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A Quick Guide to the Altered Scale – Bass Practice Diary 52

The Altered Scale – Bass Practice Diary – 16th April 2019

Jazz musicians love to play on dominant 7th chords. And the altered scale is a really important scale to practice if you want to create a jazz sound when playing on these 7th chords. I think that using the altered scale is often perceived as “advanced” harmony. But, as with most things, it’s easy when you understand it. So, here’s my very quick guide to using the altered scale on bass.

What is the altered scale?

The altered scale is a mode of the melodic minor scale. Meaning that it contains all of the same intervals as a melodic minor scale. The altered scale is essentially what you get when you play a melodic minor scale starting finishing on the 7th note of the scale.

So, what’s a melodic minor scale? It’s basically only one note different from a major scale. If you take a major scale and change the major 3rd to a minor 3rd, you have a melodic minor scale.

Here’s the notes of an F major scale.

F major scale
F major scale

And here are the notes of an F melodic minor scale.

F melodic minor scale
F melodic minor scale

Notice that the only difference is the third note. It’s an A natural in the major scale and an Ab in the melodic minor.

If you play the notes of an F melodic minor scale but use E (the 7th note) as the root note. You would be playing an E altered scale.

When you think about the notes of the F melodic minor with an E as the root note, it creates these interval relationships to the root note.

E altered scale
E altered scale

The 3rd of E7 would, of course, be written as G# not Ab. But the altered scale creates some interesting theoretical anomalies like that. Because the major 3rd note (Ab/G#) is actually the 4th note of the scale.

How do you use the altered scale?

As I mentioned at the start, the altered scale works really well on dominant 7th chords. You can think of the altered scale as being a kind of extended dominant 7th arpeggio with lots of chromatic alterations.

The scale includes the root, major 3rd and dominant 7th notes which are the fundamental ingredients of a dominant 7th arpeggio. But the other four notes are all chromatic alterations of some kind. Hence why it’s called the altered scale.

You can alter chord tones and extensions by moving them one semi-tone up or down. The 5th of E7 is B natural, but in the altered scale the 5th has been flattened to Bb. So the altered scale could be used on an E7b5 chord.

The 9th can be altered by sharpening or flattening it. The altered scale uses both alterations. So you could use it on an E7b9 or an E7#9 chord. The final alteration is a b13.

So you can use the altered scale to play on any of these altered dominant chord types. And you will sometimes see the chord symbol E7alt. Which implies a chord that could include any or all of these alterations.

So if you want to start using this altered dominant sound on your dominant 7th chords. Then start to think about using a melodic minor scale that starts one semi-tone above the root of the chord. So, if you’re playing on a D7 chord, think Eb melodic minor. For A7, thing Bb melodic minor, for G7 think Ab melodic minor, for B7 think C melodic minor etc.

For another great jazz approach to playing on dominant 7th chords, check out my video guide to using diminished scale on bass.

Learn to Play Giant Steps Jazz Lines On Bass – Bass Practice Diary 51

How to Improvise on Giant Steps – Bass Practice Diary – 9th April 2019

Last week I posted a video of me practicing improvising on Giant Steps chord changes on fretless and fretted bass. So this week I want to talk a bit about my approach to playing on what are some of the most notoriously difficult chords changes in jazz.

Having said that, I don’t think that soloing on Giant Steps needs to be very difficult. As long as you start slowly and focus on internalising the sound of the chords before you increase the tempo.

One of the reasons that John Coltrane’s Giant Steps has it’s fearsome reputation is because of the chord changes in the first two bars. The first bar starts on a Bmaj7 chord for two beats and immediately changes to a D7 chord on beat three. Which is a key change to G major. The second bar starts with a resolution to a Gmaj7 chord. Then it changes key again. This time to Bb7 on beat three which is the fifth of Eb major.

So the tune starts with three different keys in two bars. Needless to say, if you’re not prepared for it, it will catch you out. And many Giant Steps solos have failed before they’ve begun because musicians can’t negotiate these quick key changes quickly enough.

This chord movement in bars 1 and 2 repeats itself in bars 5 and 6 but transposed so that the progression starts on Gmaj7. And it’s this chord progression that defines Giant Steps. So if you want to improvise on Giant Steps you need to spend some time really working on this two bar chord progression.

Use the Chord Tones

My first piece of advice would be to come up with lines over this two bar progression using chord tones. The progression itself is already complex enough on it’s own that you don’t need to add lots of chromaticism or substitutions to make your lines sound interesting. It’s amazing how many interesting sounding jazz lines you can come up with on Giant Steps using nothing but roots, 3rds, 5ths and 7ths.

Here are three different lines that I came up with which use nothing but chord tones.

Giant Steps Licks for Bass Bars 1-3
Giant Steps Licks for Bass Bars 1-3

You can transpose each of these to work over bars 5 and 6. But here’s another one that I wrote specifically to be played over bars 5-7.

Giant Steps Lick for Bass Bars 5-7
Giant Steps Lick for Bass Bars 5-7

I don’t work out these licks so that I can play them in a solo. I do it to help me get the sound of the chord changes into my ears. And the more lines like this that I work out, the more likely I’ll be to be able to improvise something like this in a solo. So feel free to play through my licks and practice them, but also come up with some of your own.

I honestly feel that this two-bar chord progression is the key to unlocking Giant Steps. Once you can improvise over this tricky chord sequence, the rest of the progression is easy, dare I say it. It’s just a sequence of II – V – I’s in three different keys. Eb major, G major and B major.

Playing on II – V – I’s is a jazz musicians bread and butter. There are hundreds of lessons and videos out there about playing on them.

Jaco Pastorius Jazz Lick – Bass Practice Diary 42

Jaco Pastorius Jazz Lick – Bass Practice Diary – 5th February 2019

This week I’m featuring a lick from Jaco Pastorius’ solo on (Used to be a) Cha Cha from his debut album. It’s one of my favourite Jaco solo’s because it contains incredible melodic jazz lines like the one I’ve featured in the video. Here’s the lick!

Jaco Pastorius Jazz Lick

Several things stand out to me about this lick. It’s very fast, it takes place over moving harmony, Eb major to D minor and it includes an odd meter bar. I don’t know for sure that he improvised the line, but I believe that he did. And to improvise a line at that speed over moving harmony and an odd meter bar is extraordinary. That solo is one of many moments from that album that really underline why Jaco was such a genius and why his legacy has been so long lasting on the bass guitar.