John Scofield Explains How to Practice a Tune

I recently posted a quick hit on a clinic that John Scofield did in the mid-90's that covered mostly how he practices and learns a tune as well as some general philosophy on improvisation and theory. It's a great clinic and I highly recommend you check it out.

As promised, here is a breakdown of the clinic and the methods he employs in order to get a tune under his fingers.

Scales First
Scofield's basic approach to learning a song—besides playing it all the time—is getting comfortable with the chord changes, first by playing the appropriate scales in time over the changes, connecting them at the chord change. He doesn't stop and try to phrase or play musically, he just keeps moving, changing position and scale as the new chord hits.

PDF available below
Here's an example of him doing it over Stella by Starlight which is the tune he uses throughout the clinic.

You'll see if you look carefully, he doesn't do this perfectly. There are a couple passing tones here and there and some ambiguous sections where it appears to me he's killing time in order to hit the next chord change. As I've said before, this is encouraging. This is hard to do and certainly hard to do perfectly.

It's also the same general idea that Kurt Rosenwinkel explains in a seminar I wrote about a while ago. The idea of being able to move scales through chord changes fluidly.

Some of Scofield's choices are interesting. For instance, in bar 10 he plays Bb Melodic Minor through both chords, even though E-7b5 is not diatonic to the scale. However it works great over the A7alt so I wonder if he's just not bothering with being correct in order to introduce more chromaticism or if he made a mistake.

Similarly he plays F Major all the way through bars 13-14, with the scale not being appropriate for the A7alt, even though the notes are all technically fine.

What's interesting is in this exercise he really only employs two scales, the Major and the Melodic Minor throughout the entire tune with one use of the Diminished at bar 28.

Scofield explains really well what the point of learning scales is:
The way you learn this stuff is learning scales, learning patterns and experimenting with them. You know I don't know anybody that's really gotten good at playing tunes or any of this stuff from just taking the scales [and playing them over a tune]. This stuff all comes after listening and learning about Jazz music from listening to records and listening to other people play it's just you know, music...What these scales do, to me, is they lead you into almost, chromaticism—that's what the Diminished scale does. You know, chromatic type of freedom, nobody really just plays the scales. 

Arpeggios Second
Next he works on playing arpeggios over the changes which as I've noted before is essentially chord tone soloing.

PDF available below
His first go at it however hits a few bumps. It's not strictly an arpeggio or chord tone solo as he adds in some scale lines. He also hits some rhythmic snags because of the way he phrases some of his lines. I attempted to transcribe it as faithfully as I could while keeping the fairly obvious spirit of what he was shooting for. All the notes are there but you might have a slightly different interpretation of how the lines lay if you transcribe it yourself.
Scofield says: "Um, I think I stopped playing arpeggios at one point. [he did] But basically ... that was tertial, in other words going up and down in 3rds, which is not that far from 2nds [meaning scales], you know? I mean if I'm moving in scalewise motion it's just moving half or whole. But, the arpeggios are made up of 3rds, right? Chord tones in 3rds and my improvisation there was, I think all 3rds but you don't always start on the root and you can go up and down at will, so..."

PDF available below
 He then goes on to play another example of a solo based on arpeggios, though again he still includes some non chord tones. He also does some really nice anticipations of some of the harmonies coming from the bebop style of targeting chord tones, for instance at the end of bar 4 and bar 28. After this solo he answers a number of questions and speaks a bit about transcribing.

Scofield says when he was learning he rarely would transcribe whole solos but instead would learn phrases—licks basically.

Again, I highly recommend you give this clinic a listen. There is some excellent information in it and some nice playing from Scofield beyond these three transciptions.

I'll close with his thoughts on Giant Steps which he talks about at the beginning of the clinic.
I don't play Giant Steps. I'm serious about this tune Giant Steps, this tune is too hard you know? [Audience laughter] Listen, check it out, Giant Steps is a great tune and I love Coltrane, I really do but the tune is not really a great tune for blowing on. Stella By Starlight is a great tune. You can get into a thing, or I can, maybe I'm just not good enough to play Giant Steps -- to me Giant Steps is symmetrical and an exercise. Stella by Starlight is a beautiful harmonic sequence that gives me ideas. Giant Steps just makes me confused, I have to remember that, you know [demonstrates playing over Giant Steps changes] -- now I'm thinking all the time, I can't even take any space. But anyway, don't worry about Giant Steps, unless you can already play Stella by Starlight. I'm serious! This tune, I've heard too much about this.
Scale transcription
Arpeggio solo 1 transcription
Arpeggio solo 2 transcription


  1. Sco on Giant Steps: "This tune, I've heard too much about this." Love that!

  2. What type of program do you use for your transcriptions?

  3. If you mean what audio program I actually transcribe the old-school way and just pause phrases and figure them out one by one. As far as notation, I do everything in Finale.

