Giant Steps Improvisation on Fretless & Fretted 6 String Bass – Bass Practice Diary – 2nd April 2019
Some jazz tunes are so iconic that every jazz musician and enthusiast should know them. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps definitely falls into that category. The chord changes have made it iconic, because they’re notoriously difficult to improvise on. Over the years it’s become a kind of rite of passage for aspiring jazz musicians to learn to play on those changes.
I’ll do a more complete analysis of how I approach playing on Giant Steps next week. But the purpose of this video is to show how I approach practising any tricky piece like this. The first and most important thing when approaching any difficult repertoire is to start slow. If you want to be able to play fast, then practice slow.
Start Slow and Vary the Feel
When I’m approaching any chord progression, I’m trying to internalise the sound of the changes. It’s much harder to do this if the changes are flying past at 300bpm. Coltrane may have played Giant Steps blisteringly fast, but I’d be willing to bet that he practiced it slowly first.
I love practicing playing over slow changes. You can really enjoy playing over each chord and having loads of time to hear the changes go past. And this will really help you to get the sound of the changes into your ears.
Another piece of advice I would offer, is to practice playing the changes over as many different feels as you can. As you can hear in my video I start by using a slow straight 1/16th note feel, and then move on to a faster swing feel. But that only scratches the surface, there are so many different tempos and feels that you can use.
It always amazes me that some jazz musicians seem to only practice improvising in a swing feel. You can always tell who these people are because they instantly sound very uncomfortable playing in anything that doesn’t have a swing feel.
John Coltrane and Giant Steps
Giant Steps was recorded and released in 1959, which was a watershed year in jazz for many reasons. It came from the album which was also called Giant Steps, and that album is seen by many as a masterpiece of jazz Bop style improvisation and composition. In fact it’s seen by many as the ultimate recording in that style of jazz.
It’s certainly possible to believe that Coltrane himself believed that he couldn’t improve upon Giant Steps. Because from that point on in his career he went on to explore other aspects of jazz improvisation such as modal jazz and free jazz. And he never returned to the Bop style vocabulary of the Giant Steps album.
Auld Lang Syne on 6 String Bass – New Year Bass Practice Diary – 1st January 2019
Here’s my bass arrangement of Auld Lang Syne. This is my second New Year as a parent. Since becoming a parent my New Year’s celebrations have become much more mellow. I haven’t taken a New Year’s Eve gig these last two years because parental responsibility takes precedent.
It feels strange, because I’ve been playing somewhere on New Year’s Eve for at least 10 straight years prior to this. But these days I can’t think of a better way to ring in the New Year than with a nice mellow arrangement of Auld Lang Syne on my six string bass.
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 as I stated in the video, I hope that the coming year gives you many opportunities to play the bass!
A Christmas Bass Practice Diary – Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow! – 25th December 2018
Christmas should be a joyful time. It’s a time for families to get together and eat, drink and be merry! However, if, like me, you feel that Christmas generally doesn’t have enough bass in it. Then this Christmas Bass Practice Diary is for you! Another classic Christmas Standard arranged for three basses! It’s exactly what you need to bring a bit more bass into your Christmas Day!
This week I’ve arranged Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow for fretless bass, acoustic bass guitar and double bass. And all that remains is for me to wish you a very Bassy Christmas!
Jazz Blues Lick on Fretless Bass – Bass Practice Diary – 13th November 2018
This week I’ve done a detailed breakdown of a jazz lick that I played on a Bb blues progression in last week’s Bass Practice Diary. The lick combines the diminished scale with the blues scale which creates a jazz blues sound.
I’ve played the lick on my Warwick Thumb SC six string fretless bass. But I’ve transposed the lick down an octave so it can be comfortably played on a four string bass and I’ve written the TAB for four string bass in standard tuning.
Jazz Blues Lick
The concept of the blues solo that I played last week was combining the diminished scale and the blues scale. The reason why I’ve highlighted this very short lick is because it combines both the blues scale sound and the diminished sound in one very short lick. The Diminished scale provides a jazz sound while the blues scale keeps the lick rooted in the blues.
If you want to know more of the theory then check out last week’s video, but for now I’ll just take you through the lick.
The lick is played on a Bb7 chord but it starts on a G. The lick actually starts before beat one. The way I played it last week, you can think of the G as functioning as the major 3rd of the Eb7 chord in the preceding bar. However you could also play the same note on a Bb7 chord and think of it as a 13th.
From that note it goes up using the diminished scale. The second note Ab lands on beat one and it’s a chord tone, the dominant 7th. If you followed the sequence of the scale then the next note would be the root note Bb, but I’ve chosen to skip the root and go to the next note in the scale which is the b9, B natural (Cb).
Then it’s D and F. Two chord tones, major 3rd and 5th. And both feature in the diminished scale.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, that it’s the b9 that’s creating the diminished sound. All of the other notes are chord tones. They exist in the diminished scale, but without the b9, they would just sound like an arpeggio. It’s amazing what the presence of just one outside note can do to change the sound of a harmonic phrase.
For more of the theory about inside and outside notes, check out these two posts.
The Blues has its own rules when it comes to harmony. The blues scale is essentially a minor pentatonic scale with one extra note. An outside note, the b5.
If you want to define the sound of the blues, then a good place to start is by playing the minor 3rd from the blues scale on a dominant 7th chord containing a major 3rd. You could argue that anytime you mix minor and major 3rds on dominant chords you are playing a blues sound.
Going back to my lick, I’ve just played a major third and then the 5th of the Bb7 chord, F. The note F exists in the Bb blues scale, the Bb diminished scale and the Bb7 chord. So it’s a very safe note. I’m using it here to transition from playing the diminished scale into playing the blues scale.
From the F, the lick simply goes down the blues scale until it gets to the root note Bb. It includes the minor third Db, so the riff includes both major 3rd, D and minor 3rd Db. Which, as I’ve mentioned, creates a blues sound.
The diminished scale, and especially the b9 from the diminished scale, create a jazz sound. While the presence of both major and minor 3rds creates a blues sound. And both of these sounds are combined in one very short lick, just nine notes altogether. Which I think is quite cool.
I played several licks with a similar idea in last week’s video and I’ve transcribed one full 12-bar chorus. I think that the lick that I’ve chosen is the shortest and most succinct. Which is why I chose this one. I hope you’ve found this helpful!
Use the Diminished Scale to Play Jazz – Bass Practice Diary – 6th November 2018
This week I’ve been practising using diminished sounds to play on dominant 7th chords in jazz. If you want to bring a more jazz sound to your playing, using the diminished scale is a great way to do it. Because it creates an interesting series of inside and outside notes when played on dominant chords.
What is the diminished scale?
The diminished scale is what I would call a symmetrical scale. It sounds like it should be something very complicated but it’s actually very simple. In many ways it’s even more simple than a major scale.
Symmetrical scales are scales that use the same intervals repeatedly. In the case of a diminished scale the intervals are a half tone (semi tone) and a whole tone. Symmetrical scales are also called modes of limited transposition or fixed transposition, which sounds even more complicated. But it still isn’t. It simply means that there are a very limited number of different ways you can transpose the scale. For example, because of the repeating intervals a G diminished scale is the same as a Bb diminished scale and Db and E diminished scales. So the idea of playing in 12 keys is a bit redundant. Another example of a mode of limited transposition is the whole tone scale. You can also use the whole tone scale to play on dominant 7th chords, but that’s another video for another day.
There are only two different ways you can play a diminished scale, you can either start with a half tone or you can start with a whole tone. After that it just repeats the same patterns over and over. Which makes it quite easy to play, as I said before, in many ways easier to play than a major scale.
Here is an example of an arpeggiated diminished scale pattern that I featured in the video.
How to practise a diminished scale
In the video I’ve used the example of a Bb7 chord. Here is a diminished scale starting on a Bb and beginning with a half tone.
I don’t always think about the scale starting on the root note. Often I will use the major third (D natural in this case) as a jumping off point. And in that case I will think of the scale as starting with a whole tone.
Another approach that I use is to start on the #9 or minor third. In this case Db. In this case the first two notes of the scale will be the minor 3rd (an outside note) resolving to the major third (a chord tone). This is a real signifier of the blues and it will help give your diminished licks a bluesy flavour.
How to apply the diminished scale in jazz
As I’ve previously mentioned, the diminished scale most commonly gets applied to dominant 7th chords in jazz. Here is the same Bb half/whole scale written out with the intervalic relationships to a Bb7 chord written over each note.
As you can see, the scale gives you all of the standard chord tones in a Bb7 chord. Root, major third, 5th and dominant 7th. However, it also includes one unaltered chord extension, the 13th, and three altered chord voicing, b9, #9 and #11. It’s these altered extensions that give the diminished scale a jazz flavour when you play them on a dominant 7th chord.
The best way to demonstrate this is by playing a jazz blues, because the blues uses dominant 7th chords a lot. I’ve transcribed a chorus of blues solo that I improvised in which I was using both the diminished sounds and the more traditional blues sound of the blues scale.
Check out next weeks Bass Practice Diary 30 if you want to look more at some of the diminished blues licks I’m playing here.
Six String Bass – A guide to the 6 String Bass – Bass Practice Diary – 30th October 2018
I just want to share some of the reasons why I play a six string bass. I get asked about six string basses a lot. So, I thought I should make a video about why I play them. And also give out some advice for anyone learning or thinking of learning to play a six string bass. I’ll also write a little bit about the history of the bass guitar and how basses came to have six strings.
The first thing I need to say is that how many strings you choose to play, 4, 5, 6 or any other number, is not that important. What is important is the music you play and how you choose to play your instrument.
You need to decide what is the best instrument for you and the way you want to play. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to how many strings. And I think that bass players sometimes care too much about it. They need to remember that what matters is music, not strings.
Why do I play a six string bass?
Having said that, I do have good reasons for playing six strings and I’ll share some of them with you now.
The biggest advantage of playing six strings is the extra range you get. With an extra low string and an extra high string you can extend your range in both directions, which makes six string basses very versatile. I don’t do many gigs where I don’t need to use the extended low range of my six string bass. I can play bass lines that weren’t originally written to be played on bass guitar.
The extended high range of the instrument enables me to play melodies, chord voicings and harmonies that would be very hard to achieve on four and five string basses. I know that not every bass player wants to explore these kind of harmonies, but I do, and if you’re interested in that too then you should think about playing six strings.
Is it Harder to Play Six string Bass?
Yes and no. Hopefully if you’ve seen my other videos you’ve seen me play four and five string basses. Other than the extended range, there’s no difference in the way I play 6 string to 4 or 5 string basses either technically or musically. My technique changes when I switch to fretless bass. But it doesn’t change when I switch between a fretted 4 and a fretted 6 string bass.
So for me, playing 6 isn’t any harder than 4 or 5 strings. In fact it’s easier because I play 6 most of the time and it’s what I’m most comfortable with.
Having said that, you need a strong technique to play 6 string bass well. And you need to make sure that you really learn all six strings.
There are a few technical things to consider when you learn to play six string bass. I see some 4 string players putting their left hand thumb on top of the neck when they play. It’s not great technique to do that and you can’t get away with it on a 6. The extra width in the neck means you won’t be able to access the low strings.
Another technical consideration is string damping, meaning that you don’t want to let open strings make noise when you’re not playing them. This is a technical consideration for all bass players, but the more strings you have, the more difficult it is, so you need to work on that if you’re going to play six strings well.
My final thought on the technical considerations is that it’s a bit harder to learn to play slap bass on a six string, because the high C string can be a bit in the way. But if your technique is good then you can still play in that style.
Learning to play bass
When I started playing bass, I learned on a 4 string bass like most people do. Then I switched to 5 and then 6. I started playing 6 string basses in my late teens. The first thing I did when I got the extra strings, was learn where the notes are on those strings. If you don’t do that, you’ll never play the 6 string bass really well.
I’ve heard it said that bass players should learn how to play 4 strings properly before trying to play 6. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. If you take that argument to it’s logical conclusion then we should all start with one string on our basses. We should learn it properly and then add another and learn that properly. That’s not how you learn to play a musical instrument.
My advice would be that if you want to play a six string bass, then get one and start to learn it properly. Make sure that your technique is good and that you learn all six strings.
What to Look out for When Buying a Six String Bass?
So if you’re thinking of learning a six string bass, there is some advice that I’d like to give you about the instrument that you buy.
The first thing that I think is really important is string spacing. You want a nice wide string spacing, just like a 4 string bass. I really wouldn’t recommend getting a bass with a very narrow neck and the strings close together. I’ve mentioned already that there’s no difference in the way I approach playing 4, 5 or 6 strings. And for that to be the case, I need the string spacings to be the same. If the strings are much closer together then it suddenly feels like I’m playing a different instrument.
