Some Whole Tone Scale Applications

In the past couple of posts we've looked at fingerings for the Whole Tone scale and a few examples of patterns we can use to play around with it, but perhaps you're not convinced yet. After all, plenty of guitarists know how to play this scale but not many use it because it has a pretty weird, unsettling sound.

There are two basic applications of this scale. The simplest one is to play it over a dominant seventh chord. Play A Whole Tone over A dominant 7 so you can hear how it sounds.


That's pretty dissonant on its own, so it's best to resolve it to another scale or harmony. Often, as you know, dominant 7 chords often resolve down a fifth to a major seventh chord, or just a major triad. Here's the same application again, then, but resolving at the end from A7 to D major:


As you probably know, the same principle tells us that a major triad can be approached by the dominant seventh a fifth above it. For example, instead of just playing a long A chord we can play E7 first, then resolve it to A. Now, we can use that idea in a solo even if the accompaniment is just A:


Instead of just playing an E7 arpeggio, I can play any scale that works over E7; in this case, of course, I'm going to play E whole tone. We've just heard that it works well over a dominant chord, and resolves nicely:


The really neat thing about this is that Ab Whole Tone is also E Whole Tone, so you can use this scale to switch easily between the E dominant 7 substitution and the Ab augmented one. If you're playing over a slightly longer chord that can be useful because it gives you a bit of variety. Here I'm playing the E7 arpeggio, E Whole tone, the Ab Augmented triad and finally resolving to A, all while the accompaniment plays nothing but a static A major seventh chord:


The next idea just follows naturally from all this, and can be used to build even longer lines over static harmonies. I played Ab augmented in the last example, but I could just as well have gone to Bb augmented, the other triad in the scale. And although that can resolve down to A, it can also resolve to other places.

We'll use the Bb augmented triad to get to Eb, the tritone substitution on A. We'll then use a quick cycle of fifths idea to go from Eb dominant 7 to Ab dominant 7, we'll use Ab whole tone over that harmony and then we'll resolve that up to A again.

So over a static A harmony we'll play:

  1. The A triad
  2. Ab whole tone
  3. Bb augmented
  4. Eb dominant 7
  5. Ab dominant 7
  6. Ab whole tone
  7. and finally resolve back to A

Here's an example line constructed in this way -- play it over a static A major chord backing for the full effect:


Notice how the Whole Tone scale helps us to link all these ideas together in a way that sounds logical.

I mentioned that there were two applications of the Whole Tone scale, and we've really only looked at one, its use over a dominant chord. We can also use it, sort of, over a minor chord, but when we do we have to play it a semitone lower. For instance, over A minor we'll play Ab whole tone; this gives a similar sound to the bebop idea of playing A Harmonic Minor over A minor 7, which works despite the clashing sevenths. I think the reason for the similarity is that both scales contain an augmented triad, but whatever it is the Whole Tone scale a semitone built below the root of the minor seventh chord certainly sounds good in this context

Just as with the dominant seventh application, we can use the augmented arpeggios contained in the scale to set up triad superimpositions. Here's an example. I'll play A minor, Ab whole tone, then pick out the Bb augmented triad from the Whole Tone scale. I'll use that triad to set up a B major triad, then again use a quick cycle of fifths idea to drop back down to A minor by way of E7 to resolve it. Again, the idea is that this gives a more logical build-up to the solo line than just switching to the B triad straight away. It also enables you to extend the line:


There's a minor problem with this, though. The thing is that Ab Whole Tone doesn't include the note A, so it has no root. That can make it awkward to work with, because you often want to use the root when improvising to provide moments of resolution, especially when you're working with a dissonant scale like this one. We'll look at the most obvious solution to this problem -- the Neapolitan scale -- in a later lesson.