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Soloing Outside the Box: Using the Altered Scale on the V7 (Dominant) Chord

Christian Wissmuller • ArchivesCurrent IssueFocus SessionOctober 2021 • October 26, 2021

by David Garfield


In jazz improvisation we typically work from the classic modes that go with each position of the scale, i.e. Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, et cetera. These improvisational techniques work across all styles of music, but are mostly associated with jazz because it features lots of improvisation within the forms and structures of the songs. The 2, 5, 1 progression is one of the cornerstones of jazz and popular music, and when using the basic modes to improvise you typically use the Dorian, Mixolydian modes for the 2 and 5, which sound the same as the major scale on the root key (Ionian or 1 chord). To spice up the sounds and textures of the 2, 5, 1 progression, and particularly the 5 chord which is the dominant 7th, we can use what I call the “altered scale” in place of the mixolydian. The altered scale is: half step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, whole step – i.e. the key of C a G7 altered scale would be: G, A♭, B♭, B, D♭, E♭, F. This is actually a combination of the diminished and whole tone scales and is sometimes referred to as a “diminished whole tone scale.” I like to think of this as the melodic minor scale that starts 1/2 step above the root. To use these notes for improvising on a dominant 7th chord and to use these notes in the chord voicing will give you these alterations: flat 9, sharp 9, flat 5th(+11), flat 13th(+5), and dominant 7th. Please see example number 1 on the opposite page.

When improvising over a 2, 5, 1 progression on the 5 chord when using the altered scales, you can emphasize the minor tonality of the minor key 1/2 step above as previously mentioned. Therefore, on G7 work in the key of A♭minor, developing motifs which will resolve eventually to the 1 chord, C major. Please see examples 2-5.

When you look at the notes in the altered scale you’ll see that they actually correspond to the notes for the dominant 7th chord a tritone (3 whole steps) away. ie… G7 altered has the notes of D♭7 +11 (or flatted 5th) going further with this you now can substitute this other dominant 7th chord and it gives you a slightly different tonality although the notes are all the same. This is commonly referred to as “Tritone Substitution.”

The diminished scale is whole step, half step from top to bottom and the whole tone scale is whole steps from top to bottom. This altered scale is half of one, half of the other, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the “diminished whole tone scale.” This also sets us up to use the whole tone scale or diminished scale which are symmetrical and repeat themselves when starting from every position (in the whole tone scale) and from every other position (in the diminished scale). See examples 6 and 7. In my next piece I’ll go into diminished and whole tome patterns which repeat themselves in regular intervals as well as how to construct cool and unusual voicings using these three scales.

Altered Scale Examples Lastly, because we have established this relative minor key 1/2 step above the 5 chord, we can drift into minor motifs such as pentatonic patterns or other melodic minor patterns and melodies to create this alternative sound of the altered scale which resolves perfectly to the 1 chord as well as others. You can practice the altered scale and the melodic minor scale, which starts on the second note of the altered scale. Play several octaves on your instrument with the metronome at slow tempos and then speed up the tempo when it’s really under your fingers. It’s also important to be able to play the scale non-sequentially. In other words, making patterns which skip intervals and go up and down at different times. See examples 8, 9, 10, and 11.

While recording my ongoing Outside The Box series I’ve used this technique many times in my improvisations, chord voicings and arrangements. Check out my versions of “My Favorite Things,” “Prophecy,” “Hunting Heads,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “East Lou Brew” to hear more examples of these techniques.


A world-renowned keyboard artist, producer, and composer, David Garfield is the creative force behind the production of many internationally acclaimed recordings. Starting out with jazz greats such as Willie Bobo, Freddie Hubbard, and Tom Scott in the ’70s and quickly becoming a mainstay of the L.A. music scene for many years, Garfield is currently promoting his ongoing Outside The Box project which features guest stars such as Larry Coryell, Airto Moreira, Wallace Roney, Smokey Robinson, George Benson, Michael McDonald, David Sanborn, members of the Zac Brown Band, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and Tower Of Power. He has also recorded with Van Morrison, The Rippingtons, Natalie Cole, Cher, Spinal Tap, and Dave Koz, among many others.

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