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How To Play The Altered Scale For Jazz Guitar

When learning how to play jazz guitar, one of the scales and chords that will keep popping up is the 7alt chord and its related Altered Scale.

While many of us might have heard of this scale before, or even learned a fingering for it on the guitar, there are often gaps in our knowledge and application of this important and fun to play jazz guitar melodic device.

In today’s lesson, we’ll be looking at how you can build an Altered Scale, how you can play a few different fingerings for this scale on the guitar, how to apply it to your soloing and technical practice routine, as well as check out 5 of my favorite Altered Scale licks over common jazz chord progressions.

So, before we grab our guitars, let’s take a look at how an Altered Scale is built from an intervallic and modal standpoint.

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What is the Altered Scale?


The first thing we need to check out before learning how to play and apply the Altered Scale, is how to construct this important and oft-used mode of Melodic Minor.

To build an Altered Scale, you can approach it in one of two ways.

The first way is from an intervallic standpoint.

Here, you would find the root of the scale you want to build, and then just find the following intervals above that root to build your Altered Scale.


Root – b9 – #9 – 3 – b5 – #5 – b7 – R


So, if you started on the note B, as in the example written out below, you would find you’re playing the following notes for a B Altered Scale.


B C D Eb F G A B


The second way that you can build an Altered Scale, is to think about it as the 7th mode of the Melodic Minor Scale.

So, if you wanted to build a B Altered Scale, you could play a C Melodic Minor Scale starting on the note B, producing the 7th mode of that scale, and thus building a B Altered Scale in the process.

Here is a notated example of how the C Melodic Minor Scale can be used to build the B Altered Scale.



Altered Scale 1



No matter which way you decide to use to build your Altered Scales, from an intervallic standpoint or by thinking of it as the 7th mode of the Melodic Minor Scale, the important thing is that you learn how to play this scale on the guitar, and have an understanding of how it is constructed and where you can use it in your jazz guitar solos.



How to Play the Altered Scale – Fingerings


Now that you’ve learned how to build an Altered Scale, let’s take a look at two ways that you can finger this scale on the guitar, one with a root on the 6th string and one with a root on the 5th string.

There are many ways that you can finger the Altered Scale on the guitar, but here are two of my favorites starting with this C7alt scale with a 6th string root.


Altered Scale 2

And here is a 5th string root for that same C7alt scale, which has the same notes as the Db Melodic Minor Scale if you are thinking about it that way.


Altered Scale 3


To practice these scales, here are 10 exercises that I like to do when working on Altered Scale fingerings on the guitar, or any scale for that matter, that will help get the sound of this scale into your ears and the shapes of this scale under your fingers.



How to Play the Altered Scale – Exercises


  1. Practice one fingering, 6th string root for example, in one key at various tempos on the metronome. Repeat this for any other fingerings you are working on for this scale.
  2. Take the same fingerings in the first exercise and practice them in 12 keys at various tempos on the metronome.
  3. Play the above exercises while singing the root of the chord that you are on.
  4. Play a C7alt chord voicing on the guitar and then sing the related C Altered Scale.
  5. Repeat exercise 4 in all 12 keys, singing one octave if you can and two-octave scales where possible.
  6. Put on a C7alt backing track and improvise using one Altered Scale fingering, then the other, then both together over that chord, at various tempos if possible.
  7. Repeat exercise 6 in all 12 keys.
  8. Sing the root to a C7alt chord and improvise over that note using the C Altered Scale in various fingerings. Repeat this exercise in all 12 keys.
  9. Play a C7alt chord and sing a solo over that chord using only the notes of the C Altered Scale. Repeat this exercise in all 12 keys.
  10. Put on a major and minor key ii-V-I backing track and solo over the V7 chord using it’s related Altered Scale.



How to Play the Altered Scale – Major ii V I


Now that you understand how to build and Altered Scale, and can play at least two different fingerings for this scale on the guitar, let’s look at how you can apply this scale to your major key ii V I soloing lines.

Since the Altered Scale is played over a Dominant 7th chord, you can use it to solo over the V7 chord in a iim7 V7 Imaj7 chord progression.

When using the Altered Scale in this instance, you will be creating tension over the V7 chord that will then be resolved into the Imaj7 chord in the next measure.

Here is an example of how you would apply a G Altered Scale to the G7 chord, V7, in a Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 chord progression.


How to Play the Altered Scale ii v i


Try putting on a Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 backing track and soloing over the Dm7 and Cmaj7 chords as you normally would.

Then, when you reach the G7 chord, treat it as a G7alt chord by playing the G Altered Scale over that measure in the progression, Ab Melodic Minor if you want to think about it that way.

This sound, playing V7alt in a major key ii V I isn’t for everyone.

But, if you can work this tension into your lines, and properly resolve it, you will be able to bring a new level of melodic sophistication into your lines and solos.



How to Play the Altered Scale – Minor ii V i


The more traditional way to apply the Altered Scale to a solo is over the V7alt chord in a minor key iim7b5 V7alt Im6 chord progression.

