6-String Fretless Bass Modal Improvisation – Bass Practice Diary – 29th December 2020
This is a modal improvisation on my Warwick Thumb SC 6-string fretless bass. What do I practice in the week between Christmas and New Year? Inevitably I’ve practiced less at Christmas than I usually would. Normally I would have been visiting various family members. But all my plans were cancelled at the last minute due to a COVID lockdown announced by the UK government on December 19th. However, despite that, I still have a wife and son at home, so my usual practice time got devoted to trying to make Christmas special for them despite the restrictions.
So, what should you practice at a time when you haven’t done much practice? For me, the answer is, just play! Play for fun, improvise, play for the love of playing music. Don’t worry about whether it’s good or not. Just get the feeling of the strings back under your fingers. So, with that in mind, here’s a video of me improvising on a short modal chord sequence that I’ve been playing around with this week.
I’ve called this a modal improvisation. But how can it be called modal if I’m improvising over a chord sequence? The reason I’m calling it modal is because the chords are not connected by diatonic harmony. So I’m thinking of each chord as being a different scale or mode to improvise on. There is no key that connects the chords. They are simply connected by a bass note, each chord is played over an E bass note.
The chord progression in the video is very simple. It starts on an Eb major chord over an E natural bass note. That chord resolves upwards onto an Emaj7 chord. Then I raise the 5th and make that chord an Emaj7#5 before dropping back onto the Emaj7. These might sound like really small changes, and they are. But each chord change creates the sound of a new mode.
I think it’s an interesting way to think about chord progressions. Rather than thinking about chord changes. Think about changing just one note in a chord and see how that one note changes the overall sound.
Improvisation Strategies on 6-String Bass – Part 2: Naima on Fretless Bass- Bass Practice Diary – 14th July 2020
Naima by John Coltrane has a beautiful but challenging chord progression. Last week, I featured a video demonstrating how I play the chords. But the story isn’t complete without looking at how to improvise over those chords. So, this week I’m demonstrating an improvisation strategy for playing over the part that I find hardest to improvise on.
Modal Chord Progression
Most improvisers think of Naima as being a modal composition. Meaning that they think of each chord as representing the sound of a scale or mode. This is different to the diatonic approach that I looked at in my Improvisation Strategies: Part 1 video. In that video I looked at a I-VI-II-V sequence of chords where each chord represented a different degree in the key of Bb major.
When you hear improvisers analysing how to play Naima, usually you’ll hear them say something like, ” play this scale or mode on that chord, and this scale or mode on that chord etc”. And it’s not wrong to think about the progression as a sequence of modes. If you listen to Coltane playing Naima, you can definitely hear that he is playing complete modes quite often.
However, when I’m coming up with an improvisation strategy, I prefer to think in a more economical way. I want to start with something small that I can expand upon. I want to zero in on the notes that I feel best spell out the sound of the harmony. Remember that you can come up with multiple strategies for playing on the same progression. So when you zero in on just a few notes, you’re not limiting yourself, you’re actually creating the potential for much more variation. Because if you start by using all of the notes from the implied scale or mode, then it doesn’t leave as much scope for expanding and using different harmonic ideas.
Naima Improvisation Strategy
Last week I wrote about how I think of all of the chords as being major 7th chord voicings over a pedalled bass note. I won’t repeat myself, so if you’re interested in the chords check out last week’s post.
This four bar section of the harmony comes from the second half of the B section. The chord symbols that I’ve written are different from the Real Book changes, (even when you allow for the change of key). But I think that my changes reflect the harmony that Coltrane was using fairly closely. I wouldn’t recommend getting bogged down in what the chord symbols are. When I was working out how to play this piece, I wasn’t thinking about chord symbols, I was just trying to recreate the sounds that I was hearing and I put the chord symbols on afterwards. So, here is my improvisation strategy for this short four-bar sequence, I’ve picked out five notes to use on each chord.
Naima by John Coltrane: Chords on 6-String Bass – Bass Practice Diary – 21st July 2020
Naima is one of my favourite jazz compositions (I have a lot of favourite jazz compositions). I know that a lot of other musicians feel the same way about Naima, because it has an incredibly beautiful and unusual chord progression. It comes from the John Coltrane’s Giant Steps album, which I’ve featured before in my Bass Practice Diary. It was recorded in 1959, the same year as Kind of Blue, and it stands alongside that album as one of the iconic jazz albums of the 20th century.
However, Naima is not the type of composition that most people would associate with that album. Giant Steps tends to be remembered for it’s burning fast bop tunes with furiously fast key changes like the title track and Countdown. Naima is a slow ballad that Coltrane played many times, and I think many people forget that it originally featured on the Giant Steps album. However, Naima does have something in common with those other tunes I mentioned, it has an incredibly innovative chord progression.
A long time ago I set myself the challenge of arranging these incredible chords on my 6-string bass. I quickly realised that I needed to change the key to get the chords in the B section to work well. The reason being, that there’s a chord in the B section with the melody note Db. The highest fretted note on a 24 fret 6-string bass is C, one semi-tone too low. So, to voice the chord accurately, you need to play the top note way down on the 13th fret of the 1st string. It isn’t wrong to do that, but it just doesn’t sound very good.
So, to make it sound better, I transposed everything down a semi-tone. I played that top note as a C on the 24th fret of the first string. An extra advantage of transposing was that I could use the open A string as the bass note, instead of the Bb in the original key. When I play Naima I also tune my E-string down to a D. I use the open string to play the peddled bass note in the A section. If you want to transpose my arrangement into the original key, then you could tune your bass up a semi-tone.
When you see Naima written in books, you normally see the chord progression in the A section written something like this.
Changes similar to these feature in the jazz Real Books and the Coltrane Omnibook. I even found them on Naima’s wikipedia page (which I thought was unusual!)
The Major 7th Chords Trick
I’ve never found these Real Book chords helpful. I worked out by ear that you could create the sound of Naima by moving major 7th chords around over the pedalled bass notes. I do understand that when you change the bass note, you change the chord. So, a lot of these chords don’t function as major 7th chords. I gave the example in the video that when you play an Fmaj7 chord over a D bass note, you get the sound of Dm9.
Recently, I was playing Naima with a Saxophonist, and we were using the Real Book chord changes. I mentioned to him that I’ve always thought of the tune as being entirely made up of major 7th chords over pedalled bass notes. He told me that a scrap of paper had been discovered with John Coltrane’s handwritten chords for Naima. They were written out for Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the original recording. Coltrane had written every chord as a major seventh chord.
I wasn’t sure I believed that this piece of paper really existed. I wanted to believe it, because it tied my way of thinking about the tune to Coltrane’s way of thinking about the tune. But, if such a piece of paper existed, then why do all the books and publications still stick with this unnecessarily complicated way of writing out the harmony? So, today I did some research to see if there was any legitimacy to the story. This is what I found.
It just goes to show the power that the jazz Real Books have had in defining how we think about jazz standards. Once a tune is written in the Real Book. The Real Book chord changes become the definitive chord changes that everyone uses. But often, the changes in the Real Books are very different to actual chord changes.
How I Play the Chords on 6-String Bass
This is how I’ve arranged the chords on my 6-string bass. I can’t pretend that this is 100% like either the Real Book changes or the Coltrane changes. It’s simply the best way that I’ve found to recreate the sound of Naima on a bass guitar.
Improvisation Strategies on 6-String Bass – Part 1: I VI II V – Bass Practice Diary – 14th July 2020
I often get asked questions about how to improvise. I’ve noticed that people are usually looking for a simple answer, like “you just need to know the right scale.” However, if you’re reading this, you probably already know that it isn’t that simple. To become a fluent improviser, you should work on lots of different improvisation strategies. As part of my own practice, I regularly try to find new and different ways to play through chord progressions that I’ve played on many times. To help demonstrate what I do, I’m presenting one improvisation strategy that I’ve come up with on a I-VI-II-V chord progression.
Before we get into the specifics of this particular strategy, I should say that my end goal is the same for any improvisation strategy. That goal is to be able to improvise all over the fretboard. So, when I practice a strategy, I’ll practice it in multiple positions until I can connect up the notes all over the entire fretboard.
In this particular strategy, I’m looking at jazz improvisation on a I VI II V progression in Bb major. Although I would recommend practicing any strategy in multiple keys. The chords in the key of Bb major are Bb – G7 – Cm7 – F7. Notice that Chord VI is played as a dominant chord rather than a minor 7th chord. This is so that it leads nicely to the II chord. It is a very common chord substitution in jazz (and other styles).
A very simple approach to improvising on a I VI II V progression would be to just play a Bb major or major pentatonic scale. The problem with that as a strategy, is that it ignores the B natural in the G7 chord. So most jazz musicians will prefer to play something different for every chord. This is often referred to as “spelling out the harmony”. So what I’ve done is chosen four different notes for each chord. Each set of four notes is specific and unique to each chord.
Why Play Four Notes for Each Chord?
Normally when a I VI II V is played in the context of a jazz standard, the entire progression is played over two bars. Meaning that each chord lasts for just two beats. With just two beats on each chord, four notes provide more than enough options to fill up the space. If you’re strategy was to use an entire scale, even a pentatonic scale, it would be more notes than you need. It would make improvising on the progression harder than it needs to be.
In choosing the four notes for this strategy, I used arpeggios. You don’t have to use arpeggios, you can use any four notes that you like the sound of. But I think that arpeggios are fundamental to the sound to jazz improvisation, so that’s why I’m using them. I could have simply used a Bb major arpeggio for the Bb major chord and a G7 arpeggio for the G7 chord etc. That would certainly have spelled out the harmony, but it would also probably have sounded a bit predictable. Instead, I opted to play a Dm7 arpeggio on the Bb major chord. The notes of the Dm7 arpeggio played over a Bb major chord create the sound of a Bb major 9 arpeggio without the root note.
By making this substitution, I was thinking of the progression as III-VI-II-V, Dm7 – G7 – Cm7 – F7. This actually simplifies things a lot because it leaves me with two minor 7 chords and two dominant 7 chords. I can use the same strategy for both minor 7 chords and the same strategy for both dominant 7 chords. So I used minor 7 arpeggios on chords III and II and on chords VI and V, I used diminished 7 arpeggios starting on the third of each chord. Bo7 on the G7 chord and Ao7 on the F7 chord. (o in this case means diminished).
Putting the Strategy Into Practice
The best way to put any improvisation strategy into practice is with a backing track. You can find free I VI II V backing tracks on the internet. It’s always a good idea to start slowly, and you can start by just playing the notes you’ve prepared over the chords as an exercise. As you get comfortable doing that you can start to improvise lines that connect up the chords by adding passing notes. Here are three examples that I’ve written out to demonstrate.
The passing notes could be chromatic notes or scale tones. Or to put it another way, they could be literally any note that helps to connect the lines. If you use the four note patterns that you’ve prepared as the structure for your lines, then adding passing notes here and there, won’t interfere with the musical sense of the lines.
There are so many ways that you can vary this one simple idea. You can (and should) practice it in multiple positions on the neck. Here is another position to get you started.
Then try to improvise by connecting up the different positions that you’ve practiced.
Then you could try practicing the same ideas in different keys. You could then try using the same chords, but changing the four note patterns. And finally you could try playing similar patterns on different chord progressions. When you get into practicing these kind of ideas, there really is a lot of different ways you could be doing it. And the more different strategies that you practice, the more fluent your improvising will become.
Fretless Bass Line with Bass TAB – Bass Practice Diary – 30th June 2020
This is a fretless bass line that I wrote recently as part of a piece I’m working on. During the lockdown I’ve been trying to keep my creativity going by writing some music. The drums are provided by my good friend Lewis Davies who has appeared on my channel before.
The Bass Line
The bass line has a triplet feel. I’ve written it in 4/4 but I could have written it in 12/8. If you’ve read my book Electric Bass: Improve Your Groove then you’ll know that I like to count triplets with the syllables ta-ki-ta. Using those syllables, the two ta’s become the beat and off beat in a shuffle or swing feel. But I think it’s how and when you use the other syllable, ki, that can make a triplet feel really pop. Notice that I’ve placed a note on this subdivision after the second beat in every bar of this bass line. To my ears, that is what defines the character of this line.
If you’d like to check out another of my fretless bass lines with bass tab, then you can find one here.
Introduction to Triad Pairs on Bass Guitar – Bass Practice Diary – 7th January 2020
This week I want to introduce some basic triad pairs exercises. The basic concept of playing triad pairs on bass is that you take two triads (three note chords) that don’t have any notes in common. Meaning that you have six different notes. And then you use those triads to makes lines and exercises.
Why use triad pairs?
Triad pairs are now a really common concept in jazz improvisation. But it’s not only jazz musicians that use them. You can apply triad pairs to almost any genre of music. They work particularly well for improvisation, but you can also use them to write bass lines.
This week, I’m only going to introduce the most basic form of triad pairs. Which is when you take two major triads that are spaced a tone apart. The reason for spacing them a tone apart, is because the triads function like chords IV and V in a major key. So you can use these kind of lines in any major key by transposing the two triads to the notes of chords IV and V in the key.
All of these exercises are played using the triads C major and D major. Which are chords IV and V in the key of G major. But that doesn’t mean that you can only use these in the key of G major. There are all kinds of interesting and creative applications of triad pairs which I’ll try and cover in my future videos.
There are three obvious ways to voice a triad (inversions). You can put the root at the bottom, the 3rd at the bottom or the 5th at the bottom. This first exercise demonstrates those three different inversions, which you need to learn really well if you’re going to get good at playing these exercises. Bar 1 uses the root position triads for both C and D and then bar 2 uses the 1st inversion and bar 3 uses the second inversion.
This next exercise uses a similar idea, but with triplets. So, you play three notes on each triad rather than four.
Finally, here is a pattern that plays four notes on C and then three on D.
The purpose of playing patterns like this one in exercise 3, is that it helps to make the exercise sound less like a pattern. If you’re playing triad pairs in an improvised solo, and you play three notes up and three notes down, like exercise 2. It will very quickly sound like you’re playing a repeating pattern. That’s ok if it’s the sound you want. But, if you want to make it sound less like a pattern, then a pattern with an odd number sequence (three then four) will create a less predictable feel when played as part of a solo.
Happy New Year – New Year’s Eve Bass Practice Diary – 31st December 2019
Happy New Year! It’s New Year’s Eve and I want to thank everyone who has followed Johnny Cox Music in 2019. I have big plans moving forward into 2020, including a lot more free original bass content, so stay tuned! My second book is almost ready for publication and I’m planning to launch a dedicated teaching website for bass players in 2020.
Here’s a video that I shot last year to help you usher in the new year with a bit of solo 6-string bass. I would have shot a new video this year, but unfortunately I don’t know any other New Year’s Eve song apart from Auld Lang Syne. So this is one of the very rare occasions where I’m recycling an old video. I hope you enjoy it!
Auld Lang Syne
There are a number of ways you can approach harmonising this tune, and I didn’t spend very long coming up with this arrangement. I didn’t write the arrangement down, I just worked out a few things by ear before I hit record.
The loose structure of the arrangement is as follows. I played the first half of the song solo, using simple I, IV, V harmony. I intentionally set it in a key where I could utilise the open strings as bass notes. Then I added some jazz chords and alterations in the second half and immediately overdubbed the melody for the second half of the tune.
This was actually one of the quickest videos I’ve done. The shooting of it didn’t take more than five minutes. But I’m happy with the results. Sometimes playing something “off the cuff” is the best way rather than overthinking it.
I hope you enjoy this bit of bassy mellowness, whether your New Year’s Eve is mellow like mine or a bit more exciting. And I hope that the coming year gives you many opportunities to play the bass!
I VI II V Chord Progressions on 6-string Bass – Part 2 – Bass Practice Diary – 17th December 2019
This week I’m revisiting my introduction to I VI II V chord progressions on 6-string bass video. There are so many ways that you can alter and substitute chords in a I VI II V sequence. Jazz musicians will often alter and add to the progression so much, that it’s almost impossible to tell that it was ever a I-VI-II V progression in the first place.
There really aren’t any rules when it comes to substituting chords. There are certain standard substitutions that are very common, such as the tritone substitution, which I looked at in my last video. But, honestly, you can substitute any chord for any other one that you like the sound of. A lot of it depends on the musical context that you’re playing the substitution in, but also it comes down to opinion. What sounds interesting to some people, will sound odd to others.
This week I’m just going to take you through some familiar chord substitutions and additions to I VI II V’s. These examples go quite a bit further than the examples in my previous video. But, believe me, you can take these ideas much further out than this.
The I VI II V examples
I created this first example by taking the III-VI-II-V example from my previous video and turning all the chords into dominant 7th chords. I then applied tritone substitutions to the VI and II chords. Then I added whatever extensions and alterations that I liked the sound of.
Once you have four dominant 7th chords like this, you can come up with so many variations just by applying tritone substitutions.
My next example derives from the first example. I’ve simply turned the E7, Eb7 and G7 chords into II-V’s. Meaning that I’ve added minor 7th chords before each dominant 7th chord. Each minor 7th has a root note that is a 4th below (or a fifth above) the root note of the dominant 7th chord. I’ve altered the VI chord to make it a major 7th instead of a dominant 7th chord. This completes a II-V-I in the key of Ab major, which is a strange thing to find in a chord progression in C major, but it works!
