Using Upper Structures in Solos

Upper structures: the art of doing ordinary things in extraordinary places...

Upper structures: the art of doing ordinary things in unusual places… (and that’s going to be one hell of a snap hook)

The key to using “upper structures” is to observe that simple major and minor triads exist in the upper reaches of altered dominant chords. These structures are often used by pianists and guitarists in chord voicings, but they are also very effective in solo lines.

Had you considered that you can play, for instance, an F#m triad over C7b9, or an F major triad over A7alt?

Using upper structures works on two levels, because not only are you nailing a lovely little clutch of some of the tastiest alterations in one gesture, you are also playing a clean triad – just not an obvious one…

The two commonest alterations to the dominant chord are 7b9 and 7alt. The scales that go with each are as follows:



The upper structure triads that fit these chord qualities, along with the chord tones they describe on the home dominant chord, are as follows:




  • Excuse the technically incorrect enharmonic spellings. They’re actually part of the deal when you’re dealing with an unexpected chord over another.
  • Note that F# and Ebm triads fit both chord types.
  • Other triads are possible, but not as useful because they don’t include enough interesting chord tones.

The way to internalise these in all keys is to think of them in Roman numeral notation. So Upper Structure #IV is a major triad built on the #IVth degree of the home chord (in the case of C, this is F#). Upper Structure bIIIm is a minor triad built on the bIIIrd degree (in the case of C, Ebm). And so forth.

Chick Corea makes lots of use of upper structures

Chick Corea has always made lots of use of upper structures



7b9 Upper Structures

  • Major triads: bIII #IV VI
  • Minor triads: bIIIm #IVm

7alt Upper Structures

  • Major triads: #IV bVI
  • Minor triads: #Im bIIIm

7b9 / 7alt Upper Structures (work over both)

  • #IV bIIIm

Focusing on these triads in solo lines hits the interesting chord tones over the dominant and allows for strong parallel structures between the II and V chords. The triads can also be made to resolve smoothly into a chord tone on the I chord. Some examples:

                  Gm7          C7b9          FM

Combining two or more triads over the dominant becomes more useful in double-length phrases:

Note also that it’s common to imply first one, then the other dominant alteration on the same chord, even when the alterations don’t appear on the chart:


Oh, and any of these figures can be adapted for use over a minor II-V-I – just flat the 5th on the II chord and flat the 3rd on the I chord.


The altered chord-scale is a mode of the melodic minor scale. For instance, C7alt is the VIIth mode of Db melodic minor. This means that the upper structure triads that work over C7alt will also work over all the other chord qualities from that “parent” melodic minor scale.

Db melodic minor


The chords that go with this scale are:

DbΔm, (Ebsusb9), EΔ+5, (Ab7b13), Gb7+4, Bbm7b5, C7alt

The chords given in parentheses are less commonly used.

So you can use the relevant upper structure triads interchangeably over all these chords.

Ultimately, you really need to know all the chords from melodic minor as a set or family in every key. Do strive for this, but I’ll admit it’s a bit of a headful, so why not start by picking a few favourite upper structure triads over, for instance the half-diminished and tonic minor chords that appear in the standard repertoire you play.

As you look through the chord changes to a standard, decide in advance on certain upper structure triads that you’re going to drop in over particular chords.

For instance, over the first two chords of Stella by Starlight, you could preplan a D major triad over the Em7b5 and a C minor triad over the A7alt, and aim to hook the two together smoothly when you take your solo.

It’s probably least confusing to internalise thoroughly the upper structure triads on 7alt chords first and then learn the melodic minor chord families later. This is a quite demanding piece of book-bashing, but it’s well worth it – it will totally change the way you play.

Good luck with this approach, and feel free to contribute your ideas below.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, b) Harmony & Comping
6 comments on “Using Upper Structures in Solos
  1. Christian says:

    Hi Jason,

    Great blog! Interesting and entertaining reading.

    Just wanted to point out to students that you kind find examples of this throughout be-bop and post bop tunes. It’s good to identify this kind of thing in actual jazz music in your transcriptions and repertoire.

    It probably started with swing players using m6 chords on dominants – for example you’d play Dm6 on a G7 chord, creating a G9 tonality – Lester Young was very fond of this.

    Charlie Christian uses some mad ones – Bbmin over C7, Em6 on A7 in the key of D minor and so on.

    A classic example of minor triads in the upper structure of an altered dominant in the bridge of Hot House. Great tune to study for minor ii-V-I and altered dominant language.

    Also, on the head Cheryl, Parker uses an Ebm6 arpeggio on the chord Bb. Kerazy. I suppose you are looking at a mixolydian b6 tonality there? (mode V of melodic minor.)

    The great thing is you can get the chord/scale sound while playing a strong melodic line rather than a bunch of steps and half steps.

    Like you say elsewhere the upper structure or substitute sound is generally played pretty simple. Just a descending or ascending arpeggio with a strong rhythm will sound hip enough on its own.

    Hope all is well with the TL gang.

    Catch you soon,


  2. Jason says:

    Hi Chris – thanks for chipping in there.

    I’d say that Bbm over C7 could be seen as a susb9 sound (effectively using a minor turnaround in a major context) and Em6 over A7 in D minor could be the reverse – using a major turnaround in a minor context. Either that or they were just being naughty boys and played what they felt like and hang the changes!
    As to Ebm over Bb, I haven’t an earthly…

    Haven’t seen you in a while. Bring your axe down sometime.

  3. Frankie says:

    Some great info on these pages. Back to the woodshed for another six months.

  4. Here’s my 3 chord, Louie-Louie take on adding minor-ish or bluesy notes to upper structures…I know of only 2 others that consisently use the whole system: Thad Jones and Keith Jarrett. And, no, I don’t need to be told that it’s an alt scale: this is about using i-IV-V triads as melody generators. Scales are just scales.

  5. […] תורגם מאנגלית על ידי גלעד חצב 30/05/2016 | המאמר המקורי נכתב על ידי Jason lyon | לינק כאן […]

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Books for Sale
...appetising young books for sale... Pents book is recommended reading on Gary Burton's Berklee course.

%d bloggers like this: