What Scale Do I Use?



Yep – It’s been a while.  A lot’s gone on.   These posts take quite a while to do so I need to either figure out a way to make them MUCH shorter or just post more sporadically.  I had a couple of free hours this AM so here we go!  Let’s get to something you might be able to use.

A lot of times in lessons, I get asked some variation of the question,

“What should I play over this or that chord?”


For example, here’s a question I answered on Facebook  a while back and I thought that the answer for approaching any kind of unfamiliar chord might help some of you.

“hi folks!Cmaj7b9#11 what scale can i use???????”

Here’s how I approach unfamiliar chords and it may help you:

  •  If I don’t recognize the chord – I recommend CONVERTING to the key of C.  The reason for this is the key of C has no sharps or flats so any chord formulas become easier to figure out.  In this case we’re already in C (C maj7 b9 #11).


  • Make sure you understand the chord. The chord is C maj7 b9 #11. The major 7th chord formula is Root (C), 3rd (E), 5th (G), 7th (B).  On top of that we’re adding a b9 (Db) and a #11 (F#).  Lets find a voicing that makes sense.


In a Major 7th chord, the 5th doesn’t really add any flavor to the chord.  It’s just filler.  If you need to condense voicings just remove the 5th (if it’s an altered 5th like. #5 or a b5 – that’s a different story!!).  Here’s a shell voicing of the C major 7th (no 5th):  R-3rd-5th.

C Maj
Now I see that Db – F# as just a barre on the 2nd fret.  (Side note – taken on it’s own I hear this as F#-C# or a F# power chord.  In the following examples I’ll continue to use Db but I recommend paying attention to what you hear and adjusting appropriately).


Combining the two produces this:

CMaj 7b9#11_1

As an alternative to this voicing I also like the 3rd on the high E string – so I’ve switched the F# and E around in the voicing below.  Use one of these for the examples below (or any other voicing with the appropriate notes that works for you.)


  • Now that we know what chord we’re playing the question of “what do we play over it?” becomes a little easier to answer.  My very first question might be counter-intuitive but typically I’d ask, “What chord are you playing after it?”  It’s important to understand how a chord works in the context of the chords around it because ultimately you want to be able to make a musical statement that has continuity through a chord progression.


  • For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume it’s the ending chord of a tune.  Start with just the notes of the chord: C, E, G, B, Db, F# 

    in order that becomes C, Db, E, F#, G, B.  Using the notes that are actually in the chord for melodic exploration are the best place to start!  You can always add other notes after!

Here’s a lick that uses the notes of the scale in position.

Scale 1

When I play licks like this I always play the chord first to get the sound of the chord in my head and THEN work on a lick.  You could loop the chord with a looper, record it and play it as a backing track, etc.  the point is to get the harmonic context (i.e. the sound) in your head first and go from there.

Note:  the resolution to C doesn’t really feel complete.  The F# and Db in the chord creates instability.  It’s almost as if the chord is implying (to my ears) a resolution to Em.  When you have chords like any kind of dominant chord – they typically want to resolve somewhere.  Pay attention to where your ear tells you the chord is going and use that in crafting lines and ideas.

So start here!  Just familiarize yourself with the sound of the chord and how the individual chord tones work over it.

  • You could remove any note for a pentatonic (C, E, F#, B, G / C, Db, E, F#, B for example).  Here’s are a few fingerings to explore those ideas.  Apply melodic devices (rests, rhythmic variation, sequencing) to get generate unique ideas.


Pentatonic Lick 1_1A

  • You’re only missing some type of A for a 7-note scale (Ab, A, A#)  Let’s say A for now:  C, Db, E, F#, G, A, B

Here are a couple of ideas floating around that.  The first one uses the sequencing idea we saw before – the second is just a straight melody.

7 note with A

  • Repeating licks are something worth exploring as well (particularly if you’re playing the last chord as a cadenza).  Here’s a little McLaughlin inspired run.

Repeating Lick

  • Try extracting some triads, 7th chords or intervallic ideas from the scale.  In the example below, I took a G5 add 2 (aka Gsus2 aka replacing the B in a G major triad with an A) and moved it in scale wise motion on the A, G and B strings.  I added a C in the bass for harmonic context (sometimes played with the thumb but you can experiment with fingerings) to help get the sound of the triad in my head. (Watch that stretch in bar 3!!  If it hurts your hand just tap the C with your picking hand.)

Intervals 1

  • You can get a lot of mileage from just two alternating between 2 sets of triads (or any other type of 3 note cells – the end result is a Hexatonic – or 6-note scale).  Here I’ve used C major and the notes Db, F# B.  I start moving them through inversions and then mix an match to get some more interesting ideas out of the line.

Intervals 2

  • You could also try working in some chromaticism (D, Eb, G#, Bb) etc. for a 8 or 9- note scale:


  • This doesn’t even take into account approach notes (there’s a considerable amount of 1/2 step motion in the chord already (B-C, C-Db, F#G) but you could add in approach notes to B (Bb),  E(Eb), or F# (F) for example, superimposition of other arpeggios / tonalities or a number of other approaches – this is simply one simple approach to get some ideas flowing for approaching how to play over an unfamiliar chord.


  • One place where people get hung up on something like this is trying to take on too much at once.  “Seeing” the chord over the entire fretboard.  Working out arpeggios in all positions etc.. Notice that once I worked out a voicing in second position – many of the licks just worked around the chord shape there.  Start small!!!  Find a sound you like and run it into the ground with melodic possibilities and variations and lick ideas. Then try others. One eats an elephant one bite at a time.


Ultimately what to play over any given chord will depend on the melody, the chords before and after it, the mood of the tune, and your aesthetic.  It also depends on what you hear – so explore lot’s of variations and work on the ones that sound good to you!

As always, I hope this helps and thanks for reading!



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