You can see an example of this below, where G7alt is used in the second bar to sound the V7alt chord in the key of C minor.


How to Play the Altered Scale Minor ii V i


Again, put on a Dm7b5 G7alt Cm6 backing track and practice soloing over this progression while using the G Altered Scale in the second measure, to sound the V7alt chord in the key.

This sound is just as tense as the major key ii V I you looked at earlier, but since it is in a minor key, it resolves easily into the Im6 chord, and so it is slightly easier to apply as your ears will hear it as “more normal” right away, as opposed to the major key application which may take some time and practice to get to that point.



How to Play the Altered Scale – 5 Licks


To get you started with some common Altered Scale vocabulary, here are five of my favorite Altered Scale licks that you can check out in the woodshed.

Try working on these licks in the given key first, then take them to all 12 keys around the fretboard, as well as practice them with different tempos on the metronome.

When you are ready, put on a backing track and solo over a V7alt chord, or ii V I chord progression, and start to bring these lines into your soloing.

Then, once you can play the licks as written in your solos, start to alter them.

Add notes, take notes away, change the rhythm etc., to start to take these licks off the page and make them your own.

Here is a backing track that you can work with in the woodshed using the Altered scale in your studies.


YouTube Preview Image



Altered Scale Lick 1

This first Altered Scale lick is a descending line over a G7alt chord.

Notice the line starts on the #9, before moving up to the 3rd and back down the scale from there.

This is a common Altered pattern, and one you can work further in your studies.


Click to Hear Audio for Altered Scale Lick 1


How to Play the Altered Scale Licks 1



Altered Scale Lick 2


This variation of the first line is inspired by the solos of the late, great, Jazz guitarist, Wes Montgomery.

The use of two 16th notes really brings an energy to the line that drives it forward in your playing.

Check out this lick to bring a Wes vibe to your next Jazz guitar solo.


Click to Hear Audio for Altered Scale Lick 2


How to Play the Altered Scale Licks 2



Altered Scale Lick 3


Moving on, here is a short ii V I in the key of C minor, using the Altered scale to outline the G7alt chord in the second half of the first bar.

Notice the movement from the C in Dm7b5 to the B in G7alt.

This kind of voice leading is referred to as “guide tone” playing in Jazz, and it’s an important skill to have under your fingers, moving from the b7 of ii to the 3 of V7, in your lines.


Click to Hear Audio for Altered Scale Lick 3


How to Play the Altered Scale Licks 3



Altered Scale Lick 4


Here you find the same progression, but this time the roles have been reversed, as the Dm7b5 is descending and the G7alt is ascending melodically over those changes.

Working lines in this fashion, reversing direction from a line you already know, is a quick way to double your vocabulary with this, or any, scale you are working on.


Click to Hear Audio for Altered Scale Lick 4


How to Play the Altered Scale Licks 4



Altered Scale Lick 5


The last line is a longer ii V I in Cm, with a standard G7alt lick over the second bar of the progression.

Starting from the root, moving up to the b9, then back down from there, this line has a classic Pat Martino vibe to it.

Also notice the chromatic movement from Bb-B-C that connects the G7alt to the Cm6 at the end of the phrase.


Click to Hear Audio for Altered Scale Lick 5


How to Play the Altered Scale Licks 5



As you can see, the Altered scale is not only an important sound to have under your fingers and in your ears, but it can be a fun scale to work on in the practice room from both a technical and improvisational standpoint.

After checking out this scale in the woodshed, head on over to the Matt Warnock Guitar Facebook Page and share your thoughts on this lesson or ask any questions you may have regarding the Altered Scale, or anything jazz guitar for that matter.

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  1. John Leiser, May 5, 2013:

    Hi Matt,
    When you play a 7alt, what voicings do you like?
    read your post about Vic Juris, he’s at the 55 Bar 1st Sundays and I really try to catch him.

  2. Matt Warnock, May 6, 2013:
  3. max, May 16, 2013:

    cool 1 :)

  4. Alex, September 27, 2013:

    A cool trick is to use pentatonic substitution to get an altered sound. Just take the b3 of your dominant chord/relative minor of your tritone sub, and build a minor pentatonic scale from it (so an Fm pentatonic for a D7 chord). This scale contains all of/only the altered notes in the altered scale- #9, #11, b13, #13, and b9. Neat way for beginners to incorporate this sound into their playing.

  5. Mike C., August 7, 2014:


    In trying to find a way to get the altered scale under my fingers, discovered a Larry Carlton-like approach. Not directly from him, but I know he likes to use the G7alt., I might gravitate toward the DbMaj triad and the EbMaj triad. This gives us all the altered tones, but no Maj 3rd of the dominant chord. Any thoughts about such an approach?

  6. Mike C., August 7, 2014:

    Sorry, meant to say that Larry uses the superimposed triad concept, and that for the G7alt., I might use the Db, etc.

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