Ghost Note’s self-titled sophomore release was possibly the high point of 2018 for hipster musician-types; two members of Snarky Puppy and MonoNeon on the same record? It’s everything that the…
Ghost Note’s self-titled sophomore release was possibly the high point of 2018 for hipster musician-types; two members of Snarky Puppy and MonoNeon on the same record? It’s everything that the fusion world had been dreaming of.
For all of the band’s cutting-edge credentials, the album has a distinctly ‘retro’ feel; the cover art seems to channel Herbie Hancock’s 1970s output, with the music drawing heavily from the jazz-funk canon while adding influences from hip hop, Gospel, Latin, psychedelic and straight-ahead jazz. Regardless of the influences being showcased, there’s always one element at the forefront of the music: groove.
The album’s first instrumental track ‘Swagism’ is the perfect example of this musical melting pot; a balance between a simmering funk vamp and fiery, bebop-tinged unison lines.
‘Swagism’ Main Groove
The main bass groove is a straightforward four-bar pattern that outlines G#m (thinking of it this way rather than Ab saves us some enharmonic misery later on…). Notice the use of the tried-and-tested ‘question and answer’ compositional technique, seen here with two alternate endings:
As you might expect, articulation is integral to getting the bass line to, well, groove; it’s not just the notes themselves, it’s how you play them. My recommended tactic is to listen to the recording repeatedly in order to internalise where the accented notes are in the line and which notes are played using hammer-ons, as this has a huge impact on how the part sits with the other instruments.
THAT Unison Lick
The real reason for including ‘Swagism’ in this series is the monster unison lick that acts as musical ‘punctuation’ between the solos. Lines like this are an excellent resource for building your technique in a musical way; if you’ve spent any amount of time listening to (or even attempting to play) bebop heads and solos, then the language of this lick will feel familiar to you. Although on first listen you might feel like it’s just a barrage of random notes, analysing the line in the context of a familiar jazz chord progression allows us to see that it’s really just a series of chord tones, scale tones and chromatic approach notes, albeit played at high speed.
Here’s the notation for the line, along with my preferred fingering:
Cracking The Code
It’s important to break down lines like this into their most basic building blocks in order to help us understand them from a theoretical standpoint and to aid actually playing the damn things. Zooming out and seeing the ‘bigger picture’ shows us that we’re really just outlining three chords; not so bad after all, is it?
The harmony that I’ve used for this analysis is one of several possible interpretations, as there’s not much in the way of chordal support to give us context – there are other ways of breaking down the line and this may well not be how the composers think about it.
We start out by descending a B major 7 arpeggio; the rhythm is typical of figures played by jazz musicians from Charlie Parker onwards – this is something that I’ve also come across when transcribing solos from great improvisers like Bill Evans, Joe Henderson, Paul Desmond and Oscar Peterson. Using plucking-hand raking will make it much easier to get this opening phrase up to tempo. Chord tones are highlighted in blue, while scale tones are red:
From there, we move into outlining the next chord, G#m, via a series of approach notes:
Once we’ve ascended the G#m arpeggio, we’re able to resolve into the C#7 chord by using some chromatic approaches:
There is – of course – more than one way to play the line, and it’s worth experimenting in order to find the one that works best for you. Below is an alternative that keeps everything in one position on the fretboard:
This is the approach that I’d use if I were playing the entire saxophone lick; the last phrase is a good workout for your legato technique, as it will take some control to keep all of the notes at an equal volume:
Got A Favourite Groove?
If you know a groove that you feel deserves wider attention from the bass community then why not leave a comment below to tell everyone about it? Your suggestion might even make it into a future Groove Of The Week post!
In spite of the fact that it’s 2020 and we’re in the era of being able to instantly stream almost all of the world’s recorded music from a mobile device, I’m still scouring charity shops and Amazon for second-hand CDs to fill out my collection.
In spite of the fact that it’s 2020 and we’re in the era of being able to instantly stream almost all of the world’s recorded music from a mobile device, I’m still scouring charity shops and Amazon for second-hand CDs to fill out my collection. Why am I taking the path of most resistance when technology makes it easier to fulfil any and all of my listening desires?
I’ll cut straight to the point: this year, I’m challenging myself to learn 100 albums by ear. When I say ‘learn’, I don’t mean that I’m actually going to sit down and transcribe every single note of those 100 albums; that would be incredible for my musicianship, but it would also take an insane amount of time and effort. I mean that I want to get to the point where every album is in my musical memory and I know each tune inside out from a listening perspective – we all have our ‘go-to’ records where we know exactly which note or lyric comes next.
The Listening Diet for 2020
My new prescription is this: take two contrasting artists at a time and listen through their entire discographies from start to finish. One album a week from each artist, listened to in its entirety every day. Why? Because musicians that I respect including Michael League, Jacob Collier and Bob Reynolds have all been saying things that made me realise that my current listening habits are giving me a broad but shallow understanding of music.
We now live in the age of information, where you can access almost anything within a couple of minutes – the problem is learning how to handle all of that information in a meaningful way. Don’t get me wrong, streaming services are an amazing invention, especially when it comes to making playlists of tunes that I have to learn for gigs or digging up obscure albums, but having access to anything and everything at all times isn’t always such a good thing – I increasingly find that I don’t know what to listen to because there’s too much choice.
Something that Michael League from Snarky Puppy said in an interview on the great Bass Lessons Melbourne YouTube channel really stuck with me:
“We’re kind of incapable of creating sound that isn’t directly related to a sound that we’ve heard before”
He then followed with this absolute gem:
“When we play music, we play our record collection. When we write music, we write our record collection.”
But who still has a record collection any more? The downside of having the musical equivalent of an all-you-can-eat-buffet in your pocket is that it devalues music (in every sense of the word) and makes it easy to have a broad but shallow understanding of things. I went to a Bob Reynolds saxophone masterclass last year, where he was said that as a teenager he would get really into one album at a time – because that was all that he could afford – and that process of quality over quantity helped him to get a deeper understanding of the music that inspired him. This definitely rings true for me; as a teenager, I would listen to certain albums incessantly because they were the only music I had access to and those records have all definitely had a lasting impact on the way that I hear music and play the bass.
Under The Influence
But how does listening to 100 albums a year help you as a bassist? The answer is ear training; not the sort of ‘academic’ ear training of interval recognition, but stylistic ear training – carefully managing your listening habits to help you develop a personal voice on your instrument.
There’s a great book on this called Primacy of the Ear by Ran Blake which is the only place where I’ve come across the idea of targeted listening to develop a personal style. The earlier strategy of taking two contrasting artists and to listen to their recorded output in chronological order comes directly from Blake. Taking in the entire discography in order gives you get a sense how the artists’ playing and writing developed over the arc of their career. It also gives you a historical context for everything that you’re hearing, allowing you to ‘join the dots’ and see where your influences sit within the bigger picture of musical history. This understanding of where things come from is often what’s missing when we take an ADHD approach to streaming and simply put on whatever’s on our mind at that particular moment.
I’m starting out with two of my favourite improvisers: Bill Evans and Pat Metheny. One album from each per week, in chronological order. I’m in my third week and already I’ve learned a ton of stuff that I was ignorant of before.
Ready for the #100albumchallenge?
If you’re up for the challenge then it’s really easy to do without starting a CD collection; you can simply use your preferred streaming service (technology is a wonderful thing when we control it, not the other way round). Pick two artists that you love; it definitely doesn’t have to be jazz, it can be anything at all – I did this with The Beatles last year because I didn’t really ‘get’ them when I was younger and it worked wonders for my appreciation of their music. A brief visit to Wikipedia or Allmusic.com will give you access to an artist’s discography so you can map out their career and put albums in order. All you have to do then is make time to listen to each album once a day for a week.
I’m really curious to know what other people choose for this challenge, so if you’re willing to give it a try then leave a comment to let me know who you’re listening to.
How Much Music Theory Do Bass Players Need? Music theory tends to be an area that confuses a lot of bass players, often resulting in the following questions: Do you…
How Much Music Theory Do Bass Players Need?
