The Ionian Scale, Soloing, And Chord Substitution

Let's start with the major scale, otherwise known as the Ionian mode. First of all there are 12 notes in all of music called a chromatic scale. So this allows you to build 12 different major scales from each note using what's called a step pattern (see example 1). Every type of scale has its own unique step pattern.

Western music (not country music), is based on a 12-note system, while Eastern music uses 24 notes. Musicians also work with what's called the number system. Each letter in the major scale has a numeric value labeled from 1 to 7. The first note in the scale is labeled number 1, second note 2, third note 3, and so on, up to the number 7. A major scale we can say then consists of 7 natural numbers (uneven division of the chromatic scale). Any other scale would either have a flatted number or a raised number in comparison, creating different step patterns which, in turn, affect the tone centers: Major, Minor, Dominant and/or their colors.

Chords are built from major scales by taking every other note and stacking them in thirds. The next step is to analyze (or measure) the distances between to find out if the chord is major, minor, dominant, etc., within the key. This is called the Chord Order. There are two types of chord order voicings: triadic (3 note) and seventh chords (4 note). Seventh chords are the more jazzy of the two, and are chords stacked in thirds - four notes deep from each note in the scale. Triads are in thirds from each note in the scale, three deep.

So what that all comes out to be, if I do the work for you, is what's known as the harmonized scale (see example 2).

Let's look at everything in the key of G - it's a good key to work in on the guitar because you can play the whole key without it being interrupted by the neck stopping. Your chord forms and all the scale positions line up neatly in a row up and down horizontally. The key of G contains the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F# and G again, following the Ionian mode's step pattern. That's why you have separate sharp and flat Ionian keys.

The seven chords for G Ionian are G Major 7th, A Minor 7th, B Minor 7th, C Major 7th, D7, E Minor 7, and finally, F# half diminished or Minor 7th flat 5 (we use both terms). We now end up with what appears to be a scale with 7 different chords and this is usually where most schools of thought end in their analyzation. Everyone begins to learn their little arpeggios outlining each chord getting nothing out of it and becoming totally frustrated, because every thing sounds so contrived.

The real deal is that those 7 seven chords, if you take things a step further, are divided into two separate groups. The first group are chords which contain the fourth (Suspended) degree of the scale. The forrth degree of the Ionian scale is the key to all of music's tension and release, or what I call resolved and unresolved. If you can control the movement of that one note alone, you can play effortlessly through changes. If you were to play G Major scale notes individually over a G Major 7th chord you'd find that, you can't sit on the fourth degree of the scale (the C note) for to long. it has to be resolved either down 1/2 step to the third degree or up one whole step to the fifth degree. Every other note in the scale is a color or chord tone which sound fine over the Gmaj7th chord.

We can now divide the G Ionian scale into two categories: those chords which don't contain the C note in their tone centers (1, 3, 5, 7) and those chords which do. Chords that don't contain C in their voicing are in the resolved category and those that do have the C either in their root, third, fifth or seventh are in the unresolved category (see example 3).

You can condense that thought further by calling the resolved column R and the unresolved column U. In the resolved column the chords are: I, which is a G Major 7th chord, III, B Minor 7th, then VI E Minor 7th. In the unresolved column, (those chords which contain the actual C note in them in the key of G) are the II chord, A Minor 7th (the C is the flatted third of the chord), the C Major 7th (C is the root) the IV chord, the V chord is the D7th (C is the flatted seventh), and the VII chord (C is the flatted 5th). (Roman numerals are commonly used symbols to analyze chords).

The beauty of this separation of columns is the realization of there being only 2 sounds not 7 chords in the key (also know as tension and release, or yin and yang, or whatever you want to call it). The fact is that all the chords in each individual column, are interchangeable within themselves. They're substitutes for each other - resolved with resolved, and unresolved with unresolved. So just for the purpose of comping (playing various chords behind something) ideas begin to flourish, not to mention the soloing possibility end of it. If you saw a progression that said G Major 7th to A Minor 7th, that could be the same as B Minor 7th to A Minor 7th. It could be the same as E Minor 7th to A Minor 7th. It could be the same as B Minor 7th to F# min7b5. It also could be the same as G Major 7th to C Major 7th. They are all the same thing (see example 3).

Say you were to write a melody for the chord progression: G Major 7th (Resolved/R) / A Minor 7th (Unresolved/U)/, you could "sub" a different harmony to the same melody by simply substituting U chords and R chords - and that's just for chord substitution.

Now let's look at the soloing possibilities as far as arpeggiating. Take the G Major 7th to A Minor 7th again. You could sub an E Minor 7th arpeggio or a B Minor 7th arpeggio or both over the Resolved G Major7th chord and all you'd be doing is adding the new color of a ninth or sixth depending on the arpeggio you played. The rule of thumb would then be: never play what's defined to open up the sound! If you see a G Major 7th chord, don't play a predictable G Major 7th arpeggio! When the A Minor 7th chord hits play a C Major 7th and you'll have an A minor 9th.

Example 1: Key of G Major Ionian Scale Step Pattern

G w A w B 1/2 C w D w E w F# 1/2 G

Example 2: Harmonized Ionian Scale


Gmaj Amin Bmin Cmaj Dmaj Emin F#o
(R) (U) (R) (U) (U) (R) (U)


Gmaj7 Amin7 Bmin7 Cmaj7 D7 Emin7 F#min7b5
(R) (U) (R) (U) (U) (R) (U)


Example 3: Chord Substitution Chart Ionian Scale

Resolved (R)

Gmaj7 Bmin7 Emin7

Unresolved (U)

Amin7 Cmaj7 D7 F#min7b5

The first thing that players start doing is practicing and solo playing their arpeggios in a row -1,3,5,7 etc. This is the killer mistake, when you play an arpeggio like this it sounds like you're practicing even when you'reimprovising. Go from the root to a seventh, to a third to a fifth or just play a root and a fifth. Do everything to avoid playing in a row both up and down!That's all you have to think, and the same holds true with your scale patterns. "I can't get anything out of this scale. Everyone else plays the same thing and I can't figure it out!" It's because your playing it like an exercise. Mentally avoid playing notes (ascending or descending) in a row. Skip strings, play intervals, sequences and/or anything else you can think of. Not sounding like a scale or arpeggio exercise is the key.

Good luck!

Paul Nelson is a top session and touring artist with many international acts, his guitar work has been heard in the USA on NBC, TNN, and UPN television, and he has guest appeared on numerous CDs featuring many of today's top guitarists.

His solo CD is entitled "Look".

Paul Nelson

Send comments or questions to: