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On Modes and Getting Away from the Root

Bassist practicing

Q: I have question about how to practice and apply modes that is killin’ me. We are constantly being being bombarded with the concept of getting away from root in our playing and practice. For instance, scale finger pattern 4 starting on the 3rd fret of the E string is like G A B C D E F G A B C. Although the pattern doesn’t start on C, it expresses all the notes available in C, in that scale finger pattern position. So now when we talk about modes, how do we practice and express them in our playing and practice? I mean, you can’t express D dorian without starting on D. Doesn’t that conflict with our “getting off of root” mentality? From my example, a pattern would start on the fifth fret of the A string and be D E F G A B C… That doesn’t cover all the notes in the scale?

A: That’s a great question! And it is one that that many a musician has pondered for years.

Modes, in my opinion, are something that everyone should know, as it broadens your understanding of how chords and scales all work together. They are also not something that I find useful in real-life situations, with the exception of helping you see how to play within the tonality, but from a different root.

So, you see, modes are helpful for exactly that thing that makes you wonder how else you could use them.

The only time I think of a mode is when I’m soloing over one chord, but want to get away from the root (it’s a “Jazz 101” method for thinking inside the given tonality, but away from the root of the chord).

Like you said, if you’re in C Major, you could play in D dorian (which means that you’ll be focusing on and moving around the 9 of the actual chord), or E Phrygian, and so on…

After a certain point in your development, you probably won’t think if it that way anymore and you’ll also have “hipper” ways to get away from the tonic, but the shifting of modes within a tonality is a fantastic way to begin exploring that stuff.

So, in answer to your question, understanding your modes is precisely the way in which you begin getting away from the root in the first place.

Modes are also useful for being able to convey a sound you want from someone like “Lydian” or “Harmonic minor”. Personally, I tend to think in chord scales and chord tones and never really liked playing scales outside of practice drills at home to work on my fretboard familiarity.

Others may have a different take on them and their usefulness or functionality. As always, I love hearing readers’ takes on these subjects. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo by Pantera and Mateusz

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