Music theory tends to be an area that confuses a lot of bass players, often resulting in the following questions: Do you really have to learn music theory? How much theory do you need to know? Is music theory really that important? Do you need special books on music theory for bass players?
Music theory can be summed up as a system for explaining why certain things sound good and others don’t; it’s a way of communicating the rules of music to yourself and other musicians. It’s the musical equivalent of spelling and grammar, giving us a framework that supports everything we do – putting theory in those terms makes it sound integral to our survival as musicians, but where should it sit on your priority list as a bass player?
Here’s my favourite theory-related question that helps to put things in context:
Have you ever been to a theory concert?
I thought not. Being able to play music is much more important than being able to talk about it in an academically correct way, but that’s not an excuse to avoid engaging with theory altogether.
The problem is that music theory in isolation is a dull, dry, dead thing; just like spelling and grammar. Now, can you become proficient in a language without knowing much about spelling and grammar? Of course you can. Is it easier to learn a language when you have some understanding of how it’s constructed and you can read and write it? Definitely. Will learning more about a language make you worse at it? I don’t think so, up to a point…
There’s an important distinction between knowing the rules of grammar and being able to employ them effectively. When you’re learning a foreign language it’s easy to become fixated on the nuts and bolts; verbs, tenses, cases and genders, but those things are all redundant if you can’t ask for directions when on holiday or understand a menu well enough to avoid ordering the local speciality of raw horsemeat.
Bass players are stereotypically lacking in harmonic knowledge, which is why we’re the butt of so many musical jokes. Broadly speaking, we fall into two categories:
Facility without knowledge – being able to play well, but not understanding what you’re playing or why it works.
Knowledge without facility – understanding musical concepts on an academic level, but lacking the practical skills to apply them in ‘real world’ situations.
The former is more common with beginners, the latter with more experienced players. Both are debilitating conditions.
What Music Theory Should I Learn?
So, how much music theory do you need to know? It depends on your musical goals. The problem with writing blog posts or preaching through YouTube is that it’s almost impossible to be specific; I don’t know what your musical background is, I haven’t heard you play and I don’t know what you’re aiming for. So, in order for this to have any merit whatsoever, we have to work out what we all have in common as bassists. Once you strip away personal considerations related to genre, technique, tone, and taste, we’re left with two responsibilities that everyone has:
1. Understanding which notes go into chords (and scales, but I would say that chords are far more important)
2. Knowing where those notes are on your instrument (regardless of the number of strings and frets your instrument might have and how it is tuned)
Those two things sound pretty simple, but it’s amazing how many players are deficient in at least one of these areas.
The Bassist’s Music Theory Road Map
There’s a lot of information out there to digest, so where do you begin? Let’s try to break it down into a logical progression. Some of what follows might seem unbearably patronising, but I don’t know what you know and therefore can’t assume anything (even bass veterans have gaps in their knowledge of the fundamentals).
What follows are the essential elements of music theory things you need to know to thrive as a bass player in any genre; there are lots of other concepts that might be useful to you depending on your unique musical situation, but those should be the icing on the cake.
The order of things that I suggest is not discrete; you don’t have to finish one area entirely before starting the next one.
Step 1.1: Rhythm
Being able to identify, categorise and communicate different rhythms effectively will immediately mark you out as being a well-rounded musician; there are an overwhelming number of players floating around with a weak sense of time and a vague understanding of rhythm – those who restrict themselves to TAB are more likely to be affected, as it absolves you of any rhythmic responsibility whatsoever.
Rhythmically speaking, you need to understand:
The rhythmic possibilities available when dividing up a bar of 4/4 all the way from one note to 16 notes (smaller divisions of time are available, but these aren’t a priority at the moment)
Dotted and tied notes (and their associated rests)
All possible combinations of 8th notes, 16th notes and rests that can occur within one beat
N.B. You don’t have to read music to do any of this, but it makes life a lot easier if you do.
Once you’ve got the hang of 4/4, you need to investigate other frequently occurring time signatures and rhythmic feels. In fact, you need to understand time signatures and many amateur musicians appear not to. Common scenarios like a 6/8 ballad, a waltz, a 12/8 shuffle groove, swing 16ths with straight 8ths all have different implications for how you subdivide the beat when you play.
When working on your rhythmic abilities it’s worth remembering this golden rule:
If you can’t clap something then you’ll never play it with any degree of understanding or fluency
Step 1.2: Pitch
Top of the list is learning the names and locations of every single note on your instrument; again, this is regardless of the number of strings or frets it may possess and how you tune it.
There are seven natural notes (A B C D E F G), four of which have additional enharmonic spellings (B#, Cb, E# and Fb) and five accidentals that each have two possible names (C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, A#/Bb)
That’s 21 pitch names in total. Pedants will bring up double sharps and double flats, but even I think that’s too much at this stage. Yes, they exist, but they occur very rarely and if you have a solid understanding of basic accidentals then seeing Fx (F double sharp) in a piece of music won’t give you a nervous breakdown.
How do you learn your bass fretboard in a logical fashion? A single string is the most straightforward way of seeing (and hearing) how music actually works on our instrument; using more than one string can tempt us into becoming dependent on finger patterns until everything becomes reduced to a shape.
Once you’ve got the hang of where the notes are, it’s time to start working on understanding the effect of varying the distance between them; this is the beginning of studying intervals, which are the universal building blocks for all genres of music.
Step 2: Intervals
Most problems that people have with harmony and theory stem from a lack of understanding of intervals. If you don’t understand how two notes relate to each other then it’s difficult to understand triads and almost impossible to really grasp 7th chords and beyond. This is also part of the reason that modes are so confusing – you can’t expect to understand anything about the lydian mode if you don’t know what a #11 is in the first place. People are always keen to skim over the fundamentals and skip straight to the hip stuff, but all that does is leave gaps in your knowledge and holes in your playing.
You need to know intervals from three different perspectives:
1. How they sound (ears)
2. How they fit on the fretboard (fingers)
3. How they’re spelled (brain)
Intervals are named based on their size in semitones and the number of scale degrees between the notes; you need to be fluent with all the intervals within an octave in every key to be able to survive as a bass player. Remember that for some intervals there will be more than one practical way of playing them depending on if they are playable on one string, adjacent strings, or non-adjacent strings.
Step 3: Triads
Once you’re familiar with intervals up to a fifth, then it’s time to start working on triads. Again, people get upset about 7th chords (not to mention 9ths, 11ths and 13ths) because they haven’t put the work in on understanding triads thoroughly enough.
What work do you need to do on triads? There are five types of triad to be acquainted with:
5. Suspended (sus4 and sus2)
The first three arise naturally in the major scale (more on that later), augmented triads come from the melodic minor, harmonic minor and whole tone scales, and sus chords are an important sound that appear in a wide range of musical styles.
As with intervals, you need to know triads in three ways; how they sound, how they’re spelled and how they work on the fretboard. In order to become really happy with triads, you need to get comfortable playing them in as many ways as possible:
On one string
On two strings
Across three strings
Across four (or more) strings in multiple octaves
As with intervals, there will be multiple ways of playing each type of triad and you need to have two practical fingerings at your disposal.
Major triads are worth spending the most time on; once you’ve internalised the spellings of those then you can view the other types as being alterations – this makes the job of memorising somewhere in the region of 75 triads a little less daunting; you just focus on 15 major triads and work out everything else.
Inversions of triads are also very important if you want your playing to sound interesting. Learn how to voice triads and their inversions as chords, both in close position and spread voicings; this will really open your ears to more melodic bass playing possibilities.
Step 4: The Major Scale
To say that the major scale is important is a gross understatement, and really knowing the major scale in every key all over the instrument is yet another serious project, but because of all the work that you’ve already put into learning your fretboard and understanding intervals this shouldn’t be that stressful (famous last words…).
The most important aspect of learning about scales is about understanding the harmony that comes from them.
What happens when we build chords from the major scale in diatonic thirds?
We get this:
Three major triads, three minor triads and one diminished; these are the basic materials with which the bulk of the songs that have appeared in the pop charts for at least the last 60 years are built from. Getting a firm grasp of how these chords work together in a key to form chord progressions is the beginning of understanding functional harmony. If you don’t know how a chord functions relative to a key centre then memorising and transposing large numbers of songs for gigs becomes far more labour-intensive than it needs to be.
Step 5: 7th Chords
This is exactly the same as triads, but because we’re dealing with four notes we have a greater variety of chords:
1. Major 7th
2. Minor 7th
3. Dominant 7th
4. Half diminished
5. Minor major 7th
6. Augmented major 7th
7. Diminished 7th
8. Suspended dominant (7sus4)
The first four arise naturally if you harmonise a major scale in thirds, and those should be your main focus. Others come from minor scales and the suspended dominant is a common device in pop music when a composer wants tension but a dominant 7th sounds too colourful. All of these chord types can be thought of as a basic triad with either a major or minor 7th added.
Step 6: Modes
Modes are probably the most misunderstood aspect of contemporary music theory. As before, the majority of the confusion stems from a lack of understanding about intervals, both of the modes themselves and the chords that they function over. Instructional materials and some teachers often compound the confusion by not presenting modes in the best way.
Modes are derived by displacing a scale. The traditional introduction is to show the C major scale played from D to D, which gives the D dorian mode. You then get told that this is important because this is what Miles Davis’ ’So What’ is built on and that – get this – you can play over a ii – V – I progression just using one scale. Magic! No more thinking or musicality required, just plug in the scale and noodle away, instant jazz!
Whilst it’s true that you can play over Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7 with just the C major scale I don’t think it’s the most musical perspective from which to approach things.
You really need to understand modes in two ways:
How they’re derived, i.e. which major scale they come from (‘derivative’ thinking)
How they’re constructed, which examines the component intervals of each mode (‘parallel’ thinking)
Parallel thinking is most useful when you’re learning the modes, because when you’re in a playing situation and someone says ‘oh, it’s a sort of A dorian thing’ then you need to immediately know that means that you’re playing a minor scale with a major 6th.
How do you work on parallel modal thinking? Divide up the modes according to the chord types that they function over:
Major 7ths: Ionian (you don’t really need much work on this because it’s the major scale) and lydian.
Minor 7ths: Dorian, phrygian and aeolian
Dominant 7ths: Mixolydian
Half diminished chords: Locrian
Modes are definitely not restricted to The Dark Arts of Jazz; unfortunately, this means that if you’re starting to glaze over and think that you don’t need to know this stuff because you’re not a jazzer then you’ve still got some homework to do.
Looking for the best books on music theory for bass players? There are hundreds (if not thousands) of music theory books on the market, so it’s hard to know where to begin. Below are a selection of titles that I’ve used to improve my understanding of harmony and music theory. Some of them are general theory books, others are bass-specific music theory books and one is even aimed at guitarists.
It’s worth noting that I’m yet to find a single, all-encompassing theory book that covers all the essential concepts in the necessary depth. These are the books that I’ve used extensively over the last 20 years of my own personal music education; all have pros and cons.
Top Theory Books for Bassists
FULL DISCLOSURE: Amazon URLs on this list are linked to my Amazon Associate account; this means that I earn a small fee from any direct book sales made through these links. This fee is typically less than 5% of the book price and does not increase the price that you pay for any product compared to logging on to Amazon and searching manually.
(If you’re averse to lining the pockets of tax-dodging mega-corporations, then many of the products can be found at independent local retailers)
The AB Guide to Music Theory, Volume 1 is the book that I first used when I was at school. It comes at things from a classical perspective, which has advantages and disadvantages, but if you’re looking for a book that presents the nuts and bolts of music theory in an easy-to-read, no-nonsense package then this is worth a look.
