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Toy Bassist with Some Minor Scale Problems

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [DB]' started by jazzbo, Apr 1, 2001.

  1. jazzbo


    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
    (Toy bassist sheepishly opening door that separates BG from DB rooms. Slight creek in door. DBers turn heads to peer at innocent and naive toy bassist, sneering and scoffing. DBers return back to Rosin conversation. Toy bassist timidly steps forward).

    So, I had a thread in Mike Dimin's column about minor scales, but it managed to slip through the cracks, so MISS SPITZFORALL encouraged that I start this flame thre....er, sorry, thread, over at what seems to be annointed as the THEORY forum, good ole MISCELLANEOUS (DB). So, to the benevolent Gods of real bass I ask:

    What are the practical applications of the natural, harmonic and minor scales? I know the notes of these scales, but I'm not sure of these scales different uses in harmonies. I guess, really, I'm just trying to ask at what point these scales might be utilized, over which chords, or any other situation? What are some of the advantages to using one or another?

    (Toy bassist tucks tail between legs, and ever so suspiciously walks backward, cowering in corner, awaiting approval). ;)
  2. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    Here's a concept: Which sounds the best to you?
    The answer will vary according to the tune structure. You'll figure it out.
  3. jazzbo


    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
    What are some of those differences of tune structure that might influence the differences in sound? Most of the musicians I'm playing with right now are playing songs where these concepts aren't as applicable, so I don't have a many occasions to experiment with the different sounds. So, cerebrally, I start analyzing the differences in these scales, playing them and hearing them, but unfortunately, my ear isn't too the level to where I can feel where I might apply one scale as opposed to the other, so I got curious.
  4. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    While Don's answer is ultimately the final test, there are some roads you can explore before you can get closer to that destination. The first place to look to use the natural minor scale is as the vi chord in any major key progression, in which case it will be a mode of the larger tonality. If anyone ever tells you to always play Dorian (or any specific ) minor when you see a minor chord in jazz, just quietly walk away. Chances are their solos will contain some honkers if they practice what they preach.

    As for the larger question of the different minor scales, a lot depends on harmonic context and coloristic considerations. Look at it this way: for tonic minor, there are times when you might want to play melodic minor, dorian minor, harmonic minor, and even sometimes natural minor. And a large part of that decision is up to how you feel at that moment and what the tune/other players are triggering in you. All of which seemes very intimidating at first, but there are ways around switching from one scale to another at a moment's notice - there are a few shortcuts.

    The biggest one is to look not to the differences between the scales, but to look for the similarities. Here are some of the more common jazz minor scales:

    1...2...b3...4...5...6....7....8 (Melodic)

    1...2...b3...4...5...6...b7...8 (Dorian)

    1...2...b3...4...5..b6..b7...8 (Aeolian or natural)

    1...2...b3...4...5..b6...7....8 (Harmonic)

    When you look at them in this way, it seems clear that in all of the scales most often used for TONIC minor chords, the root through fifth is identical, while the 6th and 7th alterations are different in each. What this means to the improvisor is that the first five notes are given to work in all of them, and anytime you play any 6th or 7th, you are making a coloristic decision. Given this, in my opinion, the best way to practice these scales is in the following two ways:

    1) practice each scale with a play along of some sort to give you a harmonic background for each note to sound against. No matter which one you happen to be playing as you do this, be aware that the 6th and 7th in the scale you are playing are choices. As you play them while trying to construct melodies or melodic lines, observe how these two notes of each scale sound and feel to your ear. Last - and this is the hard part - be aware of what the "alternate" 6th and 7th notes (the ones not contained in the scale you're practicing) are, and what they might sound like in relation.

    2) After you have done this for a while, try thinking of all of the scales as one larger tonality with different color shadings available, like this:


    Practicing this scale is useful for two reasons: because it gets all of the 6th and 7th possibilities under your fingers; and because your ear will soon become drawn to the 6th or 7th that fits the situation for you. After going through all of this theory stuff, I always tell my students to use the "mirror method", which works like this - look in the mirror while you practice, and when you hit any note over a certain chord that makes you make a funny face, or wrinkle your nose, or say "sh*t" or whatever, stop and make a note of what note it was that caused the reaction. Then start over and avoid that note this time through. The goal is to make it through a chorus or two without making a single negative facial expression.

    Which kinda brings us back to Don's point all over again...
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I usually do what Chris says and will programme chord sequences into my microcomposer and practice soloing or constructing basslines as the sequence loops.

    But it does seem somehow ironic that we often spend a lot of time discussing scale choices like this, when it comes down to one different note and that particular chord might go past for like 2 seconds in the sequence and most listeners will never really know what scale you chose!

    I mean - as bass players we are often using chromatic passing tones and as a soloist, you can often play chromatically to "lead" up or down to a target note - or both in the same phrase - so whether to choose a flattened 6th or 7th, might not even be seen as choosing a different scale, but rather a technique for "ornamenting" phrases.
  6. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Bruce - while the above is all true, I find that there will always be at least one listener who will hear the difference between what the bass player was hearing and intended to play and what he/she actually played - and that person is the person holding the bass. In my experience, the process of learning to hear exactly what you want to play the instant before you play it is a step by step process. When most people are first learning to improvise, they feel lucky just to play in the right key at any given moment, and their hearing at that point is often too vague to pinpoint specific chord/scale tones on the fly. After you gain a little more experience, the stronger harmonic tones (often but not always chord tones) start to take shape as specific aural targets, much like the roots in basslines seem to bassists. When the "pre-hearing" develops a bit more, the different shades of color begin to emerge as separate and distinct flavors which affect the line as a whole. In my opinion, each stage of this process must be practiced, most often in order, for the final goal - playing exactly what you heard and really specifically meant to play - to come within reach.

    Having said that, I should emphasize that it's only one opinion, and there are a lot of good opinions out there.

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