Advise on scales and improvising.

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Frankhonda, Jun 22, 2019.

  1. Frankhonda


    Jun 22, 2019
    Hello you all. I am new to the forum. I was wondering if anyone had any advice on what scales to learn for improvising? I would like to know how someone knows what to play if they have never played a certain song but they know what key its played in. Thank you for your help in advance.
  2. Fred Pucci

    Fred Pucci

    May 2, 2019
    As far as improvising, the most important scales to have under your fingers are the major and minor blues scales, and the pentatonic scales. Learning the shapes of these scales on the fretboard will make it easy to play in different keys. Ariane Cap put out a wonderful course called the Pentatonic Playground on Truefire if you want a relatively inexpensive, but thorough “crash course”.
  3. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    While pentatonic scales can be broadly applied to good effect, The idea that for a given key you can simply noodle in some magic scale to sound good is a bit of a fallacy. The reality is, it's all about the chord progression. You have to know what chords the song uses, and what notes those chords use. You also have to be familiar with the style of the song.

    Experienced bassists learn to recognize common chord progressions by ear, and have a large enough stylistic vocabulary to improvise a bass line over those chords.

    The path to this skill is to learn a bass line for a song, spell out the chords, figure out which notes of the chord appear in the bass line. Also identify how the chords relate to the key - the I ii iii IV V7 vi vii Roman numeral stuff.( The pdf linked in my signature explains this.) Then pick another 1000 songs and repeat...
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2019
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  4. Frankhonda


    Jun 22, 2019
    Thank you for your response. I try to add as many scales to my toolbox as possible. I know the major and minor pentatonic scale’s in all five positions. That has helped me tremendously. It’s still sounds off when I have tried to play along with friends or just a song out of the blue. I have also tried sticking with the one and five, along with the octave. Sometimes it fits sometimes it doesn’t. I thought there might be something I could study to make something fit on the fly?
  5. Frankhonda


    Jun 22, 2019
  6. Frankhonda


    Jun 22, 2019
    Thank you so much. You were definitely taking me in the right direction. I just thought there may be something I could study to help me with on the fly playing?
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2019
  7. Fred Pucci

    Fred Pucci

    May 2, 2019
    No problem. But based on your response, it looks like Mambo4’s advice is probably best. No one scale will ever cover the type of needs you are describing. Next best thing is realizing that most pop/rock songs use similar chord progressions (eg I-IV-V; I-IV-vi-V; I-vi-IV-V, to name a few), so once you know the key you can start anticipating the next chord. Also, when in doubt, a lot of songs travel in 4ths (I’m sure you’ve heard the term cycle of 4ths), so you can anticipate the next chord going up a 4th and often be right. And if not you are probably within a step up or down from where you need to be. Slide into it, like you meant it, lol! Lastly, best practice advice to help you is to play one of your playlists and play along. That’s when you’ll start really “hearing” the chord progressions and be able to anticipate correctly with your band mates. GL!
  8. Frankhonda


    Jun 22, 2019
    I see what you’re saying. When I play with my friends it’s usually blues music. They tell me it’s a 145 in A or whatever key. I can hear the changes in that style of music. If I try to play another style, I’m lost. I’ll eventually figure it out. I just don’t understand how these guys get up there on an open jam night and just fall right into place. They sound good to me.
  9. Fred Pucci

    Fred Pucci

    May 2, 2019
    You can be one of those guys with consistent, focused and steady practice. Good ears can be developed!!
  10. ahc


    Jul 31, 2009
    No. Virginia
    The major scale is the scale upon which all other western music scales are based. Master that one first. Then you can move on to the minor and pentatonics (maj and min) and beyond.
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  11. Frankhonda


    Jun 22, 2019
    Thank you for the encouragement.
  12. Most chord progressions tend to follow a tonic subdominant dominant tonic type format so if you know which chords can be used in each position you can basically fake your way through most chord changes that you don't know as long as you know or can find the key.

    I want to point out I'm not a theory expert and this is off the top of my head and other people can expand on this better than me.