The book is most effective when combined with the following theory workbooks – these ensure that you’ve really understood everything you’ve read in the textbook. Learning to write music is also a great way to improve your sight reading skills:
It seems like every other post I write raves about this book, but that’s because it’s one of the best books ever for understanding how scales, modes and chords relate to fretted string instruments. Yes, it’s written for guitarists, but don’t let that put you off – I’ve been using it for a decade and have barely scratched the surface.
Joe Hubbard is a serious force in the bass education world; if you’re not familiar with Joe, then he’s taught some monster players such as Pino Palladino, Paul Turner, Dave Swift and Mike Modesir. He also has a very clear-cut, BS-free approach to applying concepts of harmony and music theory to the bass.
Normally, I’d hesitate to recommend any book that includes TAB, but I understand that authors include it in order to make books commercially viable (remember: just because it’s there doesn’t mean that you have to use it!)
The title might be off-putting, but this book is a great resource for those who feel that they understand the basics and are ready to progress into deeper theoretical waters. Jazzology isn’t aimed at bassists, and so contains lots of treble clef reading and piano examples – working through these will do wonders for your musicianship. It has a workbook element to it, with questions at the end of every chapter to test your learning.
Mark Levine’s Jazz Theory Book is huge in every sense of the word; a 500+ page encyclopedia of almost every facet of jazz harmony that has rave reviews from prominent jazz musicians. It’s also crammed with musical examples taken from the great improvisers and even contains recommendations of standards to learn and albums to listen to. In spite of this, I don’t really like it all that much. Why? It follows the Berklee College of Music chord/scale theory approach to learning harmony, which in my experience is not the most musical way of approaching improvisation. Of course, this is just my personal bias, and The Jazz Theory Book remains a very useful educational resource for students and teachers alike.
The Agony of Choice In spite of advances in modern technology, it’s still not possible to be in two places at the same time. As a freelance musician — or…
The Agony of Choice
In spite of advances in modern technology, it’s still not possible to be in two places at the same time. As a freelance musician — or freelance anything, come to think of it —you have to constantly decide which gigs and projects to accept and which to decline. Sometimes, it can be difficult to make the right decision and it’s not always obvious which choice is the right one.
This is where a helpful tool called ‘The Gig Triangle’ comes in; this appeared in a column in Bass Player Magazine some years ago (I’ve searched for the original article, but to no avail) and has stuck with me ever since. It’s also proved to hold true on every gig I’ve ever been on.
What is the ‘Gig Triangle’?
Every gig or project on offer contains a balance of three areas; music, people, and money. Let’s take a closer look at each side:
1. The Music
This is a pretty basic thing, but is the music bearable? I’m not talking about whether or not you like the music that you have to play, because part of being a professional is being able to make it seem like everything you have to play is your favourite music in the whole world. Everyone also has notions of musical credibility until it’s time to pay their rent.
The real question is: can you do the gig without feeling like your soul is being eroded with every note that you play, or wishing for some apocalyptic event that would mean that the gig would be brought to a swift end? In a decade of freelance work, I’ve had this happen three times and it has never been worth it.
2. The People
Who’s on the gig? Are they going to be a pleasure to work with, or are you going to have to share a 4-hour journey to the gig with that creepy keyboard player who lacks any sense of personal hygiene?
So little of the time on a gig is spent actually playing that this is a serious issue and often has nothing to do with the musical skills of the people involved. The gig is not the music – a vast proportion of your time is spent travelling, loading in gear, setting up, and then hanging around waiting to play. You don’t want to spend all that non-playing time surrounded by people who drive you crazy, so if we assume that there’s a basic level of musicianship and everyone in the band can play then the main concern is what will the hang be like?
3. The Money
Obviously, this is why you’re doing the gig, because you need to earn a living and doing gigs sure beats working in Starbucks. But this side of the triangle is not always about how large or small the gig fee is; your time is a valuable, non-renewable resource, so you have to factor in how much prep work the gig requires and how much time you have to block out of your day in order to actually do the gig.
The Golden Rule of Gigging
So we have music, money and people on the gig triangle, and the golden rule is that there have to be two sides of the triangle in place for a gig to be worth saying yes to, which leaves us with these three scenarios:
Gigs where there isn’t not really much money, but you enjoy the music and the people are great; this is basically every original band project ever.
