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Scalar Exercises

By Cliff Engel

The primary goals of these scalar exercises is to help you internalize the sounds of scales, expand your fretboard familiarity, develop technique, and also aid you in visualizing the entire fingerboard as an available pool of notes from which you have the opportunity to utilize at any given time depending on the requirements of chord/scale theory. Unfortunately, many bassists get stuck in a rut with their playing because they rely too heavily upon just memorizing fretboard diagrams and tablature. The fretted configuration of the bass guitar makes it very easy to memorize examples based on different patterns or shapes. You can certainly use the fretted design of a bass to your advantage in assisting you to get started with exercises. However, playing any instrument using only patterns is not a very musical approach. Patterns and shapes can be helpful as long as you don't allow them to dictate the music you are trying to create. There is nothing wrong with using shapes, but if you have memorized just a few patterns and find yourself reverting to those same shapes when you improvise, everything you play will tend to sound like everything else that you play because you are using the same patterns over and over again. It is really easy to fall into this rut and often difficult to break this habit. Instead of only utilizing the patterns implied in fretboard diagrams or memorizing the numbers indicated through tablature, try to always remain aware of the notes you are playing or have available to play on particular chord types. Although patterns might appear to be a shortcut and easier to commit to memory initially, try to think in terms of notes so that you can transcend the limitations which often result from playing the bass only through patterns.

As bassists, we are often required to navigate lead sheets or chord charts which generally contain only the melody and chord changes of compositions. In order to improvise bass lines and solos based on the information provided in lead sheets, we need to understand the potential notes we can use as well as which notes we probably wouldn't want to include within our lines.

In this collection of exercises, you will find a series of both traditional and contemporary approaches to playing the C major scale and its related modes. There are hundreds of different scalar exercises that musicians can employ for practicing scales so consider these basic templates and expand them. You will discover that many of these exercises begin on non-root notes which equalize the significance of each note within the scale so that your fingers don't always gravitate directly to the root of each chord due to the muscle memory and conditioning that has been acquired from constantly starting there. The exercises consisting of broken thirds, fourths, fifths, and their associated bi-directional variations can be easily extended to feature other intervallic combinations such as sixths, sevenths, and octaves. In addition to the conventional one and two-octave exercises, 2, 3, and 4-note sequences along with triad and chordal sequences have been included as well. In the final exercise, the C major scale is played across the entire span of the fingerboard. The traditional method of practicing scales over a one octave range may help in figuring out the notes and build technique, but that procedure by itself won't significantly increase your improvisation skills because you are constantly beginning and ending on the root note. Music doesn't always begin on the root note of each chord. Rather than starting in a typical fashion with the root note at the third fret of the A-string and proceeding to ascend in a linear fashion to the C one octave higher at the fifth fret of the G-string, the final exercise starts with the lowest note available on the 4-string bass within the C major scale and continues through the highest note accessible on a standard bass. If your fingerboard spans 24 frets, you would begin playing the C major scale with the open E-string, the major third of the C major scale, and then ascend until you reach the note G, the perfect fifth of the C major scale, at the 24th fret of the G-string. On a 5 or 6-string bass, begin with the open low B-string, which would be the major seventh scale degree of the C major scale, and follow the same process of playing to the highest note available in the C major scale. Depending on where you decide to shift from one note to the next, you can easily generate a dozen or more variations to play any scale. Due to its broad scope, this is an outstanding exercise to expand your fretboard familiarity and your overall awareness of the notes you can play over a particular chord type from the lowest to the highest registers of the fingerboard.

When practicing these scalar exercises, don't just read through them. Internalize the exercises, and practice everything in every key. While there may not be many compositions written in keys such as Db or Gb, basic chord progressions including the ii-V-I and its common variations can be found in all keys. To begin, I would recommend breaking down scales into daily practice sessions in order to make this amount of material seem more manageable from a time perspective. Because the concept of mastering scales can feel somewhat overwhelming just due to the fact that there are hundreds of scales which you could devote time to practicing, you should work on scales in small, bite-sized pieces.

Since there are seven modes within the major scale, it is very easy to setup a weekly cycle where you practice one mode per day. Choose just one or two of these exercises per practice session, and transpose to as many keys as time permits. You can track your progress by slightly increasing the tempo of the exercises and expand to additional keys in subsequent weeks. Apply the same practicing procedure to the modes of the melodic minor scale and any other set of scales you need to learn. These scalar exercises will help you view the fingerboard as an available pool of notes and get beyond relying on just patterns or shapes to play the bass. Ideally, you should be able to play basic building blocks such as scales and arpeggios in every key across the entire range of the fingerboard so that you possess the facility to use that material as required in any musical environment.

This lesson has been excerpted from Music Theory For Bass - Essential Concepts For Bass Guitar & Acoustic Bass. If you would like to learn more about music theory, ENROLL TODAY!

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© 2014 Cliff Engel