The next thing to consider is that the bass has a very even sound across it’s whole range. It needs to have a strong and clear low B string. And it also needs to sound good and be easy to play in the high register. If your bass is week in any part of it’s range, then you’ll lose the benefit of having the extra range that the 6 strings give you.
The last thing that I would highlight is the balance. That’s very important. If your bass neck is too heavy then it will dive to the floor when you let go with your left hand. Which means that you’ll have to constantly hold it up which will ruin anybody’s technique. So make sure your bass is well balanced. Make sure you can rest it on your lap with no hands and the neck doesn’t dive for the floor.
So, if you have a six string bass with a wide string spacing, a nice even sound across it’s whole range and it’s well balanced, then you have everything you need. And the good news is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good six string bass.
My Warwick Artist Series “Steve Bailey” Bass
I know that people will ask what is the bass in the video. So, I should say that it’s a Warwick Artist Series bass. Unfortunately they don’t make these any more, which is a shame because they’re really good. But if you’re looking for something similar without breaking the bank, then I would recommend trying the Warwick Rockbass line.
I just want to say one more thing about the history of the bass guitar and why basses have four strings to begin with.
Many people think that Leo Fender invented the electric bass in the 1950’s, he didn’t. It was invented in the 1930’s by a gentleman named Paul Tutmarc. And it was originally sold as a bass fiddle.
Musical instruments usually evolve from other instruments rather than being invented out of the blue. The electric bass was no different. It was modelled on the orchestral strings violins, double basses etc. Hence it had four strings, was tuned like a double bass and it was called a bass fiddle.
What Leo Fender did, which was revolutionary for the electric bass, was to realise that it would be much easier to play if it was shaped like a guitar rather than a fiddle. And he created all of those iconic Fender basses like the Precision and the Jazz Bass which became the archetypes for all future bass guitars. But the Fender basses retained the four string tuning of Tutmarc’s original electric bass fiddles.
Who Invented the Six String Bass?
It was Anthony Jackson in the 1970’s who started to ask the question, if the bass guitar is now a member of the guitar family, not the orchestral strings family, then why retain the four string double bass tuning? Surely it makes more sense to have six strings like a guitar? It was Jackson who came up with what we now consider standard tuning for a six string bass. He called his bass guitars contrabass guitars. The name never caught on, but the concept of the six string bass has become more and more popular.
That’s my thoughts, and please don’t take this as any kind of criticism of four or five string basses. Most of my favourite bass players play four string basses and many play five. I play four string basses. And I can’t stress how much it doesn’t matter how many strings you like to use. You should find the bass that feels right for the way you play, and that’s all that matters.
Jazz on Three Basses – Fretless Bass, Double Bass & Acoustic Bass Guitar – Bass Practice Diary – 23rd October 2018
This week I’ve made a very quick video to demonstrate the bass as an instrument. Specifically, it’s potential to play more than just bass lines. So, I’ve played a jazz standard on three different basses. Two of them are fretless, two of them are acoustic, two of them have six strings and only two of them are bass guitars! Read on to find out more!
If you’ve followed my previous posts, you’ve probably realised by now that I don’t feel that bass guitars should be restricted to playing only bass lines. My instrument is the bass guitar. And the irony is not lost on me that in this video, all of the harmony is played on bass guitars except the bass line. Which I’ve played on an upright acoustic bass.
The Bass Line played on Double Bass (Upright Bass)
The reason that I’ve done this is not because I think I’m a good upright bass player. I don’t think that. I don’t have time to practice the upright nearly enough. My upright bass skills will never be better than average at best. The reason is because it’s the traditional role in jazz for the acoustic upright bass to take the bass line. And I know from years of experience, that if you try and play jazz gigs on bass guitar, acoustic bass guitar or even electric upright bass, you will very often be treated as the guy who is standing in because the band couldn’t book an acoustic double bass player.
I started to study upright bass when I was already at music college, and I did it with the aim of getting more jazz gigs. And it worked! For a while I was playing a lot of jazz gigs in London with my upright bass. But I very quickly stopped enjoying it. It’s a very difficult instrument to transport, especially when it’s impossible to park in Central London. The gigs didn’t tend to pay very much and the practice that I was having to put into the upright bass was taking away from time spent with my first instrument, the bass guitar.
So I gave up doing gigs on upright bass and I started telling people who were calling me for jazz gigs that I could do gigs on Electric Upright Bass (much smaller and more portable), but not acoustic. Needless to say, the jazz gigs dried up almost instantly.
I really enjoy playing acoustic upright bass at home, for fun. Although, I get precious little time to do it and I’m very rusty and out of practice. I’ve kept my upright bass all these years to play at home, even thought I almost never do gigs with it anymore. (I sold my electric upright).
Bass Guitars in Jazz
Do I regret my decision to stop taking gigs on acoustic upright bass? Not for a single solitary second. The upright bass is undoubtedly a beautiful instrument, but it isn’t my instrument. I’m a bass guitar player and I got to the point where I really didn’t look forward to doing gigs on upright bass. I found them to be a lot more hassle than they were worth financially.
But all this underlines the point, that as bass guitar players, we shouldn’t be aiming to take on the role of the upright bass in jazz. It’s not what jazz bands are looking for. Jazz bands that are progressive enough to want a bass guitar in the band are clearly looking for something different. Hence, the reason why I’ve played all of the harmony on bass guitars in the video apart from the bass line.
I’ve always believed that what we should strive to play is music, not just bass lines. Bass lines are an important part of music, they’re the foundation of most music. But there’s so much more music that we can also explore. And I don’t see any good reason why I shouldn’t explore all music, just because I choose to play an instrument that has the word bass in it’s name.
With that in mind, I decided to make a very short and quick demo of three basses playing a jazz tune (Solar by Miles Davis). Each bass showing a different facet of what a basses is capable of. As I’ve already described, the double bass (upright bass) is playing the bass line, the roll traditionally reserved for double bass players in jazz music.
The Acoustic Bass Guitar
The acoustic bass guitar is doing what jazz musicians term comping. Comping is basically when you use chord voicings to fill out the harmony. It’s a roll traditionally taken by piano or guitar. I’ve featured my acoustic bass guitar in a couple of recent posts. I’ve talked about how I use it as a harmonic accompanying instrument. So, rather than repeating myself, I’ll just leave these links for you to explore.
In the video the fretless electric bass is taking the rolls of melody and soloist. I suppose you could see this roll as being traditionally taken by vocalists and horn players. But, there’s actually quite a rich history of melodic bass playing in jazz. So it’s actually not that unusual to hear a bass take this role. In jazz usually everyone in the group gets a solo eventually!
Read this post to learn my thoughts about using fretless bass as a melody instrument.
Anthony Jackson’s Bass Line on Not Yet by Michel Camilo – Bass Practice Diary – 12th June 2018
This week I’ve been working on some of Anthony Jackson’s phenomenal bass lines from the albums he made with Michel Camilo. In the video I’ve featured an excerpt from a composition called Not Yet. It features on several albums but the version I’ve been working with comes from an album called Why Not?
I’ve heard so many great musicians say that Anthony Jackson is their favourite bass player. And it’s for good reason. He is often credited as the originator of the modern six string bass guitar. Which he called a Contrabass Guitar and first started playing in the 1970’s. He must be one of the most recorded bass players of the 20th century and he is perhaps best known for playing with popular singers like Chaka Khan and the O’Jays. But jazz followers know him for playing with the likes of Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Michel Petrucciani and the subject of this post Michel Camilo.
Recordings with Michel Camilo
Anthony Jackson must have one of the longest CV’s of any bass player in history. So it’s easy to miss recordings in his incredible discography. I would urge everybody to find the recordings he made with Michel Camilo because they are wonderful. And they contain some of the finest examples of electric bass playing ever heard. I would particularly recommend the big band albums Caribe and One More Once.
Not Yet Bass Line
I’ve been looking at a few of the pieces from Michel Camilo and Anthony Jackson this week. Including Caribe and Just Kidding. I may post excepts from those tunes in future. But I decided to start with an excerpt from Not Yet because I think it perfectly encapsulates both Anthony Jackson’s incredible bass playing and Michel Camilo’s wonderful composing.
The bass line is comprised of both improvised sections and fast composed runs. Linking the sections together is extremely technically challenging and it’s fast! Many people don’t think of Anthony Jackson as being the fastest bass player out there, but this performance begs to differ.
What stands out for me is the way he uses the full range of the instrument. Often going from high to very low in the blink of an eye. But always keeping his tone very even with a huge low end sound. His bass lines are always, first and foremost, musical. No matter how technical or not, his musicianship and musicality always shines through.