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How to Play the Aeolian Scale for Guitar

Though not as commonly used as Dorian, the Aeolian Scale is a must-know mode for any jazz guitarist to explore in their playing.

The sixth mode of the major scale system, which means it is the same as playing a C major scale from the notes A to A, the Aeolian scale is used to solo over minor family chords when you want to bring out the b6 (b13) interval.



In this lesson you will learn how to build the Aeolian scale, how to apply it to your soloing ideas, as well as study one and two-octave fingerings, scale patterns and common Aeolian licks in the style of Miles Davis and others.


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Aeolian Scale Construction


The Aeolian scale contains seven notes and has no accidentals in its construction when written in the key of A Aeolian.

This means that if you were to play the A Aeolian scale on the piano, you would only play the white keys, no black keys, on the keyboard.

These seven notes can be written a number of ways such as intervals:




Or you can think of them as specific intervals such as:




In this case, the legend for each symbol would be:


P = Perfect Interval

M = Major Interval

m = Minor Interval


While these intervals are commonly used, you can also think of the upper notes as extensions rather than lower notes.

This means that you think of the Aeolian scale with this pattern:




I prefer this way of thinking of the scale intervals as it allows you to visualize the upper colors of the scale, which create the upper chord extensions over any chord you are soloing over.

Here is how the A Aeolian scale looks on the fretboard with both notes and intervals.


aeolian scales 1


You can use either system, 2-4-b6, 9-11-b13, or a mixture of both depending on the musical situation that you find yourself in.

Try both out and see which fits better for you and go forward in your studies with that interval system.

Either way, notice that the Aeolian scale has a b6 interval, which is the characteristic note of the scale and distinguishes it from the Dorian scale, which has the natural 6th interval.

When soloing over a m7th chord, highlighting the b6 note in the Aeolian scale can really help to bring out the Aeolian sound over that chord change, which you will hear and see in the lick examples below.



Aeolian Scale Application


Now that you know how to build the Aeolian scale, let’s take a look at how you can apply this important scale to a jazz guitar soloing situation.

The Aeolian scale can be used to solo over a number of chords in the minor family.

These chords include:


  • m7th
  • m9th
  • m7(b6)
  • m11


These minor family chords are all built from notes take from the Aeolian scale, and therefore the Aeolian scale can be used to solo over these chords in a jazz soloing context.

Here is an example of an Aeolian scale fingering and three chords that are derived from that scale fingering so you can see how the two relate to each other on paper as well as on the fretboard.


aeolian scales 2.1


To begin using this theory knowledge to help your soloing chops, try putting on a m7th, m9th, m11th, etc. backing track and soloing over those changes whenever you learn a new fingering in this lesson.

Though you won’t use this scale as much as the Dorian scale in your jazz soloing phrases, it is a nice color that you can bring to your playing, especially in modal situations where you might want to alternate between both scales in your solo.

To help you practice the material in this lesson, here is a Fusion Aeolian Backing Track that you can use to jam with as you learn the following material.


YouTube Preview Image




Aeolian Scale One Octave Fingerings


To help you take these must-know scales onto the fretboard, here are a number of common one-octave Aeolian shapes that you can work on in your practice routine.

These one-octave shapes will come in handy when soloing over fast moving chord changes or at fast tempos in a jazz jam situation.

There are three main groups of scale fingerings that you can learn for one-octave Aeolian shapes, starting with shapes that use your index finger on the first note of the scale.

When learning these shapes, work them in all 12 keys, as well as put on backing tracks and solo over various minor chords using these shapes as the basis for your improvised lines.

This will ensure that you are working Aeolian scales from both a technical and improvisational standpoint.


aeolian scales 3


You can also practice and learn Aeolian scales with your middle finger on the first note of each one-octave shape.

Once you have these four Aeolian shapes under your fingers, try moving between the first four and these four in both your technical and your improvisational practice routine.


aeolian scales 4


Lastly, here are four Aeolian scale shapes that begin with your pinky finger on the first note of each shape.

Again, work these shapes in all 12 keys as well as solo over major-based backing tracks in order to be creative with these scales in the woodshed.


aeolian scales 5


Once you have all three sets of scale shapes under your fingers, you can move between any/all of these scales in your technical and improvisational practice routine.

As well, over time you might explore all 12 of these fingerings, but that doesn’t mean that you will always have these Aeolian shapes under your fingers.

Over time you will pick your favorites and they will work their way into your playing, while others you might not use very much.

This is perfectly fine, and is part of the learning process for any jazz guitarist as you work through many technical items, picking the ones that suit your playing and adding them to your vocabulary along the way.




Aeolian Scale Two Octave Fingerings


As well as learning one-octave Aeolian scale shapes, you can also take these patterns a step further by learning two-octave shapes in 12 keys on the fretboard.

Two-octave Aeolian scale shapes will come in handy when you are soloing over longer chord changes or tunes that don’t change keys very frequently.

There are a number of ways that you can build two-octave Aeolian scale shapes, and here are four of my favorites to get you started in the practice room.


aeolian scales 6


Try learning one of these shapes at a time, and then combine two or more of these shapes in your technical and improvisational practice routine as you dig further into these important scale shapes.

With both the one and two-octave Aeolian shapes under your fingers, you are now ready to move on to learning and applying common and important scale patterns to these shapes as you use the Aeolian scale to build technique, fretboard knowledge and improvisational material at the same time.



Aeolian Scale Patterns


As well as working on these Aeolian scales by playing them up and down on the fretboard in a number of keys, you can check out cool-sounding scale patterns over any or all of the Aeolian scales that you’ve learned up to this point in the lesson.

To begin, here is an ascending pattern that you can use to expand your technique and learn scale shapes at the same time.

The pattern is built by playing alternating 3rds, repeating this pattern from each note in the scale, in this case ascending.

This means that you play 13, 42, 35, 64, etc. as you work your way up the scale, in this case a two-octave A Aeolian scale.

Go slow with this pattern, work it through both one and two-octave shapes, as well as in different keys as you take this pattern around the fretboard in your woodshedding.


Click to hear aeolian scales 1


aeolian scales 7


You can also work this pattern descending any scale pattern you are working on or know, such as the A Aeolian scale used in the example below.

Again, you are playing every second note to create the pattern, which creates the intervals 68, 75, 46, 53, etc. as you work your way down the Aeolian scale fingering.


Click to hear aeolian scales 2


aeolian scales 8


Once you have one or both of these patterns under your fingers, put on a minor backing track and add this pattern to your soloing ideas.

You don’t have to play them in every Aeolian line or phrase, but adding these patterns in here and there can be a great way to spice up your jazz guitar lines and improvised phrases.




3 Aeolian Scale Licks


As well as learning common patterns to practice with your Aeolian scales, you can also study common licks and phrases in order to expand your vocabulary and build your understanding of this scale in a soloing context.

This first lick is based on Miles Davis’ solo on the tune “Milestones,” where the bridge section is an Am7 (Aeolian) chord.


Click to hear aeolian scales 3


aeolian scales 9


Here is another Miles Davis inspired lick, accenting the b13 F at the end of bar one before climbing up the scale and finishing on the 9th, B, from there.


Click to hear aeolian scales 4


aeolian scales 10


This final Aeolian lick uses a triplet to set up the F triad, which outlines the b13 interval, before working descending 3rds down the scale from there.


Click to hear aeolian scales 5


aeolian scales 11


Once you have these licks down and have practiced adding them to your solos over a backing track, try writing out 3 Aeolian licks of your own as you build your soloing vocabulary with this commonly used and important scale.


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