play the Lydian scale".

"Which one's that again?"

"It's the one with the sharp 11th (4th)."

One scale that is very useful is the diminished scale. Especially in ii7b5-V7b9-I situations. I don't recall if these scales are in Mike's book. Pentatonics are also useful but are often wrongly stigmatized as beginner-level stuff.

I've noticed a key -- I would say fundamental -- difference between piano improv and violin improv. Intonation. I realize that sounds like "master of the obvious," but let's say you're in an improve situation where you want to go a little "outside" (explore some dissonance that later gets resolved). You can NOT have the listener wondering whether you're playing those notes intentionally or whether you're playing out of tune. So the demand for high accuracy in intonation is particularly keen in improv, and that's quite difficult because you can't plan all of your fingerings and hand positions in advance. I think this is where practicing a variety of patterns becomes useful, especially patterns that will require 1-1, 2-2, etc. type fingerings. Partly because you might use those patterns, but also because you learn to adapt your hand positions more quickly. Practicing jazz patterns, diminished and whole-tone scales, and the like, ought to help the classical violinist too.

January 3, 2016 at 10:46 PM · Hi Paul. Intonation issues are huge in violin improvising. For me.

I am sure some people have the experience and skill to keep their tuning in place, but I can't stray long from first or third position without making my way into a dark, unworldly porridge of temperaments.

This is one reason why I like the Otten book so much: I am choosing to limit my scale work while building control over what I can play and what I sound like. I hope.

January 4, 2016 at 02:15 PM · Graeme do you ever practice with iReal Pro? It's a jazz comping app.

January 4, 2016 at 08:44 PM · Paul: "if it says #11 then you play the Lydian scale" ... I think I see more where you're coming from now. I believe you would be talking about jazz with several and quick chord changes, and if so "which one is that again" and where is it, would apply.

I guess I'm going back to that fusion stuff, where the whole piece would be in Lydian eg: Joe Satriani - Flying in a Blue Dream (although I think that piece is a bit over shredded)

I think someone said that Miles Davies started into modal jazz for a different direction than be-bop? Maybe this would be more my kinda jazz.

re: Going outside. That's why I like my modal Maj7 & min7b5 arps (among a few other tricks) as long as you learn the arps with good intonation then they are just patterns to work with.

and yes, I keep up with my diminished & whole tone scales, often enough so it's not too difficult to 're-learn' them.

January 4, 2016 at 08:58 PM · Yes, Paul, I have iReal Pro, and have used it quite often. I know it to be a most useful tool, particularly with all the genre-specific backing tracks you can download, and the control of temp and keys that the program provides.

My loss is that I have too many resources, and my focus on fiddle now distracts me from using many of these excellent tools. But, I shall return.

On piano I play walking bass lines to accompany my jazz soloing and comping.

On another tack: I don't make much use of whole tone scales, (relying on arpeggios for aug triads, and jazz minor scales for alt dominants) or the two diminished scales. I know these are two scales popular and much-written about for at least sixty years in improvisation texts. They are like many other scales, in my view: not essential, and they can clutter up practice time when melodic invention deserves greater priority. Heretical view, this, but there you are.

January 4, 2016 at 09:41 PM · Have you read George Russell's "Lydian Chromatic Concept"?

I found it very helpful, especially his concept of Tonal Gravity

January 5, 2016 at 02:58 AM · Graeme I agree with you about practice priorities. Just sayin' that if one is going to practice scales or work on some exercises with the idea of sharpening intonation and general facility, might as well work on scales and patterns that could have some direct application as well.

And Dave, I know exactly what you mean. There are tunes and genres where there is often relatively little harmonic movement and anchoring in a mode is not only convenient but musically more centered.

It's interesting you brought up Miles Davis's modal stuff ("So What" etc.). Forevermore those concepts are applicable any tune or passage that has a minor tonic ("Angel Eyes" or "Song for My Father" or "Chameleon"). It's a lot of fun to shed around that.

January 5, 2016 at 05:25 AM · Paul: Thanks for confirmation about those couple of things. Helps with my neurotic tendencies.

