How To Play Jazz Scale Runs The Right Way

jazz scale runsIn today’s lesson, you are going to learn how to play jazz scale runs the right way.

What’s the main difference between pros and amateurs when it comes to playing jazz scale runs? It’s all about musicality!

The question is how do you play jazz scale runs musically?

Here we’re going to talk about how you can transform your technical aptitude into real music.

First Step: Listen To What A Scale Run Is

The first thing we need to do is hear an example of what a scale run is. Take a minute and watch David Garfield (co-author of the Jazz Improvisation Super System) show you. After that we’ll break it down further below.

Walk Through Your Scales Before Running

jazz scale runsBefore you even decide to add jazz scale runs to your improvised solos, you have to be able to actually play the scales first on your piano keyboard.

You need to develop those chops!

First start out by slowly practicing your scales using correct and consistent fingering.

Now, consistent fingering is the key to doing jazz scale runs. Why? This is because if your fingering is consistent, you will be to play accurately.

Now, when choosing scale fingerings, always make sure that you are using ones that will keep your hands at their most natural functional shape at all times.

If you use correct fingering principles, you’ll also become very efficient in shifting positions on top of the piano keyboard.

Scale Fingering Principles

Consider these fingering principles when working out your jazz scale runs:

jazz scale runs1. For any seven-note scale, the typical fingering sequence is 1-2-3-1-2-3-4 for the right hand and 4-3-2-1-3-2-1 for the left hand. Fingers 1 and 5 are most suitable for playing white keys while fingers 2, 3, and 4 would take care of the black keys.

2. Here’s an example of efficient fingering for playing jazz scale runs: play a B major scale with the right hand (use fingering 1-2-3-1-2-3-4 for B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A#). Afterwards, play a Db major scale with your left hand (use fingering 3-2-1-4-3-2-1 for Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C).

You should pattern every scale fingering from what’s described above.

3. Economy of motion is important. You should be able to play the sale without big movements or awkward shifts.

How to Practice Your Scales

jazz scale runsNow that you’re reading about scales, you need learn how to practice them effectively.

By practicing scales properly, you will be able to perform jazz scale runs easily.

In fact, when properly practiced, playing scales will become second nature.

This is what you want to achieve through practice: The ability to play jazz scale runs effortlessly.

Here are the steps for you to practice your scales effectively:

  1. Play a metronome or (better yet) a backing track at a slow and manageable tempo. Backing tracks give your practice sessions a more musical feel.
  2. Practice hands separate at first and then hands together.
  3. Practice linearly at first.
  4. Afterwards, practice playing scale tones randomly as if in improvisation.
  5. Practice some note sequences, patterns, and phrases based on the scales you are working on.
  6. Once you get used to the tempo of your jam track, ramp the tempo up.
  7. Make sure that jam track or metronome tempo is slow enough for you to execute the scale correctly but should be enough to give you a challenge.
  8. Ramp up the tempo as soon as the current tempo you are practicing in becomes too easy.

How to Learn Scales More Efficiently

In an ideal world, you can learn all of the scales in music.

The problem is in reality there’s not enough time out there to do that!

jazz scale runsFortunately, we’ve sorted everything out.

You don’t have to figure out for yourself which scales to practice.

What you can do is go ahead and learn the essential scales for jazz and blues inside the Ultimate Jazz Scales Book.

The Ultimate Jazz Scales Book will guide you regarding the best scales that you can use over the most common chords in jazz.

This master scale book not only shows you the right scale for the right chord, but it also guides you towards playing scales in all 12 keys.

Now that you know how to play your jazz scales on the piano, let’s go ahead and learn how to actually use them in improvisation.

Use A Straight Scale Run Right Before Hitting A Chord Tone

jazz scale runsNow, let’s say you are improvising a solo over a V7 chord over four beats leading to a I chord. One of the things you can do is execute a straight scale run.

Perform a straight scale run on the fourth beat and then land on a chord tone of the I chord in the next measure.

To be able to execute this properly, you need to aware of a few things:

  • The first note of the run you are going to execute
  • The distance between the first note of the run and the target note
  • The proper rhythm needed for the run to accurately land on the chord tone.

