Scaling Mountains – Bass for Beginners # 11

At the Riverside Jam 2001 this summer, I had the pleasure of meeting up with my bass mentor, who I had not seen in 20 years. Back then, he was the best bassist I had ever heard, and I would still place him among the best around. So I asked him if he still played, and he said “I don’t have the time to practice enough to do it right.” But sitting next to his wonderful wife, listening him play with the same intensity and confidence as 20 years ago, I felt it sad that he had stopped. I think his wife felt a similar feeling.

Coincidently, I recently got into an “argument” over at another bass site, where we were discussing the merits of jamming vs practicing. I proclaimed that “one hour of jamming or gigging is worth 10 hours of practice” by which I meant that you learn more playing with others and really get a good feel for the rhythms and melodies. And besides, it’s more fun, which means it’s inspiring too. Well the reply was “Yup, I practice about 10 hours for every hour I gig.” I decided that this was not a happy person.

I have also been in long discussions about how the only way to get better is to learn all the scales and modes, and then “practice in the shed for 2 hours minimum every day”; they even gave it a cute name – “shedding” – as in chopping wood in the woodshed. But a lot of these bassists never get out of the shed.

But in all the lessons I have written so far, I have never discussed serious “shedding” or doing scales. I have always advocated playing songs and using “tools” to create your basslines.

So let’s have a sanity check…

If you can’t find all 12 notes in at least two places on the fretboard, you need to find them. That requires a bit of learning and practice, and some simple scales or songs can help. Good old “Do-Re-Mi” is a wonderful way to learn the notes of the major scale in a melodic fashion.

Disclaimer: This is the work of the author and is intended for learning purposes only.

So here is the major scale for the key of A, start with your middle finger on the E-5:

A Major Scale

and here is the beginning “Do-Re-Mi” in A:

Do Re Mi # 1

and the first long riff:

Do Re Mi # 2

As always, you can change the key by starting on a different fret. Also note that I have shown the TAB to start on the 5th fret, not using any open strings.

As I have noted before, learning the finger patterns without any open strings are important, as they give you the freedom to play in any key. However, you should know some of the common keys that include the open strings (E, A, D, G, C, F). Here is the key of G:

G Major Scale

Don’t forget that a lot of rock music prefers the dominant 7th over the major 7th. But this is good, as it makes the pattern easier to remember – the ring finger never plays anything.

Dominant 7 Scale

And let’s not forget the minor scales – there are 3 of them, called the natural, harmonic and melodic. The natural A-minor has the same notes as the C-major scale, which means that it has the dominant 7th (G). The harmonic minor uses the major 7th (G#). The melodic minor uses F# instead of F, which means that it’s the same as A-major except for the 3rd being C instead of C#. In 90% of the music out there, the natural harmonic will be fine. But if you are curious about how all this works, check out David’s columns on theory (that’s what I do).

So here is the natural A-minor scale. Start with your index finger on E-5:

A Minor Scale

Now, from a practicing point of view, you should be able to play these 2 scales (3 if you count the different 7ths) forwards and backwards at a reasonable and constant speed. You don’t need to play it fast, nor should you beat yourself up to play it over and over for hours on end. However, playing scales is a good way to focus on your technique. Practice your hammer-ons by going up the scale and only plucking each new string once. Practice your pull-offs by going down the scale the same way. Practice your rhythms, etc. The idea is that once your fingers have memorized the patterns, you can work on other aspects of your playing.

I can hear you all screaming: “Wait a minute, you said we don’t have to practice scales and such, but that’s all you’ve written about!”

Let me ask you, is there a difference between “learning” and “practicing”? The answer is yes, your brain can learn something without practicing it, but your fingers can’t. So learn these patterns and teach your fingers.

But the real answer is that these things are important for playing songs! And not just “Do-Re-Mi”. The ELP classic Lucky Man has a wonderful descending octave scale leading into the break, and Cat Stevens’ Wild World has one too. Many of the transitions discussed in earlier columns were made using the scale (eg Somebody to LovePlaying Along).

And the last part is that melodies come from scales, not chords. And melodies make wonderful basslines. In the song “Moondance”, there is a transition from the Am7/Bm7 verse into the pre-chorus (or whatever you want to call it) which is usually played straight by the bassist, but I decided that I was going to follow the melody, so I looked at the Am scale and figured out a bassline that goes with the melody. It looks like like this:


So now when your guitarist buddy starts talking about practicing scales, you can say “Yeah I do that too” – for about 30 seconds! Practice and learning are related, but they are not the same. You should know how to play a major and a minor scale, and you should practice often enough that your fingers are confident when you play. But don’t feel that you must play scales for 20 minutes every day. Your motivation should be to be able to play the songs you like as well as you want to. Scales are just another tool you need to make you a better bass player.

I will repeat what I have said all along, the most important thing is to play songs, and to play them with others. That way you can show off how well you can play your scales – heehee!