Graeme: if you don't mind, could you please give me more of an idea about the jazz minor scales for altered dominants.

gc: I was talking to a guy who works at a large music store in town. He is a good bass player and can play upright bass. He recently got the Lydian Chromatic Concept. He was quite enthused about it.

January 5, 2016 at 12:12 PM · Hi Dave, have a look at using the jazz minor scale (melodic minor ascending form) with the root starting on the b9 of the altered dominant chord. It gives you exactly the notes you need. Two other names are given for this scale, but why bother with them?

Even the major scale starting on this b9 of the altered dominant scale works.

George Russel was teaching his Lydian Chromatic concept as early as 1952, and his first version of Lydian Chromatic Concept book was published about 1957. For a more modern approach to the same idea see "Around the Horn" by Walt Weiskopf (2000) published by Aebersold. But it is still too much technical work for the time most people have available for practice. I think.

Even if musicians want to be "funny"with key centres, do their audiences?

January 5, 2016 at 02:08 PM · There are lots of kinds of audiences. Some appreciate the nuance of a well-constructed, idea-rich, harmonically exploratory solo; others just want fast licks, cheap thrills, and wailing horns. Same with classical violin. Some want to hear a whole sonata played exquisitely well, others want Sarasate. A good classical violin recital includes a show piece or two (not more according to my own preference), and likewise a good jazz set often closes with a wailer. And of course you can get away with more exploration on a recording because if the listener doesn't like it, (s)he can just skip to the next track. Watch your audience. If they're enjoying themselves and ordering more drinks, then keep doing what you're doing.

And remember the immortal words of Charles Mingus: "Most customers, by the time the musicians reach the second set, are to some extent inebriated. They don’t care what you play anyway."

January 5, 2016 at 08:42 PM · Paul, Hi, and, sorry, I won't give Charles Mingus's thoughts here any time at all. Not much respect in that analysis of audiences, I think.

The overwhelming majority of jazz performers cannot land a paying gig.

I know, the overwhelming majority of classical pianists cannot land a paying gig either, but for completely different reasons, I suspect.

And violinists, no matter what genres of music they play? How many land paying gigs?

If you read my very first post in this thread you will understand that I have retreated to very conservative musical genres (because I like that music). I play my instruments because I enjoy engaging with the challenges they bring to me, and I play the music that gives me the greatest satisfaction.

Which brings me back to, "Which scales to learn for jazz improvisation?"

With just a few scales I can reach for my goals, and I claim there is no audience for much of the music that is created with the exotica some jazz musicians drill themselves to master. That is not a reason for these people to stop, or change. But it is a discussion topic that every teacher and student would be best off having early rather than late in their shared endeavours.

January 5, 2016 at 11:36 PM · My personal feeling is that the most important scales for jazz improv are major scales, pentatonic scales, diminished scales, and chromatic scales, and probably in that order. I didn't include minor scales because if you can play major scales you can play minor scales too.

I don't think much of that Mingus quote either. That's the problem with being famous: You say something silly once and people remember it forever. But a lot of his quotes are kind of questionable. I've got a gig tonight actually (playing piano with a jazz quintet), and I'll try to remember to call "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" in honor of our enjoyable discussion!

Edit: "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" got vetoed. One of our group members does not like it.

January 6, 2016 at 04:31 PM · "Which scales to learn for jazz improvisation?"

If blues-based, minor pentatonics.

If bebop-based, majors and melodic minors (ascending, but up and down, so you get the altered scale from the seventh mode), plus diminished and whole-tone.

If more contemporary and exploratory, add the augmented scale.

And for all of these scales, be able to link notes up with passing chromatic tones. These give you the so-called bebop scales and blues scales, as well as a way into pure chromaticism and "out" playing.

Then you can add your harmonic minors, harmonic majors, and melodic majors, but only if you really want to.

I think you can do a great deal with the first two categories, so long as you include your chromatic linking.

EDIT:(Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is difficult to do)

January 6, 2016 at 06:11 PM · Yes, the ability to insert passing tones is a critical skill, and I would argue this is one reason to practice diminished scales, because they are structured differently and make you overcome certain problems with fingering that are closely related to the insertion of passing tones. Even the well-worn "blues scale" is good for this purpose as well.