    I mostly play in minor keys so for example in a minor key you can substitute the following:

    1 b3 and I think you can use b7 at the end of the phrase and pretty sure you can use 5 at the beginning or end too

    1 2 (or b2) b3 4 b6

    1 4 5 b7

    If you want to get fancier you can substitute the b6 or 2 (or b2) in for tonic. If you're playing metal, tritones or augmented chords would usually fulfill the subdominant function and if you want to be really dissonant sounding the dominant function or substitute for the final tonic in your progression too.
  13. Frankhonda


    Jun 22, 2019
    I am appreciate all the information. I need to study and practice dominant and sub dominant because that went way over my head. If you know of any starting points please let me know. Thank you again for your advice.
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  14. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    This is absolutely the most critical concept to grasp as a jamming bassist IMHO. Your musical vocabulary must include common chord progressions. The ability to recognize them by ear is invaluable. The day I realized that Stand By Me was the same chord progression as Every Breath You Take was a turning point for me.
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2019
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  15. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    Not a fan of scalar playing. Always sounds like they're running scales. I like chordal playing, where you use the chord notes to decide what to play. Doesn't mean you stick only with the chord notes, but you use them as the impetus for your improvs. That's why when people ask me what my favorite scales are, I always reply, "The chromatic scale."
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  16. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    I like doing a bit of both. If you know your 7th chords you can stick to the chord tones without really having a clue about which key you are in. But I think it sounds a lot more interesting if you learn and know which scale the chords are related to, so you can throw in some tasty non chord tones. Course the problem is harmonic analysis can get extremely complicated with some forms of music, because cords don't always function within a key center.

    @Frankhonda In addition to Major, three forms of Minor, and Pentatonic, there are various Blues scales. I believe the most common blues scale is just the minor pentatonic scale with an added b5 or #4. The b5 and #4 are the same pitch, but carry a different note name; we call these enharmonics. This Wiki calls it the Hexatonic blues scale...Blues scale - Wikipedia

    Keep in mind the Major and Minor pentatonic scales are actually just inversions of each other words they are made up of the same notes. For example C Maj Pentatonic is C,D,E,G,A,(C), and A Min Pentatonic is A,C,D,E,G,(A)...Hexatonic A Blues would be A,C,D,D#,E,G,(A). I would think of this as the ascending form. Descending would be A,G,E,Eb,D,C,(A). A pentatonic scale has 5 notes and a hexatonic scale has six. But it's common to play scales from root to root...Note that I put the extra root in brackets ().

    Once you have totally blown your mind on that, start looking at the modes. In there most basic form the modes are just scales that result if you start the Major scale on a different scale degree than 1. Here are the Major modes and their scale degrees. 1. Ionian, 2. Dorian, 3. Phrygian, 4. Lydian, 5. Mixolydian, 6. Aelion, 7. Locrian. Modes can also be extended to the three minor scale forms. The same exact modes apply to Major and natural Minor. Modal analysis gets quite a bit more complicated if the idea is extended to Harmonic and Melodic/Jazz's not something I can do in my head.

    Some other scales you may eventually find interesting: Whole Tone and Diminished Scales. There are two diminished scales I am familiar, with "whole half," and "half whole."

    I am sure all of this is a bit overwhelming. You might want to save some of this in your notes for ideas of what to study later. Or all of this may be totally useless to you, if you only want to play fairly basic pop music.

    My recommendation is to start with your Major and Minor scales. Learn a major scale first and then learn the relative minor scales next. While you are doing this, learn your triads and diatonic 7th chords for the Major and Minor keys. This is basically what I was taught for the first three semesters of music theory in college. It's not hard material, but it's a lot to internalize.

    Music theory is something you can study for the rest of your don't let it overwhelm you. Try to learn a little bit at a time and keep a journal and make recording so you can look back and see how much you have progressed...this can be important because sometimes it feels like you are not progressing even when you are.
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2019
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  17. Unless you only want to improvise using notes in order, scales alone won’t help.

    Which is not to say scales aren’t important. They are. Scales teach you all the available notes you can play in any given key. Kind of like an alphabet. But just like knowing the alphabet doesn’t make you a brilliant writer, scales won’t make you a brilliant improviser. Scales along with technical facility are the prerequisite building blocks. To improvise well, you must have three things: knowledge of keys, knowledge of chords, and a melodically sensitive ear.

    Knowledge of keys and chords comes from study of music theory. Theory will give you an understanding of keys, key signatures, intervals, and chords.

    Now, by “melodically sensitive ear” of course I mean your mind—not really your ear. Achieving this takes years, and you must study, listen to, and sing or play, great melodies.
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  18. Malcolm35

    Malcolm35 Supporting Member

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  19. Mushroo

    Mushroo Guest

    Apr 2, 2007
    The secret to being a good improviser is to know the song very well.

    The reason why experienced improvisers can sound good, even when they are playing a song for the first time, is that they've gotten so good at learning songs, they can do it in a few seconds. Once they hear the key and the chord progression, and it sounds familiar to songs they already know, then they can jump in and start improvising.

    The good news is that every single song, riff, lick, groove, or exercise you learn builds your musical vocabulary, which will make you a better improviser. :)
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