Secrets of the Symmetrical Augmented Scale

Many modern jazz guitarists have a good handle on how to improvise with the diminished scale, but did you know there’s another symmetrical scale that works over a lot of the same harmonic material? The pattern we’re talking about is the hexatonic oddity known as the symmetrical augmented (or simply augmented) scale. Its tones neatly divide the fretboard into a repeating pattern that creates some intriguing sounds.

While it first emerged about 100 years ago with 20th-century composers such as Béla Bartók, Milton Babbitt, and Arnold Schönberg, the augmented scale didn’t gain widespread popularity among jazz players until saxophonists John Coltrane and Oliver Nelson brought it to the masses in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In more recent years, tenor legend and bandleader Michael Brecker (who passed away in January of this year) made good use of the scale, and required that Mike Stern, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and other guitarists who played for him over the years also know how to harness the pattern’s power.

Sometimes referred to as the “minor third, half-step” scale, the augmented scale can be generated by simply arpeggiating an augmented-fifth triad (C-E-G#, in the key of C), and adding notes a half-step below each chord tone (B-Eb-G). The latter three notes generate a second augmented triad (Baug5). The overlapping triads create a complete six-note augmented scale (C, Eb, E, G, G#, B) that divides the neck evenly into minor thirds and half-steps [Ex. 1]. Examples 2 and 3 illustrate a C augmented scale within one area of the neck. Because an augmented triad splits the octave in even major thirds, this C augmented scale can also be called an E or G# augmented scale. Each one of these three scale roots yields not only augmented triads [Ex.4], but major and minor triads as well [Ex. 5].

It is common for jazz composers and improvisers to add upper-structure triads to dominant chord voicings for various colors. Ex. 6 shows how the C augmented scale’s major and augmented triads work superimposed over Am(maj7), which is spelled A-C-E-G#. You’ll hear two notes that clash with the background chord: Eb and G. These pitches would typically be considered “avoid notes,” but in this case the piquant splash of dissonance they add goes by so quickly, it’s actually quite compelling.

Ex. 7 arranges Ex. 6’s notes into possibly the most famous augmented pattern in the history of jazz—a pattern found in Oliver Nelson’s tenor sax solo on “Stolen Moments.” (These shapes also occur in the melody to “Hoedown,” from Nelson’s seminal 1961 release, Blues and the Abstract Truth.)

For a change of pace, Ex. 7 superimposes the augmented scale over a V-I cadence in Db. Here, we’re using the augmented scale in place of the Ab altered scale (the scale built off the 7th degree of A melodic minor). In this case, the notes Eb and G are the perfect 5 and major 7, respectively, of Ab, and so clash with the #5 and b7 in the chord. (Ah, sweet dissonance!) Ex. 8 shows our scale over D7(#11,13), which comes from the fourth mode of A melodic minor. And let’s not forget about using Cmaj7#5 as an actual parent chord [Ex. 9].

Now that you’ve spent some time with the melodic side of the augmented scale, try coming up with cool chord shapes simply by grabbing note combinations along any of the diagonals [Examples 10, 11, and 12]. Few guitarists use (or have ever even played) this wild Cmaj7(#5#9) voicing, but it actually has quite a pleasant sound. It’s just one more reminder that one has to watch out for (or fully embrace) “wrong” notes when composing or improvising with the augmented scale—but that’s all part of the allure, right? Like moths to the flame, it’s easy for musicians to be drawn to this scale’s dangerous harmonies.