On Improvising: Modal vs. Chordal Approaches

Q: I’ve been playing for a little bit now and would consider myself a solid player, but I’m looking to really up my level of expression. There seems to be a dichotomy on modal vs. chordal approaches to theory, I figured I’d ask you where the break is. Both seem necessary, but some seem to think the modal stuff is silly to start with, and will make your playing sound “textbook”. Any Advice?

A: I think the question you’re asking is whether a modal approach is a better or worse method than arpeggios and patterns.

The short answer is that I don’t think there is any one way to become a good soloist. Certain ways work better for certain people, and that depends on how each person learns the best.

The longer answer:

Ultimately, I think it best if a player has all of their modes down pat, knows a good bit about chord shapes and chord construction, has a bag of licks they like over certain types of changes and also has the ears to help them play melodically. Essentially, you should know as much as possible about all of it and you should become a well rounded player.

It is important to spend a good amount of time on each of these things and, often, taking them one by one may be the best way for you to learn them. This means that, yes, while obsessing about various modes may have you sounding like a scale machine for a while, it will also open up your palette to different sounds. When you move onto arpeggios and chords, that information will still be with you while you transition into an arpeggiating madman. It’s only when you have a large enough bag of tricks that you begin to not repeat yourself and you start to really develop your own vocabulary.

Personally, I prefer the chordal approach. This means that I look at each chord and build my scale from the chord tones and available tensions. I also spend a lot of time developing exercises for myself to practice connecting chords, so that I’m not treating each chord as a separate entity but, rather, voice-lead my way through the chords as if each is a slight variation of the last.

I marvel at guys who can just pick up their instrument and improvise for minutes or hours on end. I run out of things to say fairly quickly, because while I have a decent vocabulary and can play fast, I don’t spend much time actually practicing soloing! Instead, I practice seeing my way through changes and working on my time and ears.

You’ll sound the same on the gig as you do in the practice room. So you can’t neglect your duties as a bass player when shedding.

Don’t forget to also practice and transcribe things, which will make you a stronger bassist (walking, common endings and turnarounds, time, various time-feels, and so on.)

That said, if you really want to work on your soloing and melodic vocabulary, I would work on these things, in any order, but really get them down! It’s better to really understand one of these then never really grasp all/any of them):

  • Modes (major scale, melodic minor primarily)
  • Chordal voice leading and chord scales
  • Transcriptions to develop the ears and also to learn various approaches to certain changes, or licks, etc.
  • Developing patterns and licks of your own that you can add to your bag o’ tricks
  • Time and pocket
  • Phrasing (rhythm is the under-recognized tool in developing a strong phrase)

Basically, this is a lifelong pursuit to learn it all and be able to play in an organic and musical manner. I encourage you to just continue to dive in. Find what works for you and what doesn’t, and you will certainly discover much along the way!

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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  1. Ray C. Parrish

    Great post, wish we were seeing more of this on discussions online instead of the “who’s better then who” we have grown accustomed to.

    • Corey Brown

      Thanks Ray. Glad you liked it, and yes, we do try to stay away from the “who is better” discussion.

  2. I have also heard of people using their singing voice to come up with soloing ideas.

  3. The Wisdom in Understanding, Knowledge is power. Modal and Chordal methods are one in the same. Chord are derived from the Modes of a particular Key Center.


    • Take the “C” major scale (Ionian (I)), C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.
    Knowing that chords are made up by using every other note in a scale starting with the “C” the four note chord produced from this scale is CMaj7 (C-E-G-B).

    Now applying the same rule to the rest of the modes we have.
    • still in the key center of “C” the second mode is D Dorian (ii), D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D, the chord produce is Dm7 (D-F-A-C).
    • still in the key center of “C” the third mode is E Phrygian,(iii) E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E, the chord produce is Em7 (E-G-B-D).
    • still in the key center of “C” the forth mode is F Lydian (IV), F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F, the chord produce is FMaj7 (F-A-C-E).
    • still in the key center of “C”” the fifth mode is G Mixolydian, G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G, the chord produce is G7 (G-B-D-F).
    • still in the key center of “C” the six mode is A Aeolian (vi), A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A, the chord produce is Am7 (G-B-D-F).
    • still in the key center of “C” the seventh mode is B Locrian (vii), B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B, the chord produce is Bm7b5 (B-D-F-A).

    So if the key center is a m7, say Dm7 , you can solo or improvise in Dm7, but you have all the chord for the key center of “C” to use, and that is CMaj7, Dm7, Em7, FMaj.7, G7,
    Am7 and Bm7b5. Try it you’ll be amazed. And there is still more to learn from modes.

  4. Oops: A aeolian should read – • still in the key center of “C” the six mode is A Aeolian (vi), A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A, the chord produce is Am7 (A-C-E-G).

  5. To add one thing. Learn the melody of the song as well – it is great resource for solo material.

  6. Knowledge is Power! I prefer to use inverted chords to solo over or from. Moving from one inverted chord to another or root to inversion , vice versa , through modes creates wonderful solos. It gives a total uniquness to the music because you are not running from the root all the time and this technique can really add melodic tensions, push and pull on the music.