How To Master Jazz Guitar Scales | ULTIMATE GUIDE

Practicing scales is similar to eating your vegetables. You do it because you have to, not because you want to. Its boring and methodical, right? I’m happy to tell you that YES, scales are very important BUT practicing them can be enjoyable. Let me show you how!

scales on jazz guitar lessonUse this guide to:

  • Practice smart.
  • Learn how to play FAST.
  • Discover 10 Essential Jazz Guitar Patterns.
  • Build facility, muscle memory and finger dexterity.
  • Improvise musically (don’t be a jazz robot).

I am constantly learning new scales and refining the ones I already know. Scales hold a vital role for us as improvisors – they give us a palette of sound to pull ideas from. Spend some time getting to know how each scale sounds and fits on the guitar and I promise you won’t regret it!

Why Use This Jazz Guitar Scale Guide?

Remember that I don’t TEACH these scales everyday. I USE them everyday. I am first and foremost a Jazz Guitarist, and secondly a Jazz Guitar Teacher. I have received very good and very bad advice over the years. These lessons are my opportunity to share with you some tips and tricks that I wished I had know when I started out learning jazz guitar. This guide comes directly from the bandstand to the page. It is written by a real world guitarist for real world guitarists.

Your 4 Tools For Learning A Scale

  1. EARS – Use your ears to LISTEN to the scale’s unique sound.
  2. EYES – The guitar is a visual instrument. Use your eyes to remember the SHAPE of the scale.
  3. FINGERS – Practice the scale to build your muscle memory of it. Start slow and build speed. I will show some awesome patterns later on in this lesson for this.
  4.  BRAINYour #1 Practice Tool.

Your Brain is your BEST piece of equipment for mastering Jazz Guitar.

4 Tips to Practicing Guitar SMART (using your brain).

1. Practice Effectively

  • 15 mins of focused practice is better than 30 mins of mindless repetition.
  • Practice what you are bad at, not what you are good at.

The mind likes VARIATION.

An example of variation.

Try this: Practice 3 variations of scale or lick for 5 minutes each. Repeat this 15 min chunk 3 times. You just practiced for 45 mins but you kept it fresh and varied. To compare, try to practice a single pattern for 45 mins straight. Yikes, that will fry the brain.

2. Focus on the Finish Line

Before you start doing something, know WHY you are doing it. Jazz is about improvising. To improvise, your ears and fingers need a toolbox of scales, chords, arpeggios and licks to draw from. The overriding goal of practicing a scale is to expand your toolbox of tricks to become a better improviser. Don’t get bogged down practicing just to practice. Focus on the OUTCOME: making music

3. Be a Tortoise

  • Perfect an exercise at a slow tempo before you attempt to play it fast.
  • It is vital you have solid left and right hand technique at a slow tempo before you attempt to speed it up.
  • Learn to walk before you run!

4. Remember your Picking Hand

  • Don’t forget that your picking hand is just as important as your fret hand.
  • I recommend you maintain a constant down, up, down, up, down strokes.
  • Notes that fall on the beat are down strokes, and off beats notes are up strokes. (Apart from tricky sweeping arpeggios, this approach will serve you well at faster tempos).

7 Essential Jazz Guitar Scale Patterns

Now that you know HOW to practice jazz guitar scales, let me show you some awesome pattern formulas to improve your dexterity, speed and muscle memory. I’ll start by describing the formula then give you an example applying the formula on the C major scale. You can of course of course use these patterns with any scale.

Remember to start slow, make sure your have a solid picking hand before speeding up. Speed will come!

1. Up and Down 1 2 3 4

The simplest of scale exercises; play the scale ascending then descending.


You can easily extend any pattern with the following techniques:

  • Play 8th notes or triplets.
  • Alternate between 8th notes, 16th notes, triplets or any combination.
  • Focus on dynamics .
  • Focusing on swinging.
  • Alternate between different scales.
  • Use different scale positions.

e.g jazz guitar pattern jazz guitar pattern The opportunities are endless. You can create your own custom scale exercises, there are no rules – make your own!

2. Skipping 1 3 2 4 3

Skip a note, ascending and descending:

jazz guitar pattern

Further examples:

jazz guitar pattern

jazz guitar pattern

3. The 123 Pattern

This is a three note pattern so it works great for triplets as well with 8th notes which will sound crazy cool. Play 123 234 345 etc.

jazz guitar pattern

 You can reverse this and play 321 432 543 etc:

jazz guitar pattern4. The 1234 Pattern

This is a four note pattern, 123 1234 2345:

jazz guitar pattern

Notice how I start this with a three note phrase? This off places where this phrase starts, it sounds more interesting! You can use this technique of offsetting where a pattern starts to extend the musical possibilities of ANY patterns. Play around with how a pattern sounds as 8th notes vs 8th note triplets. There are some really interesting rhythmic devices you can discover – use this lesson as a guide on how to create your own cool patterns.

You can also invert this formula:

jazz guitar pattern

5. Jumping (intervallic leaps)

Get your jumping sneakers on, let’s explore jumping up and down intervals. You can use these patterns to sound modern and hip.

jazz guitar patternTry this out with all your intervals, exploring these larger intervals is real good for solidifying your knowledge of any scale. Plus it just sounds cool. More examples:



6. Triads

Triads are the most common three note shapes in jazz. You can use triads to really get inside a scale. 135 246 357 etc
You can reverse the triad too:

7. Combining Scales (change running)

This is one of my favourite techniques for learning scales.

Most tunes don’t stay stagnant on a single chord or scale, you usually have to change scales every measure or two. Thus, it is good to know a scale inside out but it is also very important for you to be able to interchange between scales. The idea of change running is to continue in one direction THROUGH the changes.

You can do this with any of the above patterns, it gets tricky with the large intervals though so start simple and slow.

Change running between C major and G Altered scale.

II V I VI7 Change running

Follow these 6 steps to practice change running:

  1. Choose two scales you know well.
  2. Play 1 measure of the first scale in 8th notes ascending slowly.
  3. Stop.
  4. Look where the next available note of your second scale it.
  5. Continue with the second scale.
  6. Repeat and continue on.

Change running tips:

  • Start slow.
  • Try different patterns.
  • Ascend and descend.
  • Experiment with triplets.

Remember the key with change running is to continue in one direction through multiple chord changes. Michael Brecker and Chris Potter (and most sax players) are masters at this – they navigate chord changes so fluidly and effortlessly. Keep working at it (I know I am), and you will build fluidity and speed.

Thanks for checking out this lesson, please feel free to leave a comment below with any suggestions or questions.

Return to jazz guitar scales here.

~ Sam Blakelock |


  1. Arthur says

    Your website is simply astonishing!
    I learned a lot from your lessons, they are interesting and clear, without too much technical details, just the right ones.

    Thank you man, really :)

  2. Mark says

    Hahaha… Sam, believe it or not, I like eating my vegetables… I’ve been a vegetarian since 1989! And yes, I also enjoy practicing scales. My biggest problem, though, isn’t in practicing my scales… it’s in my improv. 99% of the time, my improv just sounds like scales, not improv. How can I solve this problem? Thanks in advance.

    • pickupjazzadmin says

      Hey Mark, thanks for your note. You are right, it can be difficult steering away from scales to actually improvising music. Jazz is all about improvising as you said, so this dilemma is an important one to solve.

      I have two thoughts: 1) Whenever you practice a scale, practice improvising over it. Meaning, know the notes but more importantly be able to sing or hear lines within the scale. I’d recommend recording the corresponding chord for the scale (e.g Maj7#11 chord for the Lydian Scale) so you have a foundation to solo over.

      2) The first step is learning scales, arpeggios, theory. The next step is forgetting it and playing what you hear. If you can’t hear anything, listen to more quality records.

      Hope that helps!

  3. says

    This is an absolutely fantastic website, so clear and concise and useful. A lot of guitar resources online have a “dumbed down” approach and this one is refreshing in that it does not do that. Keep it coming!

  4. Jorge says

    Thank you so much for sharing this Sam! Finally someone teaching this simple and fun. Thumbs up!! Ill be messing around these lessons for a while before buying your course, i will buy it no doubt. My best wishes.

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