Practice Your Scales… But Which Ones?

Q: Scales… everyone should practice scales. But which scales? For someone that’s beginning to play or even some that has been playing for a long time, this can be a dilemma. How do you practice them? How do you implement them in your playing?

A: Great question. Of course, everyone should know their:

1. Major scales

2. Minor scales

…as a bare minimum. All arpeggios, chords and scales you will use or learn will be built using the major or minor scale as a reference point.

I’d also suggest that you learn all of the Major scale modes. Modes are just the scale but starting from a note other than the root. For example, play a the notes of a C Major scale, but starting and ending on D. That’s the second mode of C Major, which is “Dorian” mode.

Beyond that, it really depends on what kind of music you want to play and if you want to solo like a jazz guy, like a blues guy, and so on.

If you don’t care about bass solos, you’ll probably be just fine with Major mode scale knowledge. If you want to study jazz and learn to shred like any number of guys you see on Youtube, than you probably want to dig deeper than that.

Personally, I’m more about chord scales. I look at a chord symbol and build the notes I’ll use specifically around the notes inherent to that chord.

For example: If I see an A7(b13)

I’ll play the notes of the chord tones (1 3 5 b7), and the rest of my scale around what the chord tells me (2 4 b6). And there’s my scale:

1 2 3 4 5 b6 b7 8

or

A B C# D E F G A

All of those numbers are in reference to the Major scale degrees.

Also, when you look at a chord and you see a number over 7, you can simply subtract 7 from it and you have the scale degree.

9 – 7 = 2

11 – 7 = 4

13 – 7 = 6

This is because there are 7 notes in the scale. If you built it up over two octaves and continued to count scale degrees, you’d get this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

or

C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C

I would strive to get very comfortable with all of your arpeggios and you major scale modes. Then practice playing over changes a lot. The system that works for you will reveal itself in no time. The key is getting the ball rolling and drilling the information enough that it becomes second nature.

If you want to know this stuff and apply it in more of a funk or blues way, you can really just work the pentatonic scales and work them that way. Essentially, it really depends on what kind of sound you are going for.

If you ask yourself, “do I really need to know this?”, your answer should simply be, “How good do I want to be?”

You get as much out of it as you put into it. Assess what your goals are for the instrument and work as hard as you can to move in that direction.

If you just want to be able to jam, you probably don’t need to spend years on chord changes.

If you want to be the next big thing, you’d better get moving.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. German Gonzalez

    Great article for bass players! Keep going!

  2. Daniel

    Great article. My students get a very similar story from me when I’m quizzed about scales. The only scale missing here that is essential to any bass player’s bag of tricks is the Blues Scale. Most of the great riffs come from it, it is applicable to simple solo ideas and works across so many genres. Perhaps you could outline it in a future article Damien?
    Peace & Bass

    Daniel

  3. Rolli le Beirutien

    Thanks Damien, This article set the grounds for bass players. “How good do i wanna be” The only problem with bass is that it becomes an addiction….Which is wicked :)

  4. Bassie

    I’m am always telling bass players to learn and practice their scales. If you know your scales, you can play just about any song in any key.

  5. Blake Byrnes

    @Daniel, you might be referring to the pentatonic scale. He mentions that later in the article. Minor pentatonic scale, actually.

    I could probably google it but could an article be done about the different modes? Cheers!