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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!

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