Gypsy jazz scales

One interesting feature of writing a blog is that you get information about the search terms which people have used to get to your site. One of the most popular search combinations that finds this site is ‘gypsy jazz scales’ so I thought I had better post my view on this subject:

There are no scales in gypsy jazz

Of course without qualification this might seem a little extreme but I am sure that if all novice gypsy jazz guitarists started from this premise then they would get going a lot faster, I know that I would have saved a lot of time learning any sort of jazz guitar style if I had initially ignored scales but it is especially relevant to gypsy jazz guitar.

If one looks at the general pattern of notes played in gypsy jazz the overwhelming pattern is of arpeggios with chromatic decoration – by that I mean the standard arpeggio notes of a chord, e.g. C E G for a C major chord, with other notes just above and below them.

Take a very common, and great sounding, Django lick which just consists of the three note of a major arpeggio (or more strictly major triad) and the notes a semitone below each of these – B C, Eb E, F sharp G, B C  – that sounds like authentic gypsy jazz doesn’t it?  It is very easy to see how this relates to the C major chord on the fretboard especially if you start on the B at the 9th fret on the D string and so it is very easy to see when you might use that lick simply by playing through the chords of the tune. If instead you analysed these notes in terms of a scale you would get – root, minor third, major third, flattened fifth, perfect fifth, major seventh – which doesn’t make any sense at all.

So my advice to any gypsy jazz guitarist just starting out is to ignore scales and practice lots of arpeggios. The triads – root,  third and fifth are a good starting point and then later add major sixths (sevenths don’t feature much in gypsy jazz, especially minor and major sevenths). You have to be careful how you choose to play the arpeggios, the temptation on the guitar is always to start on the bottom string and work across the strings but in gypsy jazz many arpeggios in solos will start on higher strings and go up and down the fretboard rather than across. For this reason it is best to get one of the excellent tuition books that are available and start from there. At the moment I am getting a lot of use out of Robin Nolan’s Essential Gypsy Jazz Licks which contains many of the most important decorated arpeggio patterns but I will be reviewing some alternatives to that on the site soon.

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17 Responses to Gypsy jazz scales

  1. [...] Thinking about my post on gypsy jazz scales it seemed to me that it would be better if I could produce examples of arpeggio licks for readers to try. After a little fiddling around here is my first one (as described in the earlier post). It is simply the notes of a C major triad (or any other major triad if you slide it up and down the fretboard) with additional notes a semi-tone below each. The numbers show the order in which the notes should be played. [...]

  2. Christopher Brown says:

    You are correct in that scales are not nearly as important as arpeggios and melodic phrases. But I have two qualifying observations:

    1) Michael Horowitz has a lesson in his superb website on scales in Gypsy Jazz–though mostly these are for analytic purposes.

    2) More significantly: the one major exception is the harmonic minor when it is used as a dominant scale for the V chord–Am harmonic minor used over an E7(b9). Django uses this scale–pretty much straight with only a few embellishment, and usually descending–on such tunes as Blue Drag, Dark Eyes and Blues en Mineur just to mention a few. I have found that it is very useful to PRACTICE this scale for use in these sorts of dominant to tonic minor passages.

  3. steve says:

    Hi,

    It seems that if someone were doing a search on Gypsy Jazz scales, it would mean they are interested in learning ways to approach the style.

    Answering there are noGypsy Jazz scales, that’s like answering What is Jazz ? by responding if you don’t know, then you never will, Hah! Rather pessimistic, sarcastic, and defensive, don’t you think?

    The point is that scales are to music as the alphabet and words are to language. The language of any style can be approached by the scales associated with that particular style. For example, “the Blues scale” probably wasn’t called the blues scale before there was music called Blues, yet people use the scale as a basis to assimilate the particular melodic phrases that make Blues specifically blues, rather than something else, like Bebop.

    Check out Minor scales, Gypsy minor scales, Major Scales, Arpegios, Emin7-9 scales, etc…start playing minor over relative major…you start sounding Gypsy. Don’t forget to really swing.

  4. Preefhailla says:

    hello good music blog!!!

  5. Michael says:

    I don’t think that it is wise to say “ignore scales”… that’s just ridiculous.

    Even arpeggios will be limiting. You get your ideas from practicing. If you dont practice a harmonic minor scale… how will the intervals register in your brain?

    Then when it comes to improv you will be limited. Arpeggios are a great tool. But you learn those to get ideas of the spaces between intervals. Even arpeggios will sound mechanical if your just randomly playing correct notes within a change. It will still sound pretty good… just machanical.. so the real thing that one must do is.

    Here is my idea i heard from an incredible jazz musician.
    Take Dorian for example. Hum the dorian minor scale over a minor chord. Make sure and ONLY use those intervals… After a while you will get a sense of what those intervals sound like.. you create ideas with those intervals… then after that start adding chroatics if you want.. then go for a triadal approach.. All this does is SOLIDIFY a Dorian concept that you can pull out in the when ever you feel it. Just think if you practices all scales and arpeggios like this.

    you would be solid! Have tons of ideas!!!

    Never limit yourself from learning concepts… just learn them all thoroughly.

  6. Rob says:

    This has been an excellent article; even the comments alone, have made it worth my time. Really good advice on humming the dorian scale while playing the minor chord. That’s good for any jazz musician regardless of the instrument.

    Kind regards,

    Rob
    Archtop Guitar Sale

  7. Holmes says:

    Hi Simon,

    I really dig your blog. I am a year into the journey and sites like yours really help us new guys out! I was curious as to whether you would like to part with your Gypsy Jazz licks. I am looking for this book but it is out of print now (http://shoppingcart.djangobooks.com/ecom-prodshow/nolan_licks.html?source=googlebase). Would you be interested in selling me your copy?!

    Thanks, Holmes

  8. Finally, I located the information I was searching for. I have been doing research on this subject, and for two days I keep entering sites that are supposed to have what I’m looking for, only to be disappointed with the lack of what I had to have. I wish I could have located your website quicker! I had about 40% of what I needed and your website has that, and the rest of what I had to have to finish my research. Thank you and keep up the good work!

  9. Thanks for the Information, thanks for your useful Post. I will come back soon ! Great information about guitar playing: learn and master guitar

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  14. here says:

    Im having a small problem. I cant get my reader to pick up your feed, Im using aol reader by the way.

  15. maimouna says:

    if scales to musik like alphabets to words than its useless to lern them if you want to improvise and play musik.or do you lerned first the alphabet and than talking.the gypsys i play with from time to time never lerned scales or some
    ´´must know western theory rules´´and they sound awesome and sorry much richer then the most studied jazzmusicians i played with.sorry for my bad englis its not my mother tongue but i hope you get what i try to say.

  16. Wetdog88 says:

    Here’s the deal. The geniuses like Django or Miles or Bach invent beauty and it astounds us. We try to do that too but it is difficult. There is not necessarily a theory at the time it’s invented explaining WHY it sounds good until us lesser souls figure it out and pass it on. To debate if gypsy music has scales is pointless. Some call them scales, some call them arpeggios. In order to show the next guy how to do it we name it and make some rule. So what is wrong with learning scales, learning arpeggios, learn all the theory you can AND hang out with some funky gypsy dudes that don’t know the names of the chords but can play the shit out of a tune? It’s all about making it swing and having fun. So stop arguing and start playing!!!

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