Here’s an example of David using chromatic notes in a scale run:

Can You Use A Scale Run to Setup A Key Change?

jazz scale runsNow let’s say you’re playing Satin Doll in the key of C. Given that the A section is in the key of C, the tune is going to change to the key of F in the initial half of the B section.

In this situation, you are on measures 15 and 16 with just a Cmaj7 chord over them.

Here’s one thing you can do. You can do a chord substitution over measure 16 where you have Am7 for the beats 1 and 2 and then D7 for beats 3 and 4.

What you can do is perform an A Phrygian run on beats 1 and 2 and then a D Mixolydian run on beats 3 and 4

By the way, if you’re looking for some cool lines to play over a ii – V – I progression, and want an arsenal of jazz licks to instantly insert into your playing check out the motherload of jazz learning methods here.

Fly Above The Keyboard Using A Note Sequence

jazz scale runsGiven the same situation a while ago where you’re playing Satin Doll,  go back to measures 15 and 16.

Instead of simply running across, try to fly on top of the keyboard with a note sequence.

A note sequence is a short pattern of notes that keep repeating themselves across the scale.

For example a simple note sequences for a C major scale would be like CDEF-DEFG-EFGA-FGAB, etc.

At this point, you can choose to play a 16th-note sequence based on the scales that would sound over the chords Cmaj7, Am7, and D7.

By playing a sequence instead a simple run, you end up with something that has some degree of melodic interest.

When your run is much more melodic or musical, it will leave a better impression with your listeners.

Using Rests In Between Jazz Scale Runs

jazz scale runsOnce you become confident with scale runs, you will be tempted to just run over the keyboard and sound flashy all the time.

The problem with this is that not only does it sound somewhat unnatural, it doesn’t leave anything for your listeners to remember.

All they’ll remember from that would be nothing by a slurry of notes. You don’t want that!

In improvising solos, one of your goals must always be for your listeners to remember what you play.

The most memorable solos in the history of jazz become pieces of vocabulary, and you should aspire to achieve that as well.

One of the best ways to do that, even when you’re playing scale runs, is to insert rests every now and then. You have to be conscious about “playing” those rests.

How To Use Contrast

jazz scale runsLastly, you’ll want some degree of contrast in your scale runs.

For example, you don’t just play in one direction all the time. When you go up the keyboard at one point, go down the next.

As you’ve seen in some of the given examples, you can combine these contrasting motions to come up with interesting scale runs.

This awesome Charlie Parker lick lesson is a demonstration of using contrasting ascending and descending motions across a few measures.

Dynamic contrast is also something very important. Some notes you play may be quieter that the others. Sometimes it will depend on the mood of the music. When you play a tune, carefully listen for those cues.

Here’s an example: In the beginning of your solo when the entire band’s level backs off, play softly. When the band begins to pick up in volume and intensity, go with that as well.

This is how you do it: Play an awesome scale run that gradually picks up in volume until it reaches the highlight note of your solo.

How to Leap Over the “Wall” in Your Playing

jazz scale runsAfter working your way through those jazz scale runs, there’s a feeling that you can’t shake.

Perhaps you think you have hit a wall and you can’t figure out why.

It can take years to go over that wall.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go through the same thing.

You no longer have to figure out things for years and years by yourself with the Jazz Improvisation Super System.

jazz scale runsThis awesome improvisation course that features keyboard master David Garfield will guide you in using your jazz scale runs effectively.

More than that, the concepts he teaches in the Jazz Improvisation Super System will supercharge your improvisation skills, allowing you to be able to execute all the wonderful music deep inside you and have fun with it.

Never has learning jazz improvisation been so comprehensive and practical!

So there you have it! Keep these tips in mind whenever you play jazz scale runs, and your solos will begin to sound sweeter, more musical, and a lot more awesome.

If you have questions about these tips as well as comments or suggestions, feel free to leave us a note below. We’d be more than happy to read and answer them. Until next time, keep practicing and making music!

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Mark A. Galang, OTRP, MAM-MT(c)

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music. Mark is also a licensed occupational therapist in the Philippines that combines music therapy intervention with occupational therapy.