Creating and Using Synthetic Scales for Guitar

November 19, 2010

Mark TonelliMajor and minor scales and their related modes and arpeggios are the cornerstones of improvisation. But sometimes “home improvements” are needed. You can infuse some sonic curb appeal with synthetics.

Synthetics build upon what you already know. By adding key notes or leaving some out, you can quickly produce an interesting variation on a scale or arpeggio as a way to temporarily play “outside” of the changes. Let’s take a look at a synthetic variation on a major scale and its related minor scale (next page). Then we’ll examine some arpeggios derived from the synthetics.

Ex. 1 is a C major scale descending in two octaves. I’ve created the synthetic scale in Ex. 1a by adding a b7, b6, b3, and by removing the 4th scale degree (F). That gives us C-D-Eb-E-G-Ab-Bb-B-C, a nine-note synthetic. Another way to look at it, is that the C major and C minor blues scales have been juxtaposed, resulting in a diatonic-blues hybrid. The tonic is still C, but the added half steps obscure the tonality. Is it major or dominant? The answer is it’s both! You can plug this synthetic in over major or dominant chords. You’ll notice that with the added notes, the scale doesn’t neatly fit into a bar of 4/4. That can be a good thing, as it will yield some “over the barline” phrasing and force you into grouping notes together in a new way.

Ex. 2 shows C major’s related minor scale, A minor, and Ex. 2a gives you the synthetic variation. It’s the same synthetic scale as C major but now starting on A. Notice that the note groupings and interval relationships have changed, just like they do from major to relative minor. These changes will open up more unusual phrasing possibilities and some very unexpected sounds, particularly in the leap from Eb to D (b9 to tonic).

Onto the arpeggios: Ex. 3 starts out innocently enough with a Cmaj7 arpeggio but quickly gets wild with the Ab-Bb-B-C-Eb sound, extracting the b6, b7, and b3 that give the C major synthetic its outside character. Notice how the B-E-Ab is really just an E triad that has wormed its way into the line. Hidden triads are another fringe benefit of synthetic scales. Ex. 4 reveals another angle to play the C major synthetic triad, and Ex. 5 transposes it to A minor.

Ex. 6 applies synthetics to a iii-VI-ii-V-I chord progression. The even bars- 2 and 4- A7 and G7, use conventional bebop lines. It’s in the odd bars- 1, 3, and 5- Em7, Dm7, and C, where we throw a monkey wrench in with syntehtics. The Em7 bar is derived from an E synthetic minor scale, a perfect fifth higher than the A minor synthetic from Ex. 2a. The Dm7 is derived from a D minor synthetic scale, one whole step below the E minor synthetic. The Cmaj7 bar uses notes from the C major synthetic and the C major synthetic arpeggio. In the Em7 and Dm7 bars, I was careful to avoid “running” the scales, instead looking for interesting and “sharp-elbowed” melodic cells for the lines.

Arpeggio Examples

What makes these synthetics sound so convincing? It’s all in the where. Too many synthetics give the impression that you’re playing your ax upside down it sounds like a lot of wrong notes. The key is to go in and out of the synthetics, so that they sound “outside.” Beat placement is the key. Notice the b5 on beat 1 in the Em7 bar, and the b9 on beat 1 in the Dm7 bar both non-chord tones. Beat 1 is the strongest beat in the measure, with beat 3 being the second strongest beat. Putting chord tones on beats 1 and 3 anchors and conveys the sound of a chord, while putting non-chord tones on those beats gives the line an outside quality.

After you’ve investigated the examples in this column, I encourage you to develop your own synthetic variations. Let your ear be the guide as you seek to introduce non-chord tones into your major and minor scales and arpeggios. Then, just as I have, create some lines that have real-world application.

Guitarist Mark Tonelli performs in the NYC area with his group and as guitarist with the Jazz Knights of West Point. He has worked with artists such as Jon Faddis, Clay Aiken, Lynn Seaton, Rita Moreno, Ed Soph, Bobby Rydell, and The Platters and his original music has been heard on NPR. Mark is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in music and music education at Columbia University, Teachers College. Learn more at

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