January 6, 2016 at 10:23 PM · Hi Graham, I worry deeply when I see people mention things like "harmonic majors and melodic majors".

It seems our drain pipes have too many gum leaves in them.

January 7, 2016 at 01:26 AM · The reason I just suggest major scales is because they're foundational to diatonic music. The others -- pentatonics, diminished, and chromatic -- differ in the number of notes per octave, which kind of causes you to think a little differently. Major vs. minor is just rearranging the furniture.

January 7, 2016 at 02:38 PM · Graeme, it just depends on how far you want to go - as I said, pentatonics, and diatonics with chromatic linking will probably be enough.

Though the diminished is a game-changer...

January 7, 2016 at 03:42 PM · "Major vs. minor is just rearranging the furniture."

The ascending melodic and the harmonic minors have different interval patterns to the major, and certainly do provide different harmonic contexts.

I really do think you have to learn them as well.

January 7, 2016 at 03:59 PM · PS:-

C Harmonic major:-

C D E F G Ab B C

C Melodic major (a mode of F ascending melodic minor):-

C D E F G Ab Bb C

January 12, 2016 at 04:14 AM · what to play in piece never heard with umpteen chord changes.

I don't know, what is the answer?

Superimpose scales, or hear a melody in your head and try to play it? Not quite clear on this.

I think I like the jazz without a tune category the best.

January 12, 2016 at 09:51 AM · It was an honest Question.... "Not Quite Clear on this" and to be honest, I still don't understand what "play various (all) types of scales over the same tonic" is. but I guess I don't have to understand it if I already do it.

back to your Question, and perhaps I can put this to the members...

"but what are you going to play in a piece which you never heard before and there are umpteen chord changes?

January 12, 2016 at 04:58 PM · Graham, I know what you mean, but if it's about finger spacing, then practicing both the C major scale and the A natural minor scale would seem rather redundant to me. I don't think about different types of major or minor scale either. I think those modifications are made on the fly as you are playing -- you get to a certain place, and you (very quickly) realize that A natural is not going to work there, so you play A flat. So, if a person has time to practice two kinds of scales, say, then I would suggest either major and pentatonic or major and diminished, and that choice might be informed by the type of tunes or genre that one is playing.

January 12, 2016 at 05:07 PM · Dave, I think (hope) Henry's comment was intended to mean that you shouldn't be so pessimistic or down on yourself if you can't do everything yet. You can only theorize so much, then you just have to try stuff, and yes, you may crash frequently, but that's how we all got to where we are, and we're all still learning too. Have a little jam session, distribute two or three lead sheets in advance, and then just work on those for an hour or two.

About having the tune running in your head the whole time, that's an example of something you work up to. One exercise is to "trade twos" with the melody. Play a couple of bars of improv, then hum the melody for two bars, then go again. Next time around let the melody start.

And about "umpteen changes," I know exactly what you mean! So what I recommend is that you analyze a few standards to see if you can pull out some frequently-occurring cadences. Especially, look for ii-V-I progressions. And you'll see that the KEY (defined by the I chord of the progression) doesn't change nearly as frequently as the chord. A tune like "Autumn Leaves" or "Black Orpheus" will respond to this kind of treatment very well. Those tunes are in good keys for violin improv as well. Learning to recognize those progressions on the fly -- that will develop too.

January 12, 2016 at 10:31 PM · Check out "Jazz Au Violin" by Pierre Blanchard.

Unfortunately it is entirely in the French language.

I would love to make a translation of it because it contains the gold for a fundamental approach to improvising that will drive your own inspiration, I say for all instrumentalists!

It goes from Minor Swing to Blues to Rhythm Changes and with that, knowing it fundamentally ans assimilating it, you can fly !

Pierre Blanchard has a history of playing with a few greats like Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz and Toots Thielemans

January 12, 2016 at 11:36 PM · Hi Paul, I want to comment on several points in your most recent posts.

