For me practicing techniques is all about learning to play in the most efficient way possible. Whether I’m working on my left or right hand technique, I’m always trying to find the simplest way to play the notes that involves the least amount of movement in my hands. As far as I’m concerned all unnecessary movement slows me down.
For my left hand I like to use the “one finger per fret” system. This can be practiced and mastered very simply by using the following exercise.
This is a very common exercise that bass players (and guitar players) have been using for decades. If you add the open strings to this exercise as shown in Example 2 then you can play the chromatic scale from the open E string to the B on the 4th fret of the G string without shifting position. Example 3 shows how to practice the “one finger per fret system” on a single string, and you can practice this way on each string individually. The benefit of this exercise is that it teaches us to shift positions up and down the neck whilst maintaining good technique in our left hand. You can alter this exercise by changing the order of the fingering. For example instead of playing 1st, 2nd, 3rd then 4th finger you could try 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th as in Example 4, or any other pattern you can come up with. If you’re not used to using the “one finger per fret” system then I would strongly recommend spending some time working on the above examples until you get used to it. Once you get used to the system, use it to practice some scales and arpeggios because they are great for mastering techniques. The following examples are just a few scales and arpeggios you can use. If you want to take your left hand technique a step further then there is another thing you can do. As you get further up the neck of the bass the frets get closer together which means that the stretches needed to play “one finger per fret” get smaller. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t restrict myself to “one finger per fret” in areas of the fingerboard where my finger span could be much greater than 4 frets. So when I get above the 5th fret of the bass I use my 1st finger to cover 2 different frets while my 2nd, 3rd & 4th fingers still play “one finger per fret”. This allows me to cover 5 frets in a single position which gives me access to the entire chromatic scale without having to change position. Example 9 demonstrates how I play a Eb major scale using this technique starting on the 6th fret of the A string. In this case my 1st finger can play the 6th or 7th frets, my 2nd finger plays the 8th fret, my 3rd finger the 9th fret and my 4th finger the 10th fret.
In Part 4 we’re going to look at chord extensions. Extended harmony is where chords get a lot more interesting sounding but it’s also where the theory gets more complicated. Extensions are notes that we can add to basic chords like triads. Having established how to play triads in Part 3, we can now look at adding extensions to them.
The most common chord extension by far is the seventh, in Part 3 we looked at how triads are made up of a root, a third and a fifth and there is an interval of a third between each of these notes. In order to make a triad into a seventh chord we just continue this pattern of stacking intervals of a third and we add a note that is a third above the fifth and we call this note the seventh. Seventh chords have four notes in them root, third, fifth and seventh.
If you watched my video about “Intervals” then you’ll know that there are two types of sevenths, major and minor just like there are major and minor thirds. Fifths however are not major or minor and so the fifth is the same in both major and minor chords. For this reason, it is the third and seventh notes of each chord that define what type of chord it is. For example if you have a chord with a major third and a major seventh in it, it’s called a major seventh chord and a chord with a minor third and a minor seventh is called a minor seventh chord. The word used to describe a chord that has a major third and a minor seventh in it is “dominant” and dominant seventh chords are very common. The chord symbol for a dominant seventh chord is just the number 7 (eg. G7, A7, C7 etc.) minor seventh chords are written m7 (eg. Gm7, Am7, Cm7 etc.) and major seventh chords can be written a number of ways such as with a small triangle or sometimes with an upper case M, but most commonly they are written maj7 (eg. Gmaj7, Amaj7, Cmaj7 etc.) These three types of seventh chords are by far the most common but there are others that I’ve also listed at the end of Example 1. For example, a chord with a minor third and a major seventh is called minor with a major seventh (min/maj7).
When we play extended chords we usually can’t play all the notes within the chord because we only have a finite number of strings on the bass. The more extensions we have means the more options we have, but it also means the more decisions we have to make in terms of what notes to leave out. In the case of seventh chords the decision is simple, I’ve already mentioned that the fifth is the same for major and minor chords so the fifth doesn’t fulfill a very important function in the chord (unless we alter it as in diminished and augmented chords). So if we leave out the fifth we have three notes left, the root, third and seventh. Example 1 demonstrates two different ways of voicing major seventh, dominant seventh, minor seventh and minor with a major seventh chords. The first way is to play the root on the A string, the third on the D string and the seventh on the G string. The second way is to play the root on the E string, leave out the A string and play the seventh on the D string and the third up an octave on the G string.
Just because the fifth is the same for both major and minor chords doesn’t mean we can’t alter it. You can flatten the fifth (lower by a semi-tone) to give you a diminished chord or sharpen it (raise it by a semi-tone) to give you an augmented chord. In order to play a diminished or augmented chord you need to include the fifth because the fact that it’s been altered makes it a key element in the chord. That is why I have included all four notes in the augmented and diminished examples in Example 1.
Another common chord extension that we can use instead of a seventh is a major sixth. We can add a major sixth to a major triad or a minor triad. The chord symbol for a major chord with a major sixth is just the number 6 (eg. G6, A6, C6 etc.) and the chord symbol for a minor chord with a major sixth is m6 (eg. Gm6, Am6, Cm6 etc.) Example 2 demonstrates how to play these two types of chords. Again, I’ve left out the fifth in both cases.
If we harmonise any major scale into seventh chords we get seven different chords, two major seventh chords (chords I & IV, three minor seventh chords (chords II,III & VI), one dominant seventh chord (chord V) and one half-diminished chord (a chord with a minor third, a minor seventh and a flattened fifth) (chord VII). Example 3 is a D major scale harmonised into seventh chords.
After the seventh, the next extension we can add to a chord if we keep stacking intervals of a third is a ninth. A full ninth chord has five notes in it, root, third, fifth, seventh and ninth. Example 4, demonstrates how to play a few common ninth chords by adding a ninth to a major seventh chord, a dominant seventh chord, a minor seventh chord and even a major sixth chord. As before I’m leaving out the fifth in each chord.
So if we keep up this idea of stacking intervals of a third we end up with an eleventh and then a thirteenth, and by the time you reach the thirteenth you have seven notes. Most scales have seven notes so a seven note chord would effectively be equivalent to playing all the notes from a scale simultaneously which is usually a bad idea. Also, you can alter (either sharpen or flatten) the upper extensions (ninth, eleventh and thirteenth) in the same way we altered our fifth earlier which gives us a huge amount of options in terms of extending our chords. So we have to exercise some judgement over which extensions we can add to which chords and that all comes down to what we think sounds good. For example, you normally wouldn’t want to add an eleventh to a chord with a major third in it (major or dominant) because the eleventh clashes with the third but you can add a sharpened eleventh. If you were going to add an eleventh to a major chord then you would normally leave out the third which would change the chord to what we call a “sus” chord which is a chord that omits the third and usually replaces it with the fourth, which is the same note as the eleventh. Check out my video on “intervals” if you don’t understand why the fourth and the eleventh are the same note.
Example 5 demonstrates some common extensions that we can play over major or minor chords on the bass.
For Example 6 I’ve had to switch onto my six string bass to play some of these extensions. The ability to play more extended harmony is one of the main reasons I choose to play six string basses most of the time. If you don’t have a six string bass then many of these chord shapes can be adapted onto a five string bass.
In part 3 we’re going to look at how to play triads on the bass. Triads are simple three note chords that form a foundation for a lot of extended harmony. Before we can go on to explore chord extensions it’s really important to understand triads.
There are essentially four types of triad, these are major, minor, diminished and augmented and they are written out here in Example 1. In this example all the triads have the root note C.
We can harmonise scales into triads. In part one we harmonised scales into intervals of a third and a triad is two intervals of a third stacked together, by which I mean you take a root note find a note that is a third above it and then another note which is a third above again. The three notes of a triad are often referred to as the root, the third(an interval of a third above the root) and the fifth (an interval of a third above the third and an interval of a fifth above the root). You will find that when you harmonise a major scale into triads you’ll get seven chords, three major triads (chords I, IV & V), three minor triads (chords II, III and VI) and one diminished triad (chord VII). Example 2 is a G major scale harmonised into triads played in root position (the root note is the lowest of the three notes).
In the previous example we refer to these triads as root position because we’ve arranged each triad in a neatly stacked order with the root at the bottom and the third and the fifth stacked on top of it. If we change the order of these notes to make either the third or the fifth the lowest note then we have what we call an “Inversion”. There are only two possible ways to invert a triad. The first way is to put the third at the bottom as in Example 3.
If you harmonise a melodic minor scale into triads you get two minor triads, two major triads, two diminished triads and one augmented triad. Example 7 is a G melodic minor scale harmonised using root position triads.
As I was posting some of my previous videos I started thinking that I should add a new one describing some of the right-hand techniques you’ve seen me using, so here it is.
When I was learning to play I was taught to place the thumb of my right hand on either a pickup or on the bottom string and then pluck the strings with my index and middle fingers. It’s a very common right-hand technique for the bass and one that I still use a lot (because old habits die hard). The downside of this technique in my opinion is that it doesn’t make enough use of the thumb. The thumb is probably our most versatile and dextrous digit, so some time ago I decided that my two finger technique wasn’t versatile enough for everything I wanted to play on the bass and I started working on some right-hand techniques that use my thumb more.
A simple way to use your thumb with the two finger technique is to use it to dampen and mute the lower strings. Damping is a key issue for bass players especially with the lower strings because they have a tendency to ring and create unwanted noise when we’re not using them. If you position your thumb so that it touches these strings when you’re not using them it will mute them and stop any unwanted noise coming from them. This is a simple adaptation to the technique that can make an important difference to your playing, especially if you have a low B string on your bass. It will involve some practice because you will need to get used to constantly moving your thumb as you change strings but if you’re conscientious about listening out for unwanted noise from your lower strings when you practice then it should become instinctive fairly quickly.
Now let’s change the technique altogether and get our thumb playing notes instead of just damping. The first thing we need to look at is how can we combine using our fingers and thumb. Example 1 is a simple demonstration of how we can play notes by alternating between playing with our thumb and our first finger. In the example T means play the note with your right-hand thumb and i means play the note with your right hand index finger. As you can see from the example we should be able to use this technique to play across strings as in bar one, on adjacent strings as in bar two and on the same string as in bar three.
The advantages of this technique over the two finger technique we looked at earlier are that it is much easier to play across strings using this technique because there is much greater independence (and physical distance) between your index finger and your thumb than there is between your index and middle fingers. I also find it much more natural to keep a constant tempo at high speeds and a third benefit to using this technique is damping, particularly palm-muting. When I use this technique I rest the palm of my hand on the lower strings near to the bridge to dampen them and stop any unwanted noise. In effect my palm is functioning in the same role my thumb was in the previous technique. If I want I can take this damping technique a step further and use my palm to mute the strings I’m playing as well. If you rest your palm on the string close enough to the bridge then you will still here the note you play but it will have a very muted and staccato sound to it, which is a very useful sound. It’s a good approximation to the classic Motown sound that James Jameson used to get by putting bits of foam under his strings in front of the bridge. Anthony Jackson is another great bass player who uses this muted sound a lot in his playing. Try playing through Example 1 both with and without the palm muting and then when you get used to it try applying the same techniques to other areas of your practice.
The next obvious thing to do with this technique is to start using more of the fingers on my right-hand. Example 2 is a demonstration of how to use your thumb, index and middle fingers to play chords, similar to the way a guitarist finger picks. (T, i & m = Thumb, Index and Middle)
You can also add your third finger (and even your little finger) to this technique especially if you’re playing chords that use more than just three strings. Again this is similar to how a guitarist would finger pick.
Another simple technique you can apply to playing chords is raking with either your index or middle finger or both. Example 3 is a demonstration of this technique.
You might think that the next logical place to take our right-hand technique would be to try and use our thumb and three fingers and then our thumb and four fingers. And you might well be right, certainly a lot of bass players have explored techniques using all the fingers on their right hand and I would encourage you to explore it as well as I have in order to find out what works best for you. However my personal favorite technique is a little simpler, I prefer to use my thumb with my index and third finger. I know this sounds a little odd because I’m not using my middle finger but after years of experimenting with three and four finger techniques I’ve found this one to be the most efficient for me. The best reason I can think of for this is because my index and third fingers are almost exactly the same length whereas my middle finger is a lot longer, so when I try and use those three fingers altogether, it works but it feels slightly less comfortable than when I leave the middle finger out. This technique has proved very versatile, it’s fast, it’s easy to cross strings, it’s easy to keep a constant rhythm even at high speeds without getting tired and it works well for both triplet and 16th note rhythms. Example 4 is a demonstration of how we can use this technique to play across strings in bar 1, on adjacent strings in bar 2 and on a single string in bar 3. (In this example T=thumb, 1=index & 3=third finger)
Once you’ve found a technique, or several techniques that work well for you then try applying them in all areas of your practice. For instance, Example 5 is a demonstration of how I might apply my technique demonstrated in Example 4 to practicing a C major scale.
Here is my brief explanation of what intervals are and how to play them on the bass. The word “interval” in music is used to describe the distance (in terms of pitch) between two notes. The smallest interval we have on the fretboard is called a semi-tone and it’s the distance between any note and a note that is one fret above or below on the same string. There are 12 notes in an octave which means there are 12 semi-tone intervals. If we play these 12 semi-tone intervals one after the other then we are playing the “Chromatic Scale”. This isn’t a very interesting sounding scale but it’s really important to understand the chromatic scale if we’re going to understand intervals.
Below is a one octave chromatic scale starting and finishing on C.
Because there are 12 semi-tones in an octave, it is possible to play 12 different intervals within an octave (including the interval of an octave itself). Here is a list of all 12 intervals (plus 4 more intervals that are larger than an octave) along with tab showing how to play them on the bass.
The interval called a “tone” is equal to two semi-tones or you can think of it as the distance of two frets on a single string. Tones and semi-tones are sometimes called whole-tones and half-tones or whole-steps and half-steps.
An interval of three semi-tones is called a minor 3rd and four semi-tones is called a major 3rd. Check out Playing Chords on the Bass – Part 1 where I show you how to make chords by using intervals of major and minor 3rd’s to harmonise scales.
Five semi-tones gives us an interval of a 4th (a 4th is neither major nor minor and is sometimes called a perfect 4th). Six semi-tones gives us an interval which can be called a sharpened 4th because it’s one semi-tone bigger than a 4th or it can be called a flattened 5th because it’s one semi-tone smaller than a 5th (it’s also sometimes called a tri-tone because six semi-tones is equal to three tones). Seven semi-tones is called a 5th or a perfect 5th. Eight semi-tones is called a minor 6th and nine semi-tones is called a major sixth. Check out Playing Chords on the Bass – Part 2 where I use intervals of 4th’s, 5th’s and 6th’s to harmonise scales.
Ten semi-tones is an interval called a minor 7th, eleven semi-tones is a major 7th and twelve semitones is an octave. It’s important to note that after the octave the intervals start to repeat the same notes but we do still have different names for intervals above an octave. For example a flattened 9th interval will give you the same note as a semi-tone, a natural 9th interval will give you the same note as a tone, a minor 10th interval is effectively the same as a minor 3rd and a major 10th is the same as a major 3rd
In this second part in my series of videos about playing chords on the bass, we’re going to continue looking at how we can make chords by playing double stops (two notes played at the same time) over open strings. In Part 1 we harmonised scales into intervals of a third and in Part 2 we’re going to see how we can get a whole new set of sounds and chords by changing the interval we use to harmonise our scales.
If you’re not sure what an interval is or how we play intervals on the bass then check out my video called Intervals which is also available on this site and it will explain everything.
In Example 1 I’m playing a C major scale harmonised into intervals of a fourth.
In Example 2 I’m playing the same C major scale played in fourths and I’m playing it over an open A string. Then in the following examples I’m still playing a C major scale over an open A string but I’m changing the interval that I’m using to harmonise the scale. In Example 3 I’m harmonising the C major scale in fifths and in Example 4 I’m using sixths. You can hear that each different interval gives us a different sound even though I’m harmonising the same scale over the same note.* I’ve marked some chords * in the above examples because they don’t contain thirds. The Am7 and Am9 chords could also function as A7 and A9 because they don’t contain the note C which is the minor 3rd. I’ve labeled them as minor chords because if we were to add a third in this key it would be a minor third C and not a major third C#. The G9/A chords in Examples 2 & 3 also don’t include the 3rd B but again I’ve labeled them according to what they would be if we added a 3rd in this key. The same is true for the chords marked in the examples below.
The next examples are a similar idea only this time I’m harmonising a D major scale and playing it over an open E string, this gives us a Dorian sound. In Example 5 I’m harmonising the scale in fourths, In Example 6 I’m using fifths and in Example 7 I’m using sixths.
Notice how in Example 7 using the open E string instead of the open A string gives us a different option for fingerings when we play the scale in sixths. We can now play the lower of the 2 notes on the A string and the higher note on the G string while we leave out the D string altogether.
These examples are just a very small demonstration of some the sounds that you can come up with using this idea. It wouldn’t be impossible to list here all the possible variations you can achieve by harmonising scales over an open string so I really want to encourage you to experiment and come up with ideas of your own.