Music professor and friend of the magazine Mark Whetzel outlines a creative approach to the Lydian mode in the context of jazz guitar improvisation.
Perhaps you've been playing jazz for awhile and you're finally getting your major scale modes together.
But you notice as you play, that although you're making the changes OK, there is still something missing. Maybe your favorite guitarists have some cool harmonic things happening in their playing that you want to incorporate into what you're doing.
One of the best ways to make your playing sound more jazz-like is to use modes and scales that add interesting notes (harmonies) to a chord.
These notes aren't typically part of the major scale modes.
Let's look at some theory and then explore a few ways to use a simple harmonic device to make your dominant seventh chords sound a little more hip.
Read more: Guitar Lessons 101
How To Start Improvising Over Dominant 7th Chords
Dominant seventh chords (G7 for example) serve lots of purposes in jazz harmony.
Also, maybe more so than any other type of chord, they have lots of harmonic possibilities. This is in part because of the many extensions that you frequently see in these chords (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, etc).
For now we are simply going to change one note in order to add some harmonic interest.
You might recognize the mode below as a D mixolydian:
The D mixolydian mode is the same thing as playing a G major scale starting on the 5th note (D). Since the V chord in the key of G major is a D7, this mode outlines a D7 chord.
Another way of thinking about it is that it's simply a D major scale with the seventh note lowered a half step or one fret:
The mixolydian is usually the mode of choice for beginning jazz students to play over a dominant 7th chord.
You'll also hear it used by some blues and rock players too.
Notice that it contains all of the notes of the D7 chord (D, F♯, A, C) as well as the 9th, 11th and 13th.
A More Creative Approach
While the mixolydian mode does outline the chord, it can sound a little bland after a while.
In order to add some variety, let's take the fourth note (G) and raise it one fret:
The raised fourth note is also called a ♯4th or ♯11th.
This sound is referred to as lydian and is fairly common in jazz. You also see the ♯4 applied to other chords such as major 7th and, less frequently, minor 7th.
A mixolydian mode with a ♯4 is typically called a lydian dominant mode because it contains the ♯4 (or ♯11) and it outlines a dominant chord. Notice that this is the only alteration. The other extensions (the 9th and 13th) remain unaltered.
Learning To Hear The Lydian Dominant Sound
The cool thing about the lydian dominant sound is that while it adds variety to a 7th chord, it's not so dissonant that it sounds out of place.
You can use this sound over virtually any dominant chord.
This includes blues as well as standards. In order to better hear this sound, the graphic below shows various types of D dominant chords that incorporate this lydian tonality:
For those of you who are savvy in theoretical matters, you'll notice that these chord voicings don't contain the 5th (A) of D7.
The sharp 4th is the same note as a flat 5th and you often see a lydian dominant chord written as a 7♭5. So a C7♯11 and a C7♭5 would often times be played the same way.
Technically there is a difference. However, for chord voicing purposes, the 5th of a dominant 7th chord voicing is often lowered one fret to produce the ♯4. Having both notes in the chord (the ♯4 and 5) is possible but it has to voiced carefully.
Organizing Lydian Dominant Modes On The Fingerboard
Now let's look at some common fingerings for a D lydian dominant mode. We'll start with some one octave fingerings:
Here are some expanded fingerings. I've included reference chords based on familiar barre chord fingerings.
This will help expose the relationship between the chord and scale.
All these fingerings are more than one octave and a couple of them are a full two octaves:
As you can probably guess, there are several additional ways to play this mode.
For now just select two or three fingerings that are comfortable for you and go from there. And remember, any mixolydian fingering you know can be turned into a lydian dominant by simply raising the fourth note one fret.
Creative Ways To Practice
Ultimately we want to create musical ideas with this scale.
Now that we're familiar with a few ways to play the mode, let's look at some patterns that we can practice, as well as a few melodic ideas that we can use in our solos.
Feel free to write out the above exercises using some other fingerings we learned earlier. You can use a program like Guitar Pro 6 to easily create similar tab sheets and standard notation.
You could even come up with some of your own exercise sheets.
Adding Lydian Dominant Musical Examples To Your Vocabulary
Here are two phrases using the D lydian dominant mode.
Try adding them to your improvising vocabulary and look for situations to practice tunes where you can fit them in.
Experiment with hammer-ons and pull-offs to give them a legato, Scofield-type sound.
Finally, here are a few examples of the lydian dominant mode used in some common chord progressions:
Here's another cool aspect of this mode that can really outline the lydian dominant sound.
Below is a D7 arpeggio with all of it's extensions from the lydian dominant mode.
This chord could be written as D13(♯11). For those of you unfamiliar with the term “arpeggio,” it simply means to play the notes of a chord individually rather than all at once.
It's an Italian term that means “in the manner of a harp.”
Not surprisingly, the first three notes of the chord are a D major triad.
This makes sense since it's the foundation of the chord.
But the last three notes of the chord (E, G♯ and B) spell an E major triad. This E major triad gives us all of the extensions in the chord from the D lydian dominant mode.
