If your playing is in a rut, I've got some food for thought that I'd like to share with you. Who knows, maybe you'll find this as helpful as I did!
I'd like to lay out something I've been practicing at home for a little while now, and something I've been thinking about quite a lot as well and it has to do with dominant chords. I've always found dominant chords to be perhaps the most agreeable chord quality that there is. I'm not sure if "agreeable" is really the best word for what I'm trying to say, but what I mean is that you can play a huge range of different types of scales over top of dominant chords and they will (to varying degrees) sound great over that chord.
As an easy example, here's something that has always blown my mind but nobody ever really talks about: Most guitarists when they first begin to improvise solos start with the blues. And to be more specific, it is often the blues in a major key. This particular blues form features a pretty extensive use of dominant chords throughout, and yet the scale that we are ubiquitously introduced to for use over these dominant chords is the minor pentatonic. So if we have a blues in the key of A, and the first four bars are an A7 chord, we are taught to use an A minor pentatonic scale over that chord for the duration of those four bars. And it sounds great! I've always thought that this is kind of wild because the chord is dominant which is major, but the scale is minor and it still works. By contrast if you played an A minor pentatonic scale over an Amaj7 chord it would not work so well.
While there is a long list of scales that work over dominant chords, there is one scale that has really fascinated me for a long time. This scale is what is called the half whole (or whole half) diminished scale. There's a very good chance you're already aware of this scale and you might already be using it over dominant chords, but please allow me to explain my current fascination with it for a moment.
The Half Whole (or Whole Half?) Diminished Scale
When I was studying jazz music in University, my professors talked about two different diminished scales. The first was the half whole diminished scale and the second was the whole half diminished scale. They would say that over a diminished 7 chord you could play a whole half diminished scale, and over a dominant 7 chord you could play a half whole diminished scale. This is great and it definitely works, however at this point I had already spent a few years studying Barry Harris' harmonic method, and Barry's way of thinking about the diminished scale doesn't get talked about enough and it uncovers some pretty interesting concepts.
Barry Harris said that there is no such thing as the diminished scale. He said there are three diminished chords. If you look at any diminished chord and you move any note in that diminished chord back by one semi tone, you end up with a dominant 7 chord with that new note as the root. This means that there are four dominant 7 chords related to each of the three diminished chords. If you take the notes of any diminished chord and add to it the roots of all of the four dominant 7 chords related to that diminished chord, you will have what is commonly referred to as the half whole (or whole half) diminished scale. He said that to play this scale over a dominant 7 chord you start on one of the notes that is a root of the related dominants, and to play it over a diminished chord you start on one of the notes that is from the diminished chord.
At this point you may be thinking something like "so what, the conventional way of conceptualizing the diminished scale and Barry Harris' logic amount to the exact same thing" and you may be right... However, what gets interesting is that Barry Harris' conceptualization of not a diminished scale but rather a diminished chord combined with the roots of four dominant chords that are related to that diminished chord uncovers another layer.
The Family Of Dominants
The implication of Barry Harris' concept of the diminished chord and it's four related dominants is that for any dominant 7 chord, there are three other dominant 7 chords that are related to it by their shared connection to a common diminished chord. Barry Harris called this the "family of dominants". To elaborate, let's imagine a chord progression that goes: Dm7 G7 Cmaj7.
You may be familiar with the idea that we can play a G half whole diminished scale over the G7 in this progression. However, taking into consideration Barry Harris' thinking about the diminished chord and it's related dominants, we can also look at three other dominant chords that are related to the G7: Bb7, Db7, and E7. Each of these dominant chords are related to each other through their shared connection with a common diminished chord (Ab diminished).
The relationship between G7 and Db7 shouldn't come as a surprise. This is often described as a tritone substitution and we can either directly substitute the Db7 chord voicing for a G7 voicing or we can imply a Db7 by playing Db dominant scales over G7 in our progression from above.
Similarly, the relationship between G7 and Bb7 shouldn't be too surprising as well. If we go back to our progression of Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 and substitute the G7 for Bb7 and substitute the Dm7 for an Fm7, we are left with a progression that goes Fm7 Bb7 Cmaj7 which is often referred to as a back door II V and is quite common.
The relationship between G7 and E7 is something slightly less explored in my experience, and it sort of brings me to this concept that I have been practicing and thinking about for a while now which is the whole reason that I wrote this article.
To Make A Long Story Short
Here is the point. If we're looking at a progression that goes Dm7 G7 Cmaj7, not only can we play a G half whole diminished over the G7 chord, but we can actually play scales off of all of the related dominants. Lately I've been using the lydian dominant scale as it has no avoid notes and is a mode of the melodic minor scale which is the beginning to another Barry Harris rabbit hole that is beyond the scope of this writing. So, over the G7 in this progression you can play Bb lydian dominant and it will resolve to Cmaj7 very nicely. Or, you can try Db lydian dominant (which would be the same idea as the G altered scale), or you can try the E lydian dominant and they will all resolve to Cmaj7 easily and it will sound great. I'm especially intrigued by resolving E lydian dominant to Cmaj7 because it works out nicely even though there is an F# (the major 7 of G). It makes me think about an excerpt from Miles Davis' autobiography (Miles the autobiography) where he is describing a conversation with Charlie Parker in which Charlie Parker insists that you can play any note on any chord and it will sound good, even a natural 7 on a dominant chord.
Another thing that I've been trying is combining lines from two related lydian dominant scales together. For example, I might play B, A, G, F (a descending line in G lydian dominant starting on the 3rd of G7) and then play E, D, C#, B (a descending line in E lydian dominant) and then resolve to a C over Cmaj7.
Or, I could play E, D, C#, B (E lydian dominant descending) to Bb, Ab, G, F (Bb lydian dominant descending) and resolve to an E over Cmaj7.
These are just some quick examples, but this idea is really huge and can be expanded upon in a pretty limitless amount of ways!
I should mention that of course, these ideas are not mine. Barry Harris was a prolific teacher who taught for a long time and he has left us with tons of resources to learn his method. Even he would say however, that his method was not really originally his. He was a student of the great Bud Powell, and I'm sure these concepts date back even further than that.
I studied for years with an apprentice of Barry Harris named Howard Rees, and Mr. Rees has published a few books on Barry Harris' method that are very comprehensive and eye opening. You can find links to those books here or by going to https://jazzworkshops.com/shop/.
Another fantastic resource for studying Barry Harris' method is the YouTube channels Things I've Learned from Barry Harris and the Labyrinth of Limitations.
There is one video by Things I've Learned from Barry Harris that relates pretty strongly to what I've talked about here, where he talks about the four related dominants, which is right here:
Earlier in this article, I referenced something from Miles Davis' autobiography. I realize that I didn't take the time to cite this source correctly (it's a blog post not an academic article) but this really is a great read and if you're interested in checking that book out, here it is below:
And finally, perhaps the best source for understanding the applications of the theoretical concepts taught by Barry Harris are his recordings. Here are a few of my favourites:
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