Scales vs. Chords

Q: What scales are best to know for improvising and how can I go about trying to memorize them?

A: Although it is important to learn your major and minor scales as well as all of the others (melodic minor, harmonic minor, blues scale, etc.), I’ve found that scales don’t really help me at all. I also find that guys who rely on scales too much sound a lot like they are playing scales when they improvise.

Instead, I’ve gotten much more mileage out of a few things I’ll list here.

1. Chords:

Learning all about chord tones and extensions has helped me FAR more than scales. I believe this is what people are referring to when they talk about chord scales. I think of which notes are available to me by decoding the chord symbol.

For example, if I see a G7#5 , I will build my “scale” in 3rds from the chord. G B D# F A C E. But really, I’m not thinking of the notes in any order. I’m just keeping them in mind while trying to play melodies or connect this chord to the next in an interesting way.

I think Janek Gwizdala has a wonderful approach to this. As far as I can tell, he has spent more time developing melodic phrases that work over different types of changes. He transcribes a lot and dissects what the soloist is playing and how it fits over different types of chord changes. I’ve found this immensely helpful as well.

Aside from being a great ear training exercise, transcription and analyzation really force to hear and see how different melodic shapes and flows can work over any chord. If you hear a lick you like, figure it out and study it to understand why it works so well and what it is that really makes it sing (phrasing, placement – or displacement, and harmonic hooks).

Really, all 12 notes are available to us at any given moment but we must understand how each will effect what we are playing over a given chord or given progression. When I’m in ‘the zone’, I am thinking much less than I am listening and when I look at my fret-board, it’s like a light bright (remember that old toy?) with all available ‘inside notes’ lit up and I can then use my ears and create phrases utilizing all given information (including the ‘outside’ notes. (I hope that makes sense).

This does require years of study, experimentation and exploration. The bottom line is that you really have to know your instrument inside and out and have enough theory and harmony down so that you’re not wasting time or brain strength thinking about what you can do, rather you’re using it listening and thinking about all of the different possibilities available to you.

2. Inversions:

As a bass player, we are taught to think of each chord from the ground up (1 3 5 7 , etc.). As a soloist, we are best served if we get away from the root motion. Really, as a soloist, we should just be creating a melody that works and weaves through the chord changes. This means that it is best to think in a ‘rootless’ way and be able to just know the notes available to you, how they will sound over the current chord, how they will help lead to the next and how it will sound in the context of what you are playing now.

To help me get away from root position thinking, one thing I’ve worked on is practicing chords in all inversions. After that, I’ve worked on building my own chord voicings and practiced changing as little as possible while playing through a set of changes.

First, the inversions:
Get used to playing chords through a set of changes (pick a standard).

Build your chords with say, root, 7th, 10th.

Get comfortable with that first.

Now, put the 3rd in the bass!

Now the 5th

Now the 7th.

Explore different voicings! Once you are comfortable with this.

Start with a chord shape over the first chord of a tune.

Now move to the 2nd chord but only move the notes that you HAVE to. The object with this exercise is to move as little as possible through a set of changes!

For example:

If the changes are A-7 | D7 | GMaj7

Start with a common A-7 voicing of A in the root, G and then C on top

Now look at that D7

The A in the bass is the 5th of D, it can stay where it is!

The G is only a 1/2 step from the 3rd of D, move it down a half step

That C is the b7th, it can stay!

So you are playing a whole new chord, but you only had to move ONE note by a half step to play it.

Do this throughout an entire piece of music. You will be amazed when you realize how much each chord has in common with the next!! this is very helpful when soloing as we don’t want to see each chord as a whole new scale or harmony to think about but, rather, we wan to see each chord as a different color of sound from the previous, but one that is comprised of the same stuff, for the most part.

In short, there is an infinite amount of work to be done, but each step taken and understood truly makes the next step beyond it that much easier to understand. Eventually, things just begin to make sense. Then, it’s only a matter of creativity and that’s where the real work begins!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Joe Cartwright

    Great post Damian,
    I’m not really the soloing type but that’s given me some interesting stuff to think about when it comes to writing more melodic bass lines

  2. Excellent post!
    Your observation of Janek’s playing was very astute. His podcasts are incredibly helpful.
    thanks for helping us basssists get cured from that terrible disease ‘rootbiasitis!’

  3. “all the things you are” is a great standard to exercize this with. also I found a great way to practice inversions of triads, C root = C G E, C first inversion = E G C, and second G E C, that way you space them out a bit more (not c, e, g… or g, c, e)

  4. Why is it “important to learn your major and minor scales as well as all of the others (melodic minor, harmonic minor, blues scale, etc.)”?

    I understand that one needs to know the major scales so that you can have the framework to build chords, but I don’t see any reason to bother with any other scales.