An Introduction to I VI II V – Chords on 6-String Bass – Bass Practice Diary – 26th November 2019
I VI II V is possibly the most commonly used chord sequence in jazz. So, I think it’s time I started to look at how you can approach playing this simple but versatile chord progression on a 6-string bass. It’s been a few weeks since my last video about playing chords on 6-string bass. So, I’m bringing the series back this week with an important one.
Why is I VI II V so common in jazz?
That’s a question I used to ask myself a lot when I was younger. When you listen to the progression played in it’s simplest form, it’s not particularly interesting. It’s quite practical, because it has a nice cycle of fifths movement, with the VI leading to the II to the V and back to the one. So it can just go around and around, with the V always leading back to the I. It’s a nice cyclical chord movement that takes you back to chord I. And as such it’s very often played on the turnaround of a jazz progression.
In the standard chord progression, chord I is a major 7th chord, chord VI is usually played as a dominant 7th chord. Although if you harmonise the chords using the diatonic major scale it would be a minor 7th chord. The reason it’s usually played as a dominant 7th chord is because it acts as a chord V leading to the minor 7th chord II. And the real chord V is also a dominant 7th chord.
Here is my version of a standard I VI II V chord progression in the key of E.
But to really understand why I VI II V is so popular, I think you need to understand a bit about how and when jazz musicians like to use it.
The first thing that you need to know about how most jazz musicians will use the I VI II V progression, is that they will try to find as many ways as they can to avoid playing the obvious chord progression. They do this by finding chord substitutions and adding extensions and alterations to the standard chords.
I often get people asking me to explain the concept of chord substitutions. But it’s a very difficult thing to do. Because the truth is, that you can substitute any chord with any other chord. The only restriction is what your ear will accept is a valid substitution. And that is a matter of taste and opinion. How much dissonance are you willing to accept?
However, if I was going to sum up the concept of chord substitutions in one short paragraph. I would say that you are looking for chords that have important notes in common with each other. Which brings me neatly on to the most common chord substitution in jazz, the tritone substitution.
Substituting dominant chords
Tritone substitutions can be performed on any dominant 7th chord. The principle is, that any dominant 7th chord shares two notes in common with another dominant 7th chord. Those notes are the 3rd and the 7th. In order to find the substitute dominant chord you need to find a root note that is an interval of three tones away from the root note of the original chord. If you’re not sure what I mean, check out my guide to playing intervals on the bass.
Take the example of the G7 chord. The root is G, there 3rd is B and the 7th is F. You can play it like this.
The tritone substitution would be Db7. The root is Db, the 7th is B (Cb) and the 3rd is F.
Here is the I VI II V chord progression played in C major using tritone substitutions on the two dominant 7th chords. I’ve also substituted chord III for chord one in the first bar.
Chord Scales on Six String Bass – Bass Practice Diary – 22nd October 2019
I’ve done a few videos recently about chord voicings and progressions for six string bass. So, I felt that I really needed to do a video about chord scales. Because chord scales might be the best way to practice playing chords on bass. If you really want to explore the full potential of every chord voicing that you play. As well as learn how to use them all over the fretboard. Then practising chord scales is the way to achieve that.
What is a chord scale?
You can turn just about any chord voicing into a chord scale. The idea is, that every chord implies a particular scale. There may be more than one scale option for a particular chord. For example, for an E7 chord you could us E mixolydian. But you could also use plenty of other scales, like an E lydian dominant scale. In that case you could come up more than one chord scale.
Once you have a chord voicing and a scale, you simply create a chord scale by moving all of the notes in your chord voicing up one scale step at a time.
So, I’ll use the C major chord scale that I used in the video as an example. The C major scale goes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. And the notes of the C major chord are C, E and G. So, to make the second chord in the scale, the C becomes D, E becomes F and G becomes A. D, F and A is D minor. And when you continue moving up the chord scale you get seven different chords. One chord starting on each of the seven notes of the C major scale.
More Chord Scale Examples
Here are some more examples from the video. This first one is in F major and uses a basic triads voicing.
Here is the same key using seventh chords.
This next one is in the key of A major, and it uses inverted triads. Meaning that the root note is not the lowest note in the chord voicing.