Gigs where there’s a decent fee and there’s a good hang, but the music isn’t your ideal choice; this is essentially most covers bands, unless you happen to really love playing ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Valerie’ every week for the rest of your life (and there’s nothing wrong with that at all!).
Gigs where the people are not enjoyable to work with, but you enjoy the music and there’s a good fee – this is probably the rarest scenario.
In most cases, you won’t need to go into this level of analysis, but it can help avoid situations where you make spur of the moment choices that make you resent the gig that you end up on. There’s nothing worse for the audience, the band, or the music itself than having someone on stage who really has somewhere better to be.
Confession time: I’m a terrible student. March 2019 marked an entire decade since I took a lesson with the great Dr Richard Niles, a guitarist/producer/composer/arranger who studied under Pat Metheny…
Confession time: I’m a terrible student.
March 2019 marked an entire decade since I took a lesson with the great Dr Richard Niles, a guitarist/producer/composer/arranger who studied under Pat Metheny at Berklee in the 1970s and has subsequently worked with Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, James Brown and a host of others.
I met Richard while studying for my degree at The Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, and shortly after graduating I began to realise that in spite of having a music degree I still didn’t know enough about harmony and improvisation to feel comfortable as a freelance musician, particularly as I was starting to develop an unhealthy interest in The Dark Arts of Jazz.
It turned out that I had a lot to learn (and still do). Reviewing the dictaphone recording of the lesson is hilarious and humiliating in equal measures as Richard begins to ascertain the extent of my ignorance. In order to get my rather malnourished sense of harmony on track, he gave me a set of exercises that involved voice leading through a split-bar ii-V-I progression using arpeggios.
Here’s a basic ii-V-I in the key of F major (7th chords on bass are almost always better with the 5th omitted):
Voice leading is an expensive-sounding term for finding the path of least resistance between chords – in this case, we’re looking for semitone resolution from one chord to the next.
The b7 of the Gm7 chord (F) falls by a semitone to become the major 3rd of the C7 chord. This process is repeated for the resolution from V to I: the b7 of the C7 chord (Bb) falls by a semitone to become the major 3rd of the F chord (A):
Playing just these notes (known as ‘guide tones’, because they guide your ear to the sound of each chord) provides us with the essential outline of the ii-V-I progression:
Building an 8th-note line that includes these semitone movements can be done using a simple combination of ascending and descending arpeggios:
Why is that a useful thing to practise? Even if you’re not looking to become a fully fledged jazzer then it’s still a very nutritious exercise. My perspective is that although I don’t want to make playing jazz standards my main thing, I definitely don’t want to have to shut myself off to that area of music because I haven’t done my homework and put the hours in; improvising over a set of chords changes with confidence and musicality is the hardest thing I can think of to do on the bass.
Playing these sorts of exercises will benefit your playing in four different ways:
• A greater understanding of harmony: this sort of harmony is not limited to jazz, and understanding the way in which chords move can help to improve your playing regardless of the areas that you operate in.
• Voice leading: as bass players, we spend our lives moving from root to root and are often guilty of not thinking about the rest of the notes in the chord. Developing an intuitive sense of voice leading helps to strengthen the melodic content of both your solos and your basslines.
• Technique: this is a great example of an exercise that falls into the ‘music, not chops’ category – everything here is derived from a musical concept, and working out how these patterns fit on the fretboard in every possible way will definitely present your fingers with a variety of technical issues to solve.
• Vocabulary: This is the main reason why I was prescribed these exercises: even though I understood the concept on paper I definitely couldn’t conjure up an improvised line that fulfilled the criteria of using arpeggios to voice lead a melodic line through a split-bar ii-V-I. Developing fluency in improvisation in jazz or any other style of music first requires that you amass a collection of small fragments that can easily be recalled whenever you get into trouble and don’t know what to play, and these sorts of lines are a great starting point.
A full run-down of possible fingerings for this exercise on 4- and 5-string basses can be found here: