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.
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
I love the sound of chords played on a bass and I use chords a lot in my playing. Apart from just sounding great, practicing chords on the bass has many benefits and it can really help us to learn harmony on the fretboard. A good place to start is with double stops (playing 2 notes together). In this first example I play an A major scale two notes at a time using intervals of a third. This gives us the foundation of seven different chords.
Click on the examples to make them bigger.
If you play through my written examples, I would encourage you to not just play them the way they are written, its a ok to start like that but once you feel comfortable with the notes I would recommend changing the order in which you play them as this will help you to experiment and come up with musical ideas of your own.
In this second example I play the same notes I played in example 1 but I also play an open A string with each chord.
As you can see from the chord symbols written above the notes, adding this open A string changes some of our double stops into chords. I will try and explain below why I have used these chord symbols, if you re not interested please feel free to skip onto the next examples.The first chord is still A major but the second chord becomes an inverted B minor 7 chord because the A is the minor 7th relative to the B while the D played on the 7th fret of the G string is the minor 3rd.
The third chord is now A major where before it was C sharp minor. This is because the C sharp played on the 11th fret of the D string is the major 3rd relative to our open A string and the E played on the 9th fret of the G string is now functioning as the 5th. These three notes make a simple A major triad (A, C sharp and E) more commonly just written as A.
The fourth chord is now an inversion of a D major chord, again it is a simple triad, there is the D played on the 12th fret of the D string, there is an F sharp played on the 11th fret of the G string, F sharp is the major 3rd relative to D and the open A sting is the 5th relative to D. So these 3 notes make up a D major triad but it’s an inversion because D is not the lowest note, A is, so we call the chord D over A.
I think of the fifth chord as A major seventh even though it doesn’t contain the major 3rd note, C sharp which is normally found in this chord. It does contain the 5th E and the major 7th G sharp. It’s OK to sometimes leave notes out of chords. On the bass, if we are dealing with extended chords (chords with lots of notes) we will have to leave some notes out so in this case the chord can still function as an A major seventh chord even without the C sharp.
The sixth chord is still F sharp minor as it was in example 1 only now we call it F sharp minor over A because the open A string is now the lowest note.
The seventh chord I have called A major ninth because the G sharp played on the 18th fret of the D string is the major 7th relative to A and the B played on the 16th fret of the G string is the 9th. Normally in a full A major ninth chord you would have a C sharp (the 3rd) and an E (the 5th), but the chord can still be thought of as A major ninth.
If you are struggling to understand all this explanation of the chord symbols don t worry too much, the most important thing is that you learn what they sound like so you can be creative with them.
In example 3 I still play the same notes as example 1 only now I play an open E string with each chord. This gives us a different sound to example 2 and changes the chords. The sound we get is called mixolydian, this is basically what you get when you play an A major scale over an E note.
Now in the next examples I’ll change things slightly. I’m going to stop using the notes from the A major scale that we worked out in example 1. Instead, in the following examples I’ll use the notes from a G major scale (example 4), F major scale (example 5), E major scale (example 6) and C major scale (example 7), and play each of them with an open A string.
These examples are meant to demonstrate the different sounds you can achieve on your bass by harmonising different major scales over a single bass note. In this case the single note was our open A string. I’ve added the Greek names for the modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Aeolian) to the examples above for your reference. These examples are certainly not a complete list of all the modes and I’ve simply presented them here so you can take the idea and experiment to come up with your own ideas. The most important thing, as with everything we practise, is to learn the sounds, once the sounds are in our heads and the notes are under our fingers then we’ve achieved the most important target. Learning the names of the chords and the modes is useful but not nearly as important as learning the sounds they make
I’ve added one last example here to give you an idea of something slightly different. All my previous examples have used a major scale. In this example I’m using a scale called the melodic minor scale. Try this out and see if you can come up with something interesting.* I’ve labeled the 5th and 7th chords here Amaj7 and Amaj9 because that’s what I’ve called the same chords in previous examples. As I mentioned before, neither chord includes a major 3rd but both chords include the note G sharp which is the major 7th relative to A and so they can both function as an A major chord. It is however important to note that because the scale I’m harmonising in exercise 8 is an A melodic minor scale, then if I were to add the 3rd to either chord then it would be a minor 3rd and not a major 3rd so the full chord would be called A minor with a major seventh.