This is a useful device.
Now we can play licks based off of a D major and E major triad. Check out the following phrase:
This gives us a keenly open sound.
Many contemporary players use this approach where they are playing lines based on triads.
The symmetrical nature of combining the two major triads a whole step apart is what really makes this approach unique.
It's the same notes as the scale, but played in a more vertical fashion (stacking triads) rather than horizontal (playing the notes of the scale in a linear fashion).
You may notice that the B7 of the chord is left out.
While this is an important note in the chord, it's not necessary in this case to bring out the lydian tonality. The symmetrical nature of combining the two major triads a whole step apart is what really makes this approach unique.
Of course this works with any dominant chord.
Simply play a major triad starting on the root and another major triad starting a whole step above.
The Melodic Minor Scale: A Different Way To Think About Lydian Dominant
Before we wrap up the subject of lydian dominants, let's look at one more way to achieve the same harmonic result with a different approach.
It would be difficult to think of a more important scale in jazz improvisation than the melodic minor scale.
It has many uses over a variety of different chords.
Although classical musicians utilize an ascending and descending version of the melodic minor scale, in jazz we use the ascending form. This is sometimes referred to as the "jazz minor scale."
The easiest way to construct the ascending form of the melodic minor scale is to simply lower the third note of a major scale by a half step.
Here is an A melodic minor scale:
You'll notice that the only difference between an A melodic minor scale and an A major scale is the third note. The melodic minor scale contains a “C” instead of “C♯” like the major scale.
Just like the major scale has seven modes that can be played by starting on the various notes of the scale, the melodic minor also can be broken into seven modes.
Compare the A melodic minor scale starting on the fourth note to the D lydian dominant mode we used earlier.
You'll notice that they are the same mode.
Applying The Melodic Minor Approach
From this we learn a couple things:
First, if we start on the fourth degree of a melodic minor scale, we get a lydian dominant mode.
As we saw above, D lydian dominant is the same thing as an A melodic minor scale starting on the fourth note. Likewise, a G melodic minor scale has the same notes as a C lydian dominant mode.
Second, if we harmonize a melodic minor scale to analyze it's inherent chords, the IV chord of melodic minor is a Dom7♯11.
Notice in the example below that the root of D7♯11 is the fourth note of the A melodic minor scale:
Here is the rule for thinking of lydian dominant chords from this point of view: Play a melodic minor scale starting on the 5 of the dominant 7th chord.
Let's look at this a little more closely. A “D7” chord is made up of the following notes:
- C = b7
- A = 5
- F♯ = 3
- D = 1 (root)
Since we saw earlier that A melodic minor has the same notes as D lydian dominant, we can simply play a melodic minor scale starting on the 5 of the chord which is an “A.”
This will work for any dominant 7 chord.
Here are some examples:
- C7 = G melodic minor
- A7 = E melodic minor
- G7 = D melodic minor
- F7 = C melodic minor
Benefits Of Using The Melodic Minor Approach
You may wonder why we would look at this from the melodic minor perspective after we've thoroughly explored it earlier as the lydian dominant mode.
After all, isn't it just two different ways of playing the same notes?
There are two reasons to think of the lydian dominant this way.
First, by playing melodic minor from the 5 of the chord, we tend to play licks that resolve to the 5 instead of the root of the chord. Record yourself playing an F7 chord and then compare the following two examples:
These phrases are very similar to one another.
The first lick resolves to the root of the F7 chord. The second starts on and resolves to the 5th of F7 which is C. Many would feel that the second lick sounds a bit more harmonically sophisticated.
However, in each example we're using the exact same notes.
The second reason for using the melodic minor approach is illustrated in the following two phrases:
Notice that both begin with a Cmin(maj7) arpeggio that is also incorporated elsewhere in the two licks.
That chord contains the notes, C, E♭, G and B. This is the arpeggio we get if we start on the first note of C melodic minor and is something heard widely in the jazz guitar lexicon.
Check out Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino for examples of this approach.
Things To Keep In Mind
Here are a few points to summarize what we've talked about as well as some things to keep in mind when using this approach:
- The lydian dominant is simply a dominant 7th chord with a ♯4 or ♯11. The other extensions (9th and 13th) are unaffected.
- We can think of this two ways:
- Raise the fourth note of the mixolydian mode a half-step (one fret).
- You can play a melodic minor scale starting on the 5 of whatever dominant 7th chord you're playing over. Both methods produce the same notes but typically provide a slightly different harmonic effect.
- You can apply this over virtually any dominant 7th chord.
- This is just one approach to altering a dominant chord. There are many others that provide differing degrees of dissonance. The more dissonant the harmony becomes, the more carefully you have to handle it musically.
- After becoming familiar with the various fingerings, take a song you know and begin improvising slowly, deliberately trying to incorporate the technique. This takes awhile but application is everything. Work out some of your own licks or use the above examples and gradually add them to your improvising vocabulary.