Pentatonic Licks with the Altered Dominant Chord

What? Another Stormhorn post so soon?

Yes, I’m on a roll. This post is a continuation from the last post, which offered a couple practical exercises on angular playing using pentatonic scales. As I promised in that post, this next one explores the relationship between pentatonics and altered dominant harmony. But as with the previous post, my objective here is not to go all theoretical on you but to offer a few practical exercises for developing facility with pentatonics in the V7 alt context.

Still, for these exercises to make sense, a bit of theory is necessary. By altered dominant, I’m referring to the V+7(#9) chord, otherwise known as the V7 alt. Jamey Aebersold long ago introduced the simpler spelling V7+9, and since that’s the one I’m used to and it’s convenient, that’s the spelling I’ll use. The chord is called “altered” because very little about it–just the root, third, and flat seventh–is unaltered. The fourth and fifth are both raised a half step, and both sharp and flat ninths are included.

The scale of choice for the V7+9 chord is the diminished whole tone scale (dim WT). It is actually a mode of the melodic minor scale built on its seventh degree. For example, a B dim WT is built off the C melodic minor scale, thus: B, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, and octave.

Within the dim WT scale lies a single major pentatonic scale built on the scale’s tritone (augmented fourth).* So, again using the B dim WT as our model, the resident pentatonic is F: F, G, A, C, D. These notes constitute all the scale’s altered tone plus the flat seventh, thus: +4, +5, b7, b9, #9.

For me, the question is, how do I relate the sound of a major pentatonic scale to an altered dominant whose root is a tritone away? It’s not a sound that sticks readily to my ear.

The four exercises shown here–licks, really–are designed to help you drill your fingers and ears on the dominant chord and corelate them to the pentatonic scale. To my thinking, at least at this stage in my development, I want to resolve the pentatonic scale to one of the basic chord tones, and I want to have those chord tones–the root, third, augmented fifth, and flat seventh, always in mind.

To that end, the first exercise introduces a motif I also use in the rest of the exercises. It focuses on the lower part of an A7+9 chord, starting with the sharp and flat ninths and then establishing the third and the root. Following that little four-note figure is a well-known pentatonic lick based on the tritone, Eb. Finally, the exercise resolves to the root of the chord.

Exercise two starts with the pentatonic lick, then arpeggiates the A7+9 and explores the dim WT more fully, and concludes with the four-note motif, described above, resolving to the sharp five of the chord.

The third and fourth exercises, now focusing on the D7+9, begin with the motif, then move into more angular versions of the pentatonic scale. Note that in the fourth exercise, I’ve opted to focus on the F minor pentatonic. It is the relative minor of the Ab major, so none of the notes involved have changed; it’s just a different way of thinking about the pentatonic scale.

I recommend that you spend some time with each exercise in just the key it’s written in, playing it slowly and trying the absorb the sound of the pentatonic scale in relation to the sound of its parent dim WT scale and the V+7 chord. Then work at memorizing each lick in all twelve keys.

That’s it. They rest is up to you. I wish you fun and fruitful practicing.

ERRATUM: In exercise four, the first note in the second bar should be an Ab, not an A natural. With this post finally put to bed, I don’t have the patience to spend the time required (more than you’d believe) to add a lousy little flat. So kindly make the adjustment mentally.


* You could argue that there are other pentatonics that also fit the altered dominant chord. True, but they’re all modified in one way or another. The only natural major pentatonic that derives from the diminished whole tone scale is the one I’ve described.

Diminished Whole-Tone Lick around the Cycle of Fifths

Tonight’s post is low on text but high in content. Click on the image to enlarge it, then print it out and take it with you to your next practice session and start adding a nice new lick to your diminished whole-tone collection.

Not much to say about this little gem that you can’t figure out for yourself, but here are a few points of interest:

    ♦  The lick begins and ends on the flat seventh of the V+7(#9) chord.
    ♦  Beats two and three highlight the major triad that’s formed off of the raised fifth of the parent chord. For example, if you’re playing a D+7(#9), the raised fifth is A#–or Bb, enharmonically–and beats two and three will accentuate an A# (Bb) major triad. You can look at it as chord superimposition.

    ♦  The last beat emphasizes the two “identity tones” of the dominant chord, leaping a tritone from its third to its lowered seventh.

That’s all. Have fun with it! And if you enjoyed this post, check out my large and ever-growing library of jazz theory, technique, and solo transcriptions.

Fourth Patterns with Altered Dominants

This post builds upon a jazz improvisation post I wrote a month ago titled Fourth Patterns: Three Exercises to Build Your Technique. That post gave you some quartal patterns to practice that took you around the cycle of fifths. While I pointed at the harmonic possibilities, I left you to sort them out for yourself. In this post, I’m providing a specific application by applying fourth groupings to altered dominant chords (V+7#9).

Click on the image to your left to enlarge it. The first thing you’ll encounter is a brief exercise that takes you through a fourth pattern moving by whole steps, first down, then back up. It’s a simple exercise. Once you’ve got it down, practice it starting on the note F instead of Eb; you’ll be using the same notes you’ve already practiced, but you’ll reverse the direction of the patterns.

From there, play the same exercise starting on the note E. You’ll now have a different set of notes. Finally, start on the note F#. Once you’ve worked that into your fingers, you’ll have covered all the possibilities.

Moving On to Application

The material you’ve just practiced is designed to help you develop technique specific to the application that follows. Now we’ll move on to that application, as indicated by the chords.

For each chord, you’ll find two groupings of the fourth pattern spaced a major second apart. Together, the two patterns contain the following chord tones: #9, b9, b7, +5, +4*. The patterns are arranged in eighth notes that resolve to a consonant chord tone, thus:

    •  In the first two bars, the b9 resolves to a whole note on the chord root.
    •  In the second two bars, the #9 resolves to a whole note on the major third of the chord.

I’ve written down the applications for six keys. I’m sure you can figure out the remaining six on your own, and you should. Don’t be lazy! You need to become familiar with all twelve chords. Moreover, I encourage you to experiment with variations on these patterns. This exercise will open up your technique for altered dominants–and other harmonic applications–but you should view it as a springboard for further exploration.

As is so often the case, the material I’m sharing comes to you fresh from my own practice sessions. It’s a chronicle of my personal learning curve, and I hope it assists you in yours.

If you found this article helpful, you’ll find many more like it on my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions sub-page.

Practice hard, practice with focus–and, as always, have fun!


* If you add two more tones–the chord root and the major third–you’ll get a complete diminished whole tone scale. In this application exercise, the whole notes use those two missing tones as resolutions.

Altered Dominant with Pentatonic b6 Scale

Lately my practice sessions have involved both the diminished whole tone scale and the pentatonic scale. There’s a reason for this: the two are related, and both scales go well with the V+7#9 chord. My previous post explored how this plays out with a basic major pentatonic scale. I worked with mode 4 of that scale, starting on the b9 of the V+7#9 chord. In root position, the scale would actually begin on the +4 of the chord.

Today during my practice session I focused on another pentatonic scale rooted on the +5 of the V+7#9. It’s a wonderful sound that really brings out both the major third and #9 of the chord as well as the evocative color of the raised fifth. This scale is not your standard-issue pentatonic; its flatted sixth gives it a mysterious augmented quality.

Click on the image to your right to enlarge it. The first thing you’ll see is a D+7#9 chord outlined in whole notes. To its right is an ascending Bb pentatonic scale with a flatted sixth. You’ll see how the scale is entirely consonant with the chord. Moreover, further analysis will reveal that the Bb pent b6 is actually an abbreviated form of the D diminished whole tone scale.

Still more interesting is the fact that the Bb pentatonic scale with a flatted sixth actually is the D+7#9! It’s what you get when you scrunch all the chord tones together linearly (or as near linearly as possible). While I’d love to make myself sound like a master theoretician who has known this fact for most of his musical life, the truth is, I just made the discovery a little while ago. Now I know why this scale sounds so great when played with the altered dominant chord. It is the chord.

Of course the scale has other applications besides the V+7#9, the most obvious being major and dominant chords that share the same root as the scale. I’ll let you work out the various other harmonic possibilities for yourself as they’re not the focus of this post.

Back to the image: The second and third lines introduce you to a basic exercise that will help you start getting your fingers around the pentatonic b6 scale. It would be most helpful if you had some kind of accompaniment sounding the chord when you work on this pattern. You want to internalize the sound of the chord-scale relationship, not just the technique.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Take this exercise through the full range of your instrument and learn it in all twelve keys.

And that’s that. For lots more chops-building exercises, solo transcriptions, and information-packed articles, visit my jazz page.

Diminished Whole Tone Scale Exercise with Pentatonic

The diminished whole tone scale (aka super locrian or Pomeroy scale) has been around for a long time, but it’s still a foreign sound to ears that are steeped in basic major and minor scales. For as many years as I’ve been playing it, it’s still not something I find myself idly humming. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely useful scale, full of colors and possibilities for chord superimpositions.

Think of the diminished whole tone scale as a mode built upon the seventh degree of the ascending melodic minor scale. For instance, a C melodic minor scale contains these notes: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B, C. Start on B as the scale root rather than C and you’ve got a B diminished whole tone scale.

The scale’s primary use is with the altered dominant seventh chord, which it fits like a glove. The diminished whole tone scale contains virtually every common alteration of the dominant chord you can conceive of: b9, #9, +5, and +11. So when you see, for instance, an A+7#9, the A diminished whole tone is a scale option that should come instantly to mind. Like any scale, you can conceive of it as simply a linear repository of tones, all of which relate perfectly to the altered dominant chord.

The exercise on this page explores three of the many harmonic possibilities contained within the diminished whole tone scale. Click on the image to enlarge it. Each four-bar line sets a given scale against its respective altered dominant chord.

  • The first two bars use four-note cells to outline the seventh, raised fifth, third, and root of the chord. The chord tone is the last note of each cluster.
  • The third bar is a mode four pentatonic scale built on the b9 of the chord.
  • The last bar concludes with a simple lick that expresses the major quality of the chord, then hits two of its tension tone (#9 and b9) before resolving to the root.
  • .
    The purpose of this exercise isn’t so much to give you a great lick as to help you dig inside the diminished whole tone scale to see what it has to offer. There’s plenty more to discover, so consider this a springboard to further exploration. You’d do well to use some kind of harmonic accompaniment as you play this exercise, so you’re training not just your fingers but also your ears.

    Practice hard and have fun! And be sure to visit my jazz page for a large selection of other informative articles, exercises, and solo transcriptions that can help you develop as a jazz improviser. They’re all free, so dig in, learn, and grow with me musically.

    A Diminished Whole Tone Lick

    The diminished whole tone scale (aka super locrian scale, altered scale, altered dominant scale, Pomeroy scale) is nothing if not colorful. A mode of the ascending melodic minor scale built on that scale’s seventh degree, the diminished whole tone scale encompasses virtually every alteration to a dominant chord that you can think of: #5, b9, #9, and #11. It’s commonly used over dominant chords of various alterations, and is ideally suited to the V+7#9.

    The name “diminished whole tone” refers to the scale’s two tetrachords. The bottom tetrachord derives from a half-whole diminished scale, and the top tetrachord suggests a whole tone scale. For example, connecting the tetrachord B, C, D, and Eb with the tetrachord F, G, A, and B will give you a B diminished whole tone scale: B, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B. (In actual use, you’d want to think of the Eb enharmonically as a D#, the major third of a B+7#9 chord).

    diminished-whole-tone-exercise_0To your right is an exercise that will take you around the cycle of fifths with one of my favorite diminished whole tone licks. (Click on the thumbnail to enlarge it.) I like the lick for three reasons. It starts and finishes on the highly consonant major third of the altered dominant chord, but in between it spotlights the altered tones of the chord (#5, b9, #9). It emphasizes the half-step relationship between the third and #9, and between the b9 and the chord root. And it outlines the major triad built on the raised fifth of the altered dominant–e.g. the #5 of a D+7#9, A# (Bb enharmonically) gives rise to a Bb major triad.

    Have fun with the exercise. If you’re not familiar with the diminished whole tone sound, it may take a while to get it into your ear, but you’ll be glad you did.

    Look for more exercises, helpful articles, and solo transcriptions on my jazz page.

    Man, It Feels Good to Play My Horn Again!

    There’s nothing like picking up my saxophone again after being away from it due to illness. This past week-and-a-half I was laid up with a nasty chest cold. It was so bad that for three days, I literally couldn’t speak, something that has never occurred before. I’m a sucker for bronchitis, but I’ve never had laryngitis that I can recall, up until last week.

    Praise God, though, it’s now behind me, and this evening I put in a solid two hours practicing my sax. Oh, man, did it feel good! It’s amazing how quickly my technical dexterity can lose its edge, but a few more sessions with my horn ought to have me back in top flight. Tonight I spent time running patterns on the diminished scale, the diminished whole tone scale, and the augmented scale, and worked on re-memorizing Charles McPherson’s alto sax solo on “Lynn’s Grins.” It all felt a bit clunky, but that’s okay. And it’s amazing what memorizing a transcribed solo can do for freeing up both one’s chops and one’s ideas.

    Speaking of solo transcriptions, keep your eyes open. I plan to post another one soon, featuring Cannonball Adderley blazing his way through Rhythm changes.

    That’s all for now. Back soon with some musical goodies.