When learning how to play jazz guitar, or any style of guitar for that matter, we often spend a lot of time working on pentatonic, blues, major and melodic minor scales and patterns on the guitar and then practice bringing these sounds into our solos.
While learning the aforementioned scales is essential for any improvising guitarist, there is also another group of scales that are worth spending time on in the woodshed and bringing into our solos on the bandstand: symmetrical scales.
Symmetrical scales are so named because they are built using one or more repeated interval patterns, and often contain six to eight notes, one more or less than what you would find in the major and melodic minor scale modes.
In this short primer on these important sounds, we’ll explore five different symmetrical scales, learn how they are constructed, how you can use them in your solos and check out sample fingerings for further practice. To explore these and many other scales further, check out my Essential Jazz Guitar Scales page for more information about fingerings, usage and improvisational techniques.
Whole Tone Scale
The whole tone scale is made up of six notes, which is smaller than the major scale modes but is bigger than the pentatonic scale, and it actually fits fairly easily under the fingers on the fretboard. The scale is built by using one interval, a tone, between each note. So to build any whole tone scale, you simply start on the root and go up in tones until you hit the top of the octave. The whole tone scale is made up of the following intervals when you run from the root to the root, and is normally used to solo over a 7#5 chord, which will also have a #11 in it as you can see below.
Intervals – R 2 3 #4(#11) #5 b7 R
Key of C – C D E F# G# A#(Bb) C
Try out the fingering below to get a sense of how this scale sits on the neck and sounds on the guitar. Then put on a 7th chord vamp or backing track and use this scale to create your soloing ideas to hear how it sounds in a musical situation.
Half Whole Diminished Scale
This is the first of two diminished scales we will explore in this article, and as the name suggests, it is built by alternating half steps and whole steps. To build any half whole diminished scale, you start on the root and then move up by a half step, then a whole step, then a half step, then a whole step etc. until you reach the top of the octave.
This scale is used to improvise over a 13b9 chord, which will also bring the #9 and #11 colors to the table as you can see below. Here is how the half whole diminished scale looks from an intervallic standpoint as well as in the key of C.
Intervals – R b2(b9) b3(#9) 3 #4(#11) 5 6 b7 R
Key of C – C Db Eb E F# G A Bb C
Run through the example fingering below to get started with this scale on the guitar. Then put on a 7 chord vamp or backing track and solo using the half whole diminished scale in order to get a sense for how it sounds in a musical situation.
Whole Half Diminished Scale
The second diminished scale we’ll look at is the whole half diminished scale, and as the name suggests, it is built by alternating whole steps and half steps as you build the scale up from the root. As you can see, both of the diminished scales contain eight notes, so one more than any major scale mode. This makes the scale stand out against the modes, but it can also make it a bit tricky to finger on the guitar.
Try the example below and then work on finding other easy to play fingerings that feel comfortable for you and your hands with this scale. This scale is used to solo over a Dim or Dim7 chord, and here is how it looks from an intervallic standpoint as well as what the notes are for this scale in the key of C.
Intervals – R 2 b3 4 #4 #5 6 7 R
Key of C – C D Eb F F# G# A B C
After you’ve gotten this scale under your fingers and have an idea of how it sounds on the guitar as well as how it sounds compared to the half whole diminished scale, put on a dim7 chord vamp or backing track and take this sound to a musical situation as you build your solo with the whole half diminished scale over that chord.
A lesser used scale as compared to the previous three symmetrical scales, the augmented scale is built by combining two augmented triads a minor 3rd apart. You can see this in the example below, in the key of C, where the scale is built by combining C and Eb augmented triads to build the scale over two octaves. Here is how the scale looks from an intervallic standpoint as well as all the notes for this scale in the key of C.
Intervals – R b3(#9) 3 5 #5 7 R
Key of C – C Eb E G G# B C
Since the scale has all the notes of a maj#5 arpeggio, it can be used to create tension in your solos over a maj7 chord as you bring this scale into your playing. After you’ve explored the fingering below, put on a Maj7 or Maj7#5 vamp and then solo over those chords using the augmented scale to hear how it sounds when applied to a soloing situation.
The last scale that we’ll check out in this short primer on symmetrical scales is the tritone scale. As the name suggests, this scale is built by combing the notes from the root triad and the triad a tritone away from the root. You can see this in the example below where the scale is built by combining the C and Gb triads, the tonic triad and the triad a tritone away from the root. Here is how the scale looks from an intervallic standpoint as well as when written out in the key of C.
Intervals – R b2(b9) 3 b5(#11) 5 b7 R
Key of C – C Db E Gb G Bb C
As you can see, this chord produces a 7(#11,b9) sound you can use when soloing over 7th chords to bring some tension to your lines. After you’ve explored the fingering below, put on a 7th chord or 7(#11,b9) chord vamp, and practice soloing over those sounds using the Tritone Scale to hear how it fits over these chords in a musical situation.
There you have it, a short primer and introduction to five symmetrical scales on the guitar. After you’ve played through each scale and improvised with it a bit, pick one or two to focus on this week in the practice room and then learn more fingerings for those scales, take them to common chord progressions as well as tunes you are working on in order to dig deeper into these sounds in the woodshed.
What do you think of these scales, and how do you use them in your solos? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
Matt Warnock is the owner of mattwarnockguitar.com, a free website that provides hundreds of lessons and resources designed to help guitarists of all experience levels meet their practice and performance goals. Matt lives in the UK, where he is a senior lecturer at the Leeds College of Music and an examiner for the London College of Music (Registry of Guitar Tutors).