Four-Note Scales from Melodic Minor

Well, can we call a four-note scale a scale at all? Possibly not, particularly the ones we’ll be looking at, since the even spread of four notes is more reminiscent of an arpeggio than a scale. But conceptualising them as scales can be very useful as a device for soloing. What’s more, there are ways of expanding these structures to become more properly scale-like, which we’ll touch on at the end.

Herbie Hancock's solo concept draws a lot on the melodic minor sound

Herbie Hancock’s solo concept draws a lot on the melodic minor sound


There’s nothing new under the sun, they say, and certainly this chord-scale appears all over the place. Off the top of my head, there’s Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge, Horace Silver’s Nica’s Dream, Gigi Gryce’s Minority, and many others. But it is true to say that extensive (and extended) use of the melodic minor sound is a signature sound of what we could loosely call post-bop jazz – 1960s onwards.

Let’s take a look at a really convenient shorthand way of playing in the melodic minor sound on a whole load of different chord types.

There are two gestures, groups of notes, that succinctly and unambiguously define the sound of a melodic minor scale. They are root, minor 3rd, 5th, major 7th and minor 3rd, 5th, major 7th, 9th. Pianists use these structures often as left-hand voicings (they’re known as “grips”). They are given here in C melodic minor:

They can also be used as four-note scales:


These scales will fit over any chord from the parent melodic minor key – in fact, they do more than fit, they describe the tonality very accurately in a minimum of notes. Here is the full breakdown of chords from C melodic minor (the chords that aren’t often used are given for reference in brackets):

CΔ (Dsusb9) EbΔ+5 F7+11 (G7b13) Aø B7alt


Some people think them in chord types like this. Others prefer to label them as altered versions of the modes of the major scale. So you might see them referred to as: Minor-Major, Dorian b2, Lydian Augmented, Lydian Dominant, Mixolydian b6, Locrian #2 and Super Locrian. Up to you, but a scale by another name would sound as sweet.

Anyway, if you do your homework in this way, you get seven chords for the price of one.

The second grip (mel-min 9) is sometimes known as the "Bond chord". It's that spronggg sound you hear in John Barry's arrangement, usually at the end of a huge fight

The second grip (mel-min 9th) is sometimes known as the “Bond chord”. It’s that spronggg sound you hear, courtesy of John Barry, usually at the end of a whacking great fight

As when looking at pentatonics, it’s best to learn the chords from each melodic minor key as a set. Internalising these four-note structures will help you to see the geography of the melodic minor keys very quickly.

Now having just four notes to work with may seem limiting. But these groups have the virtue of pinpointing the really interesting chord tones. They are very useful in situations where the chords are flashing by quickly. You can also cascade them up and down to change register, or drop them into a line when you’re soloing in a fuller scale style.


Note that in certain cases the root is absent from the four-note scale. In these cases you can expand the scale to five notes by adding it, for instance:



Which effectively gives us another batch of pentatonics to play with – although I’d say it’s probably easier to think of them as “grip plus root”.

While we’re on the subject, this idea holds true for pentatonics as well. Wherever the pentatonic is missing the root of the chord you’re playing it over, that root is always fair game – but be aware that you are slightly disrupting the pure pentatonic sound. However, it’s never wrong to play the root in a solo.

In fact, a lot of students get all wrapped up in whizzbang harmonic concepts and easily forget that the two strongest tones you can play in a solo line are the root and the 5th…

These ideas are extracted from my books Pentatonic & Hexatonic Scales in Jazz and A Compendium of Jazz Voicings.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, b) Harmony & Comping
4 comments on “Four-Note Scales from Melodic Minor
  1. Great stuff!

    I just ordered your Pentatonic/Hexatonic book a couple of days ago and thought that I’d let you know that this blog was the selling point for me.

    It is so hard to tell where someone is “coming from” and I know that certain perspectives of jazz do and don’t work for me, so thanks for having so much here for me to get the feel of what the book will have to offer.

  2. Christian C. Nwagbara says:

    Thank you Mr Jason Lyon for the blog. It is full of vital information and resource for both the beginner and advanced jazz pianist. Thanks communicating your musical thoughts in simplicity. God Blessed!!!

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: