Improvising With The Altered Mode
The altered mode can also be referred to as the diminished-whole-tone scale and the super-locrian scale. Be aware that these names are interchangeable. However, these two terms are less frequently used.
The altered scale is an excellent way to gain access to all of altered tensions of a dominant chord. In fact, the altered scale contains every possible altered chord tone which is the b9, #9, #11 and #5 (or b13) — remember that the #5/b13 is the same note, but jazz musicians use both names which can be confusing.
With all of these alterations, it’s no surprise that the altered mode is a tough one to visualise and memorise in all 12 keys.
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How To Construct The Altered Jazz Scale
If we look at the notation of the G Altered mode we can see that every note has been flattened and that the scale contains a b3, b5 and b7.
The presence of the b3, b5 and b7 suggests that the scale should be played over -7b5 chords.
However, if we look a little closer, we can see that the b4 or b11 is enharmonically equivalent to the major 3^rd^.
From a functional standpoint, the altered mode contains a major 3rd and b7th and the b3 can be viewed as the enharmonic equivalent to the #9.
So now we have a very tense sounding dominant scale containing the b9, #9, #11 and #5.
When Can We Play The Altered Mode?
There are a number of chord symbols that imply the altered mode. Again using the key of G as an example, here are the most common ones:
G7alt – G7#9 – G7b9 — G7b13
How to learn and memorise the altered mode?
Well there’s a couple of different approaches here. I personally favour one of the approaches far more than the other but I will explain and demonstrate each for you.
Many people will say that a quick an easy way to find the altered mode is to play the melodic minor scale a half step above. And that’s correct, it is a quick and easy way.
For example, if I wanted to find the G altered mode, I would simply play the melodic minor scale a half step above. A half step up is Ab and so I would play the Ab melodic minor scale.
The main problem with this approach is that you are thinking in terms of another key or another scale. So when you see a G7alt chord on a lead sheet, you first have to think ‘right that’s melodic minor a half step up’. Then instead of analysing the notes in terms of G7, you brain will be thinking about Ab Melodic minor.
In my opinion, this creates an unnecessary step and there is a more effective and functional way to visualise and memorise this important mode.
The alternative is to learn and memorise the scale starting from the root note. This can be done by using the following formula:
R- b9 – #9 — 3 – #11 – #5 — b7 and back to Root.
This is important because then you will be able to visualise the primary chord tones which are Root — 3 — 5 & 7 and also be able to visualise the specific alterations.
The importance of this will become clearer in the next section when we talk about resolving tensions created by the altered mode.
First let’s just run through a few other keys using this approach so that you are clear on how to do this with all 12 keys.
How To Improvise With The Altered Scale
So now that we have a good understanding of the construction of the altered mode. Let’s explore how we can resolve the altered tensions in the scale.
This is perhaps the most valuable piece of information to take away from this lesson.
If we think back to the 251 progression, we know that the 7th of the chord always resolves down a half step to become the 3rd of the next chord. You can use this resolution in your lines to outline the chord change that is taking place, let’s look at a few examples.
In the same way that the 7th wants to resolve to 3^rd^ in a 251, the alterations of the altered mode have strong resolution points that you can utilise in your improvised lines.
Remember that one of the hallmarks off jazz is the creation of tension and then resolution of tension and so having an understanding of how to resolve alterations is very important.
To demonstrate this let’s use a 5-1 progression in C- which is G7alt to the 1 chord C-
Here’s the G Altered mode, working from the bottom upwards, the first alteration is the b9.