  4. "Some of Scofield's choices are interesting. For instance, in bar 10 he plays Bb Melodic Minor through both chords, even though E-7b5 is not diatonic to the scale. However it works great over the A7alt so I wonder if he's just not bothering with being correct in order to introduce more chromaticism or if he made a mistake."
    That's generalization : when you've got a minor or major II V, you can play on it as if it was only a V. That's what he does here.
    In bar 10, he plays Eb lydian b7 (Bb minor melodic), a usual scale for this backdoor progression (Bb-7 Eb7 > FM7). He plays the Eb7, here.

    "Similarly he plays F Major all the way through bars 13-14, with the scale not being appropriate for the A7alt, even though the notes are all technically fine."
    Here you can consider Em7b5 A7 is a II V in D minor. So D minor (natural, the same scale as F Major) is a possible scale to play on it, it's a generalization. Another way to analyse it is that he makes a generalyzation playing E locrian (F Major), on the II and the V I. Or that he plays E locrian (F Major) on Em7b5 and A phrygian (F Major) on A7, a valuable choice (Root, b9, #9, 11, 5, b6, b7)
    Bar 30, I think he plays C-7 F7 on F7.

    Anyway, you made a great work and thanks for your transcriptions.
    Just a question, do you know if scofield thinks scales (F Major, B flat mel. minor, B Flat Major, ...) or modes (E locrian, A altered, C dorian, ...) ?

    1. These are all good points. I might have been a bit to literal-minded with my analysis about what is "proper" for each given chord. Thanks for pointing this stuff out, it fills out the information nicely with a different angle on some of the choices.

      I don't know if he thinks scales or modes but from the video I've seen, he does talk a lot about chord scales and that way of thinking so I'd hazard to guess he's more of a scale thinker but of course have no way of knowing without asking. Of course, it could be a blend too depending on the harmonic situation...

  5. it is very likely that scofield just thinks in terms of melodies and lines and not in terms of "Bb lydian dominant to F lydian to E locrian #2," etc...
    because i am just a rank amatuer in campared to anyone like Sco and I don't think of the names of the chords when I'm playing a tune I think in terms of lines more like singing or whistling. You need to internalize the scales and chords to the extent that they are automatic and then learn the changes in the same way and then you can just play and not focus on the intellectual mumbo jumbo that you used to get you to that point.

    1. You're right that the goal is to internalize in order to just think musically. Absolutely.

      I will say though, that when I asked Wayne Krantz about this, he said he thought in a mix of things -- theory (scales/pitch relations/chord qualities) and then of course big-picture music creation and phrases.

      I thought that was interesting coming from someone of his caliber. I suspect we're all different when we're doing this but tend to fall somewhere on a continuum from the purely technical to absolutely free.

  6. Hi. Thanks for this. Very useful. I did a lesson on YouTube covering Scofield's guitar style and it covers some points not discussed here. Check it out.

  7. Hi great work you did... thamk you
    I noticed that you refer everything to two scales mostly major and melodic minor...
    I would say it is more of a general system.. say.. for Em7b5 we have E Locrian (which 7th of F major)... what I mean is that when wee use scales as a concept it could productive to think of it not only as F major but also as a separate scale with is own sound.. thanks again

  8. I understand your point and I suppose if I wanted to be more granular in my analysis I would analyze an F major scale being played over an Em7b5 chord as E Locrian. You're right about that.

    However, I already understand that Locrian is a mode of the Major scale and anyone who has a solid understanding of theory knows that as well.

    My analysis is more for the intermediate to advanced-beginner improvisor who wants to jump in and play. Being absolutely correct about scale usage like that I believe is extremely intimidating and ultimately more useful to people interested in the theory behind what's happening, not necessarily for the player. For an improviser, knowing you can play F Major over an Em7b5 chord is more useful and simple than segmenting the Major scale into its modes and assigning the appropriate mode to the corresponding chord. I feel it's more helpful to understand big picture theory and use it as a tool to figure out your sound.

  9. Transcription links broken. I think Dropbox public folders are no longer working. Can you rehost the files somewhere else?

    1. Hey Dave -- I just tested the links and the PDFs are showing up fine for me. If you contact me on email I'll send the PDFs to you.