Exploring New Ways to Practice Chord Changes on Bass

Q: I was wondering if you had any new ways of practicing playing through changes? I have been working on my arpeggios and modes but feel like I’m just hitting a wall.

A: I don’t know if this counts as a new way of playing through changes, but there are an endless number of options available to you.

So many of us have practiced patterns over scales – scales in various positions, scales in broken 3rd, scales in groupings of different patterns, and so on. We also have ways that we’ve practiced playing over chord changes, like playing arpeggios in all inversions from chord to chord.

So we can try a concept that will allow us to take any scalar exercise we have and apply it to an entire set of changes. Here are some things to keep in mind (avoid starting the pattern over with every chord change):

  • Pick the lowest note available to you as your starting point
  • Decide on what note will be your highest
  • Decide on what chord scale you will use for each chord type
  • Play that your pattern from top to bottom, back down again and repeating until the end of the tune

This gets you playing all kinds of new things and really stretching and testing your ability to see what’s available to you harmonically over and through changes.

I’m including some examples below. Don’t just play these, though. Think of any and every scale or chord exercise you have down pat and apply it in this method to a hundred different tunes out of the Real Book. Good work for a lifetime!

In these examples, I used the first 8 bars of “Stella By Starlight”. To make this challenging for me, I chose less comfortable chord scale options for some of the chord types. Here they are:

  • -7?5 (half-diminished) – I used the 6th mode of the melodic minor scale
  • (It’s just the minor scale with a ?5)
  • 7(?9) – I used the 5th mode of harmonic minor (mixolydian with a ?2 & ?6)
  • -7 (minor) – I used dorian (Minor with a natural 6)
  • 7 (dominant) – I chose to use lydian dominant here (mixolydian with a ?4)
  • ?7 (major) – I used lydian here (major with a ?4)

For all three examples, I’ll provide the basic scalar exercise and then apply it to the changes. Be sure to download this exercise (PDF format).

I chose a low E as my low note (when available) and a high G (12th fret, G string) so as to not frustrate the many 4-string bassists out there. If you play an extended range bass, extend the pattern down to your lowest note and to whatever high note you like. When doing this on my 6 string, I’ll often go from a low B to the 17th fret on my C string. This gives a huge range to work within!

  • Example 1 is just a basic scale concept played through changes in 8th notes.
  • Example 2 is a common scale exercise in which we play in the scale in groupings of 4 notes, starting from each note in the scale.
  • Example 3 is a basic triad exercise extended to include all notes of the scale and through changes. This get’s tricky as you need to be constantly aware of available tensions (although that holds true for any of these exercises).

I also like to try this with scales in broken intervals (1 3, 2 4, 3 5, etc… scale in broken 3rds.)

Play slow! Do these as slowly as necessary to make the proper note choices.

No guessing! Know what notes you are playing, and why. Play quarter notes if you need to. There’s no sense in trying to play fast if you are just guessing, you will only do yourself a disservice because you won’t really get anything out of the exercise unless you really focus and take it slow. Visualize the chord scale and try to hear the difference in tonality as you play.

Don’t bother with tunes that stay in one key. If you want to play “Autumn Leaves”, force yourself to come up with non-major scale alternatives for the changes (?11 on Major and Dominant chords, Melodic minor harmony for half-diminished, etc…).

This is some next-level stuff for many of us (although horn players and piano players do this stuff all the time in jazz. This will take some time to feel out but it can give you massive results with regard to fretboard awareness, seeing lines through changes and just an overall comfort level when navigating changes.

Have fun!

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. Jazzjames

    Thank you that’s really cool and interesting. It will take some time but worth doing I think!

  2. good meaty stuff, damian. see you at NAMM?

  3. that bass guy

    A simple exercise that helps is to artificially limit what you can play and where. For example, just for the mental exercise and dexterity, try playing through changes in as few places on the neck as possible. A lot of players have extended range instruments now and are trading good counterpoint for playing the same stuff in different octaves. Another simple approach is to pretend you have a broken string and do your best to keep the changes going while you play around that “missing” string. Obviously this works best if you use the A or D string as your “broken” one. Another approach is to use just 2 strings. All of these examples might not make sense but what they do is force you to add shapes to your playing that you may not have thought of otherwise while enhancing your ability to be comfortable with combination of notes anywhere on the fingerboard.

    Great article by the way. Can’t wait to give it a try…

  4. jesse

    He Damian , nice writing .
    I think this kind of practice should get some more attention .
    Could you give some more examples on these concepts ?
    cheers from Belgium

  5. Norberto

    As a self taught musician I really appreciate what your columns are doing for me. I’m taking your topics one at a time, with no hurry but with no pause at all, and I also took from you that what it will be my personal VISION. I am taking in reference of what you have written on a previous column about your “My philosophy is”. This is something that I going to post it on my wall.
    cheers from the island of Puerto Rico. (sorry yo no domino mucho el ingles)