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How Important Is It To Study Scales?



JGT’s Bob Bakert and guitarist Joe Finn discuss the relative importance of studying scales as a jazz musician.

Bob Bakert and I had a conversation about the relative importance of studying scales as a jazz musician. As useful as it is for novice and intermediate level guitarists to work on scales it is important not to get locked into a scalar mindset. You certainly do not want your improvisation to sound like scales. There are actually several areas of your musical development that are really quite a bit more important than continuing to practice scales. So Bob and I have decided that I will be writing a series of articles about each of several areas of musical development that many developing guitarists should find beneficial. Please look for these articles here. We hope you will find them enjoyable and informative. 

How important is it to study scales?

I would say that during the first four or five years of study it is a good idea to become familiar with some of the commonly used scales. The “Scale Syllabus” by Jamey Aebersold is a good list of 37 major, minor, dominant, diminished, and half-diminished scales that jazz musicians ought to have a working familiarity with. It is also good to know that there is a book called  “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” by  Nicolas Slonimsky which is 256 pages long and contains scales from all over the world. So you don’t need to make a career out of practicing scales, especially in jazz. If you are past the age of 15 or so your time will be better spent focusing on other aspects of jazz musicianship that deserve more attention and emphasis.

Ear Training: Would you like to take a lesson with Charlie Christian?

Even though he left this life so many years ago it is still possible. You can listen to his recordings and learn to play his solos by ear. Many guitarists since Christian’s time have done this. Jazz has always been more of a “through the ears” style than an “off the page” style. So your listening skills are of the utmost importance. In this context, listening means the ability to identify what you are hearing and to be able to sing it, write it down and play it on your instrument. The musical elements you must initially learn to identify would include intervals, chords, and rhythms. 

An interval is the distance between two pitches. Intervals include a minor second, major second, minor third, major third, perfect fourth, tritone, perfect fifth, minor sixth, major sixth, minor seventh, major seventh, octave, and so on. A good way to learn intervals is to associate each of them with the melody of a song you already know. For example, the minor second would be the first interval in the song “Stella By Starlight”. There are well-known examples for every interval and it is best for each student to identify their own favorites.  As you begin to learn to identify intervals, write them on the treble clef and memorize what they look like. Sing each interval and play it in various locations on the neck of your guitar. 

The next ability to develop would be hearing chords. Most guitar players are already pretty good at this since they play chords all the time. The important thing initially is to hear the basic quality of the chord. Is the chord major or minor? Is the chord dominant? Diminished? Augmented? Is it none of these? A good way to work on this is to pair off with another guitar player and have one play a chord while the other identifies it without looking. There are only a few hundred typical guitar chord voicings so this usually goes pretty quickly. When you are improvising it is important to be able to recognize these chord qualities instantly because this dictates the notes you will choose and avoid in your improvised solo. 

The ability to identify and sing rhythm figures is an important skill too. When you hear a tricky figure try to sing it. This internalizes it in your mind. For instance, the first phrase of “Donna Lee” by Charlie Parker starts with a pickup triplet on three followed by a bar of eighth notes and another triplet, six more eighth notes, a bar line and two final eighth notes.  Listen to a recording of this tune.   Be able to sing the melody. Write it down and play it on the guitar. Get used to the way this melody looks on the staff and the fingering on your guitar.

As your listening skills continue to develop you will be able to hear and internalize bigger and bigger chunks of music.

Many jazz players use their listening skills to help them learn solos by ear from recordings. Some people like to write them down and some do not. Either way, this is a great way to acquire the language of jazz improvisation. And these days with the help of youtube you can even see the fingerings a guitarist is using which removes any guesswork and greatly facilitates the process. And we are not copying someone’s recorded solo in order to imitate them. What we are really doing is trying to discover something about their improvisational concept that we can assimilate and use in our own playing. 

So many great guitarists in jazz learned their music in this way.  Wes Montgomery and many others like him had highly developed listening skills that were a major factor in how they were able to play as they did. Many jazz guitarists emphasized their listening skills to the exclusion of practically everything else. Tal Farlow, Pat Martino, and George Benson are examples of players with tremendous ears who were relatively weak in areas such as reading. The good news is that your ears will continue to develop as long as you keep listening to and playing music. Your listening skills will integrate themselves with other abilities like reading, instrumental technique, and your knowledge of harmony. We will be looking a little more closely at each of these and other areas of musical development in articles during the months to come. 

Hang in there and keep practicing!

Watch out for the other topics in this Jazz Guitar Today series.

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