Playing A Major over B mixolydian?

Hi guys I was jamming over a track in B mixolydian, but I was messing about and played some licks in A major and it sounded good. I understand that means I was playing in B Dorian but why did that sound good?
It confuses me as Dorian is a minor scaled and Mixolydian is a major scale so I thought theoretically it would sound bad.


To simplify, if B is mixolydian, then A is lydian which is major (7th degree of mixolydian).
So in short, it fits, as long as it is prime-major third-fifth you should have no issues.

Also, keep in mind those things are not set in stone.
B dorian on the other hand would only be different from mixolydian in that it has minor third instead of major.

I might have messed something up since I already downed some beers, but my logic is that A major fits B mixolydian perfectly and you could not have played B dorian while playing A major chord, since that would imply C instead of C# and C is minor third to A as opposed to major third C#.

Hope it makes some sense.

B Dorian and B Mixolydian have the same notes except the 3rd. We are generally used to mixing major/minor 3rds in blues contexts so it can sound fine, especially if you bend that note every now and then.


The only difference between B Dorian and B Mixolydian is the minor third. The blues note for major scales is the minor third. So you are essentially adding the blue note when you switch to Dorian.

This is a pretty common approach to playing over a Mixolydian progression.

Edit: ninja’d by spirogyro


Every dominant chord has three important arpeggios. First, a major arpeggio from its root ( B major), a minor arpeggio on its 5th (F# major), and finally another major arpeggio on its b7th ( A Major). When you play things in A major over B7/B mixolydian, you can simply think of it as coming from one of the important arpeggios. Just adding some fun colors.


I think Mixolydian is a super-interesting mode, precisely because there are so many scales and arpeggios that work with it.

As to why both the minor and major third work, I like Frank Gambale’s explanation: the combination of these two gives the Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze” chord. In E mixolydian/blues that would be E7#9 (E, G#, B, D, G):


Another cool mode that works and will make you sound jazzy is also the Lydian Dominant (is that the correct name?). Basically take the B lydian mode and turn the 7 (A#) into b7 (A).

All that being said, I still suck at improvising :smiley:

So case in point if your using Dom 7th there is alot of choices and alot of substitutions
in addition to the above stuff
using the altered scale otherwise know as super locrian or the 7th mode of melodic minor haha. Forgot to say diminished whole tone cause the bottom part of this scale is diminished followed up but nothing but whole tones.
I’ve just started messing around playing diminished stuff over dominant chords and I think it sounds great but it matters if its a functional chord or not sometimes with the choices.
like conjunction junction whats your function

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I think a lot of times, because there are so many recipes and options that we tend to over-complicate things. I have a great Joe Pass instructional video and he summarizes the way he thinks of soloing over chords as 3 options: major, minor or dominant. That’s it. I love it because even if you want to get more complicated, the modes all tend to have a major or minor flavor. Sure the dominants get the most complicated because you can alter the 9th or 5th so there are even more options…but if you’re solid on the fundamental chord tones of what you’re soloing over, all the additional ‘flavors’ are usually just a fret away.

Hi @joebegly

Which Joe Pass DVD is that from? I remember in Solo Jazz Guitar he outlines some basic chord substitution ideas which seemed to be rooted in the same idea.

Jimmy Bruno gives the same advice in “No Nonsense Jazz Guitar.” One piece of advice Jimmy gives in that video that I found helpful was to stop worrying if the melody notes you play will fit exactly with the alterations or substitutions made to the chords. There might be some “rub”, but the rub is part of the sound of jazz.

I was recently made aware of Peter Farrell though this forum, who teaches George Benson’s style. I’m not yet familiar with his methodology, but the basic idea seems to be reducing the chords further to “tonic” and “non tonic”. Maybe @lucascostner could comment to let me know whether I’m misrepresenting Peter’s methods here.