When my improvisations flounder, I "think" about four things: 1) the groove of the context in which I am improvising; 2) the type and function of the chords flying past (dominant, subdominant, etc); 3)the root movement (closely related to the sequence of the chord types, of course); and, 4) the original melody. From this analysis I can generally improve my melodic invention in such a way that I hold my audience better next time.

Such an approach has also been repeatedly used by improvising musicians who "lose their place" when playing. Stay in the groove, know how to get good notes, know where you are, and develop new melodic ideas that the audience can connect to the tune they know. I can workshop students to good effect for hours within this framework.

With this "head set", I want to emphasise that the difference between playing in a major tonality or in the related minor tonality is light years away from an issue in fingering. In my view. And all of this is what we practise and develop when we give time to major tonality homework, or to minor tonality homework.

Second, a key is defined by its dominant chord, not the tonic chord. (Unless the tune modulates every measure or so, and we come upon an isolated maj7 chord, for example, which we then accept as an isolated tonic major, a fleeting change of key.) Indeed, as is well known, the tonic chord may never be played in a modulatory sequence. I think this is quite an important point for improvising musicians to use to their advantage.

January 13, 2016 at 12:00 PM · @Paul

>Graham, I know what you mean, but if it's about finger spacing,

I don't think it is - it is about the ear relating different tones to different tonal centres, and hearing the intervals in differing tonal contexts

>then practicing both the C major scale and the A natural minor scale would seem rather redundant to me.

Not to me, as that is relating the different notes of the scale to a different tonal centre. It is practicing different modes.

>I don't think about different types of major or minor scale either. I think those modifications are made on the fly as you are playing -- you get to a certain place, and you (very quickly) realize that A natural is not going to work there, so you play A flat.

That kind of automatic hearing develops more quickly, easily and reliably if one practises the different types of minor scale, so they become familiar.

>So, if a person has time to practice two kinds of scales, say, then I would suggest either major and pentatonic or major and diminished, and that choice might be informed by the type of tunes or genre that one is playing.

Yes, I agree. Practicing major and pentatonics seems to me to be absolutely the first pair of scale groups we should work on. Diminisheds come later, as do the other minor scales and the ones that, when mentioned, give Graeme the heeby-jeebies.

January 13, 2016 at 03:20 PM · Sure, I agree on all these points. But to some extent they are fine points and not necessarily the most applicable for someone who is concerned about things like "umpteen changes." Graeme seems to want to know where to get started, and my personal opinion is that you don't really need all that much, just a few scales and a rudimentary grasp of the most common harmonic progressions. If you had a private student who asked to start learning jazz, you wouldn't hand them Mike Laird's scale book and send them home. At least I wouldn't. I'd choose a relatively simple tune and talk about what two or three (at most!) scales might be used in that tune, and send him off to see what he can do with it, and then next lesson find out what's working and what's not. My point about analyzing for ii-V-I progressions was simply that "umpteen" is really a smaller number than it first appears.

January 13, 2016 at 11:44 PM · Paul, the issue about using the Laird book for learning scales for improvising stems from the reality that many of the scales can be learned in three, four or even five "fingerings", in some cases.

Choosing to confront all these violin-specific choices, I sought advice from forum members.

The statements some contributors have made in their posts have "shelled a few peas".

I think it is best if we all stay with what we really know, and live within the bounds of our expertise.

January 14, 2016 at 03:29 PM · I have the same problem with classical-oriented scale books. There is definitely value in learning -- and perfecting -- three octave scales with the Galamian fingerings, as you learn a lot about string changing (bowing generally), finger spacing, shifting, and facility, and there's a significant ear-training component as well. But you'll rarely play a three octave scale during an actual piece. (There is a three octave scale in the Scherzo movement of Beethoven Sonata No. 5, it even has a little Galamian-like turn at the start.) That's where studies come into play. They help you translate from the rigid, sterile world of the scale book over to actual music. In my view Mike's book could be improved significantly by doing away with scale fingerings into the stratosphere (jazzers don't really play up there anyway), and including more patterns and short studies based on scales, especially scales that do NOT appear in classical scale books like diminished, pentatonic, and whole-tone scales. Another good addition would be some discussion about how you construct an interesting turnaround maybe with a few examples. Disclaimer, I haven't looked at Mike's book in a while so maybe some of that stuff is in there. I'll check later and edit this if I think I've misrepresented anything.

