When improvising over a maj7 chord in a jazz or modern improvisational context, most guitarists will fall back on one of two sounds, the major scale and the Lydian mode.
While both of these scales offer the right melodic content to navigate a maj7 chord, producing either a natural 11 or #11 interval in that context, there are a few other melodic devices that you can add to your repertoire to help you expand your maj7 improvisational pallet.
One of these devices is the Lydian Pentatonic Scale.
While this scale may not be as popular as its cousins the Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales, the Lydian Pentatonic Scale can offer a fresh approach to soloing over maj7 chords, while at the same time retaining the Lydian #11 sound and being related to the Major Pentatonic Scale that you may already have under your fingers.
In this article we’ll explore the harmonic and melodic possibilities of the Lydian Pentatonic Scale, so grab your axe, crank your amp and let’s dig in!
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The scale contains five notes, as does any other pentatonic scale, and is built by taking the Major Pentatonic Scale and replacing the 5th with the #4.
Since it is so closely related to the Lydian Mode, you can use this scale to improvise over a maj7 chord or the more specific maj7#11 chord.
Here is how those two scales are built and how they compare and contrast:
Major Pentatonic Scale
Lydian Pentatonic Scale
This means that if you already know the Major Pentatonic Scale and a few fingerings for that scale, you simply lower the 5th by one fret and you’ve created a Lydian Pentatonic Scale fingering.
This is a great way to think about this, and any other, scale you are learning as it allows you to alter something you already know to create a new idea, rather than start from scratch every time you need to add a new item to your vocabulary.
Here is how those two scales look like on paper, starting on the note F, for comparison.
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If you already know the Pentatonic Major Scale, especially in the commonly used “5 positions,” then all you have to do is find the 5th in each of those fingerings, lower it by a fret and you’ve got yourself five positions of the Lydian Pentatonic Scale.
For those of you that are new to this scale, or you just want to expand your current knowledge of scale fingerings in a new direction, I have written out four of my favorite fingerings for the Lydian Pentatonic Scale below.
Each root, the 6th and 5th strings, has an “in position” and a “shifting” fingering that allows you to either stay in one position or slide up the neck depending on where you want to go with you lines at any given time during an improvisation.
One of the keys to becoming a better jazz guitarist is to work on your improvising chops as you work on your technical vocabulary.
So, after you’ve learned a fingering for the Lydian Pentatonic Scale, put on a static vamp, maybe Fmaj7, and then improvise over that chord while using that particular position of the scale.
This will not only help you internalize the different shapes of the scale, as you will have to know them to use them in your solos, but it will also help you apply this knowledge to a practical, musical situation.
If you find a one-chord vamp too easy, you can try improvising over a standard you know or are learning and apply the Lydian Pentatonic Scale every time you come across a maj7 chord to hear how it sounds in the context of a tune.
Here are four of my favorite positions of the Lydian Pentatonic Scale:
Below are two examples of a pattern that I like to use when practicing the Lydian Pentatonic Scale in different keys and in different positions across the neck.
The pattern, which is shown both ascending and descending, has a melodic and rhythmic component to it, which when combined give a nice Bill Evans meets Kurt Rosenwinkel vibe to the phrase.
The melodic aspect of the line is fairly straight forward.
The pattern is basically 123-234-345 etc. all the way up, and then down, the scale.
While this pattern might sound a bit boring if you were to play it up a traditional major scale mode, because the Pentatonic Scale has built in intervallic skips to its construction, there are some very cool intervals that pop out when you apply this melodic pattern to this, or any, Pentatonic Scale fingering.
There is also a rhythmic side to this pattern that will help you develop your rhythmic vocabulary and rhythmic control as you learn the scale and work out the melodic pattern.
The rhythm that I chose for this exercise is a dotted quarter note followed by two sixteenth notes, which is then repeated every two beats throughout the entire phrase.
Go slow with this rhythm.
If you are having trouble playing it with the scale, try working it out on one note or on a scale you already know, then go back to the Lydian Pentatonic Scale and the melodic pattern to bring all three ideas together in the practice room.
The first lick below uses the Dorian Pentatonic Scale over the Dm7 chord, the Mixolydian Pentatonic Scale over the G7 chord and the Lydian Pentatonic Scale over the Cmaj7 chord, which all come from a ii-V-I progression in the key of C major.
Though the Lydian sound is more associated with the IV chord in any major key, which would be Fmaj7 in the key of C major, you can use the Lydian sound over a Imaj7 chord as well in an improvisational context, which implies a Cmaj7#11 chord instead of the traditional Cmaj7 sound.
When using a Lydian Pentatonic Scale in this fashion, let your ears be your guide.
If it sounds good to you then go for it, but don’t force the scale into your lines just because you read it in an article. If you don’t like the Lydian Pentatonic Scale in this context don’t worry, just find another context to use this scale and don’t try and force the sound in if it doesn’t work for you.
Having said that, if your ears like this sound then go for it and explore it to the fullest extent in your improvisations.
In the second lick, I used the same scales, but this time with more of a focus on varying the rhythm and keeping the lick moving down the neck for the entire phrase.
One of the traps that we can fall into is relying too much on fingerings and box patterns to dictate how and where we play our lines, so phrases like this go a long way in opening up the neck and getting you moving around laterally as well as vertically during your solos.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know what material to work on in the practice room in order to take your guitar playing to the next level.
While there is myriad material out there to work on, sometimes taking something like the Major Pentatonic Scale, and altering one note to create a new sound, can be enough to propel your creativity and inspiration to new heights in the practice room and on the bandstand.
What are your thoughts on the Lydian Pentatonic Scale? Do you use it already or are you planning on checking it out in the practice room? Let us know in the comments section below.
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