For example, in C major:

Tonic group: CM7 (C, E, G, B), Em7 (E, G, B, D), Am7 (A, C, E, G)
Non Tonic group: Dm7 (D, F, A, C), FM7 (F, A, C, E), G7 (G, B, D, F), Bm7b5 (B, D, F, A)

Notice that no member of the Tonic group contain the F, while every member of the Non Tonic group contains the F.

I remember Joe Pass saying something similar about I-vi-ii-V. Essentially, he didn’t see I-VI or II-V as chord changes, but “movements.” So the whole I-vi-ii-V breaks down to (I-vi)-(ii-V), which is basically tonic-not_tonic. He also says that everything is I-vi-ii-V, so essentially everything broke down into tonic-not_tonic in his method too.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood what they all were trying to say, but it seems to me this all basically breaks down to learning to hear and learning to play cadences.

When it comes to non-functional progressions, many seem to still advocate for maintaining the basic understanding of chords as being major, minor or dominant.

Hey @Tom_Gilroy

It is called Jazz Lines and here’s the part where mentions major, minor and dominant (7th) exclusively:

I should clarify that there are obviously endless ways to improvise. I don’t consider myself a good improviser (though my degree is in theory and composition so I know all the ‘rules’ very well). I haven’t put in the time to get good at it and my composition background makes me inclined to want things very worked out. That said, I do occasionally like playing jazz because it is fun.

I remember being frustrated that even though I was playing the correct scale/mode at the right time, it just didn’t sound like I was playing ‘lines’ and someone in the jazz department of my college recommended the above video to me. Some takeaways I had after going through the video:

  • I was making it way too complicated
  • Even though Joe Pass claims he doesn’t play many arpgeggios, most of his examples contained them haha
  • target chord tones instead of worrying so much about scales/modes
  • Joe Pass is awesome, Joe Begly…has a ways to go still :slight_smile:

I think what I was missing was music. Jazz lines are to be melodies. Targetting chord tones inherently makes things musical and every example in that video leans on chord changes. Even when he plays without accompaniment, you can hear the chords in his lines. Of course it’s interesting when we start to step ‘outside’, but you can’t do that convincingly unless you’re rock solid on what’s ‘inside’. So starting with a very stripped down approach and thinking of major, minor and dominant sets us up for success.

Another related find I had was when I tried transcribing the first couple passes of Coltrane’s Giant Steps solo. I couldn’t believe when I looked at the notes that on each chord he was almost exclusively playing chord tones with diatonic passing tones. Sometimes it was a simple major or minor 7th or even a triad! It was nearly all ‘inside’. The exceptions were typically dominant chords where he’d alter the 5th or 9th, resolving immediately ‘inside’ by half step. That’s a pretty ‘jazzy’ sounding solo, but it’s so simple when viewed under this lens. Yes, the underlying changes are in constant modulation so it sounds unstable and until you are familiar with it, very ‘outside’ sounding…but it’s all very simple if you break it down chord by chord.

I do remember specifically in that video that he said when a ii-V comes up, he just plays the V because whatever notes are in his V chord lines contain what’s needed from the ii – that supports what you’ve outlined in your tonic-non-tonic explanation. It also advocates simplicity. Jazz is a very challenging genre. Anything I can do to lower the curve is very welcome! I’ll never fully immerse myself in it, but I’d like to at least sound authentic when I dabble. When I abandoned by ‘scalar’ approach and thought more about chord tones, it helped.

Hey I’ve think learning to hear and play cadences is a great way to put it. Just some quick thoughts on this since I’ve spent about 20 year in the woodshed playing jazz. I’ve studied all the great jazz players, Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery extensively and read everything I could from interviews or method books they wrote etc. They all use different language to convey what they do, but when all is said and done they are all doing the same thing.

  1. You need a system to simplify complicated changes so you can play fluidly through rapidly moving chords.

  2. You need a system to expand simple harmony so you can play interesting solos when the chords are static.

Now there are MANY different roads to accomplishing these tasks but that’s the whole thing in a nutshell.

I have also spent a ton of time studying Robert Conti and I highly recommend his teaching materials because he’s someone who plays jazz at a high level but is also a good teacher and really breaks down all his lines note for note and explains his thought process.

In one of his DVDs he says “I play everything through a system of ones”. And I thought about that statement for a long time. It really sums up how most of the greats think on the bandstand.

Dm G7 CMaj7 CMaj7

In this simple chord progression he would basically play lines associated with FMaj7 over the first two chords and then CMajor7 lines to resolve it. Alternately, if he wanted to create more tension he would play AbMajor7 ideas over the dominant chord which is a great way to create altered sounds without having to learn any complicated scales or modes.

I absolutely love this summary. All other truths should stand up when funneled through these.

I hadn’t seen that one. Thanks.

I’m not happy yet with my improvisation skills in a Jazz context. I think in any Rock or Blues context I’m decently competent. I’m familiar with the traditional vocabulary and the stylistic conventions. I can play with the harmonies and the rhythms. I think I phrase decently enough and that I have pretty good lines in those contexts.

In Jazz though, not so much. On simpler standards I can manage the harmonies well enough and follow the changes, but I don’t have the same grounding in the traditional vocabulary or stylistic conventions. On standards with more complex functional harmony, I find it hard to play anything that follows the changes without sounding fragmented or disjointed (if I can manage it at all). I can’t really adapt melodic ideas to fit complex functional harmonies in real time yet. I’m thinking the tonic vs. not_tonic framework is going to help me with this.

One thing I definitely found when I started with Jazz is that I need more small atomic phrases. I was used to having longer lines, where more of the interest came from melodic contour and rhythm. That doesn’t really work when you’re trying to address a rapidly progressing harmony.

I’ve been trying to develop a vocabulary of smaller unit phrases, maybe only a bar long, which target chord tones. I work out the minor, major and dominant versions of each and learn to connect them so I can hear the progressions in the longer line. My plan then is to use the same principles I know for chord substitutions to learn how to substitute the atomic phrases.

It also helped me a lot to focus on Jimmy Bruno’s scale shapes instead of the 3 note per string shapes I’m more comfortable with. I find it easier to see the chord tones and the different pentatonic scales inside the Bruno shapes. Also, 5 is more manageable than 7. I can’t play as fast with Jimmy’s shapes, but honestly I see that as a positive in this context.

I have much less trouble with non-functional progressions where each chord is just like an island of it’s own. The chords might have no relationship to eachother, but there’s usually less of them and you don’t have to reflect their functions in your playing. You just change scales and target the tones that give the right colours.

Great, I’m glad I’m actually getting it! Thanks for weighing in.

I also love this summary.

I’ll be sure to check him out!

Great tip. Again, thanks for weighing in.

IMO, the best system for really getting some concrete things and concepts under your fingers comes from Barry Harris. He’s been teaching people how to play jazz since he was a teenager in the 30’s and 40’s. Coltrane stopped by Barry’s house in Detroit when he was on tour and had some lessons because he wanted to meet this teacher that everyone was talking about.

There’s a channel on YouTube called Things I’ve Learned from Barry Harris which is run by Chris Parks. Chris has been a student of Barry’s for more than 20 years and he has done a great job of transferring his ideas from piano to guitar. I’ve been taking lessons from him for a few months now, and in the last few months I’ve been able to get a total grasp on theory, the fretboard, jazz language, and improvisation that was way beyond anything I thought I could learn.

Here are some vids


Cool stuff. The first video was pretty basic, but the second will take a few viewings for me to digest.

A few points stick out to me.

First, is the recommendation again to conceptualize ii-V as V, in line with what Joe Pass said. Again, this would seem to simplify things to “tonic” and “not tonic”, and is in line with @lucascostner’s point about simplifying complex changes.

The second is the emphasis on movements, which seems to relate to the idea of learning to hear and play cadences I mentioned earlier, and @lucascostner’s point about expanding upon simple harmonies.

Definitely will be watching a lot more of that channel!