January 23, 2016 at 01:21 PM · If you look through the Charlie Parker Omnibook, you will see that Parker's whole range is around two octaves, very rarely does he go as high as F above middle C, and only a few times up to the A.

He doesn't go into the low ledger lines very often either.

January 24, 2016 at 12:27 AM · Excellent point, Graham: you don't need more than two octaves or so to make a lifetime of melodies.

I might also say that I find the Charlie Parker Omnibook tough sledding, and not putting into my fingers what people want put into their ears. It is musician's music.

January 24, 2016 at 07:13 PM · Remember Charlie Parker did not play the violin. If you try to play the melodies from the Chopin Etudes on the violin you'll find those pretty rough sledding too. Even on the piano reaching more than a couple of octaves above Middle C is really only for novelties, fills, etc., it's harder to hear the actual melodic line the higher you go.

January 25, 2016 at 12:53 AM · My point about Parker was to agree that we don't need three octave scales to make great music.

In the first year or so of my getting into jazz, the CP Omnibook was my bible. I had the recordings of many of the pieces in the book, and the omnibook was the equivalent of a jazz Kreutzer for fiddle. It was a book of studies for me.

Bebop wasn't just "musicians' music" at the time - it was the hip thing.

What do "people want put into their ears" nowadays?

Ah, the hip-hop thing

January 25, 2016 at 05:00 AM · may i suggest the john coltrane omnibook, it only came out 1 yr ago

January 25, 2016 at 02:12 PM · didn't know about that one....

Thank you

January 25, 2016 at 04:05 PM · You also don't need three octave scales to play viola in your community orchestra. :)

Seriously, one of the things I had to deal with in my piano playing was to NOT be using all 88 keys just because I could. The sonority of the piano in its middle range lets the listener actually hear the notes.

I've discovered This site has channels like "Piano Trios" which is amazing. When you listen to a site like this, what you realize is that jazz is not in decline. There are dozens of great players out there making great albums of great music, even within the narrow framework of the piano trio. Every time I listen I hear players I've never heard before. My only hope, which I'm sorry to say is likely unfulfilled, is that the players I'm listening to are receiving a decent royalty from the streaming service. It's hard to imagine based on the shortness of the ad cycle.

January 26, 2016 at 01:26 AM ·

January 26, 2016 at 01:25 PM · One of the many great pieces of advice I have been given was to think about tessitura.

January 26, 2016 at 03:29 PM · Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. On a somewhat related note, Marian McPartland told me that the advice she most commonly gave young players was to learn the lyrics of the standards.

January 26, 2016 at 04:19 PM · Lyrics can be a great help in getting phrasing together, though, there is an interview with,I believe, Bill Evans, who said he never learned the lyrics.

I like to know where the title of the tune fits the melody, and maybe the next line, but I haven't learnt the full lyrics to many tunes.

January 27, 2016 at 12:47 AM · I believe Marian thought the melodies were being abused in terms of rhythm and phrasing. I kind of see her point, kind of don't. I think if one is accompanying a singer it helps a lot. (Master of the obvious.)

January 28, 2016 at 08:21 PM · I don't see how it would help with accompaniment, because you should be listening to the singer anyway. Mind you, I know that is a lot to ask. ;)

Back to the OP: there is a set of scales we all use; some are more common than others, and we need to get to grips with them in particular.

My simple view is that if you know your diatonic scales, and can add passing tones where you will, and your pentatonics, adding passing tones, you are more that halfway there.

Get to know the ascending melodic minor, and you are at the net stage.

After that, your whole tone, diminished and augmented scales will take you further.

Ultimately, there is only the chromatic scale - everything else is a subset.

January 28, 2016 at 08:24 PM · Thinking about pentatonics:-

We all know the minor pentatonic and its modes

Still, there are many other pentatonic templates well worth exploring

eg C EFG B

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings
Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings

National Symphony Orchestra
National Symphony Orchestra

Violins of Hope
Violins of Hope Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Colburn School

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine