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Altered Scales and Chords

A look at popular altered chords, scales, and arpeggios.

One of the subjects I get asked about much more frequently these days is the subject of altered scales and chords. It is a fairly large and sometimes confusing subject, due to the ambiguous nature of certain definitions describing many associated musical terms and concepts. For our purposes, we will categorize an altered chord as simply a dominant chord in which either the fifth or ninth has been raised or lowered by a half step. The most popular altered chord played on guitar is probably the #9 chord, commonly referred to as “the Hendrix Chord,” shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 2
shows a three-note-per-string C altered scale. The easiest way to play the altered scale is to move up a half step from the established root and play the Melodic minor scale.

More Examples

Fig. 3 enables us to play the notes of C altered simply by playing Db Melodic minor. It can also be helpful if you preface the scale by playing an altered chord. Fig. 4 is a C7#5 chord, which is altered and sounds very compatible with the C altered or Db Melodic minor scale.

In this scenario, we will also focus on two arpeggios that can be very effective in emphasizing the tonal characteristic underlying the altered sound. The shapes in Fig. 5 and Fig. 6 are very similar to shapes we’ve seen before, in that they are based off a 5th string root with the exact same format as those in previous articles.

The simplistic version of what’s happening here is that we are playing Db Melodic minor over a C altered chord. Though this is not the only method that can be used in addressing altered chords, it is certainly one of the more popular methods and definitely my favorite. I will discuss typical chord progressions that enable us to use altered chords and scales in my next article.

My next article will also focus on modifying this month’s shapes, so becoming familiar with them will help you see the logic in the design of the upcoming licks. In the meantime, have fun with these shapes and work on getting your ears accustomed to these tonal qualities. See ya next time.

Greg Howe
Greg Howe has enjoyed a successful recording career since bursting onto the scene in 1988, and his talents have been sought after by some of the biggest names in the music entertainment industry, such as Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and Enrique Iglesias.