WHY DO SOME BASSISTS PLAY MORE MELODICALLY THAN OTHERS?
It’s not that they possess a 6th sense—a mysterious talent channeled only by mystics and
bass gods. Their well-kept secret? They’ve mastered the fundamentals of music technique and
theory. Melodic bassists have a good command of wide interval jumps—6ths and 7ths—and
these large intervals make for compelling, melodic lines. Intervals are the building blocks of
music, and you can improve your playing by learning to use intervals in a musical way.
Intervals of 6ths and 7ths usually require crossing over two strings, or shifting positions,
so they are harder to grab on the fingerboard than smaller intervals like 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, and
5ths. But the 6th interval is useful to have under your fingers all over the bass. Practice large
intervals and you’ll develop your 6th sense for melodic playing!
There are two types of 6ths that you should know. The interval of a major 6th can be
determined from any note by counting up or down nine half-steps (Ex. 1). The interval of
a minor 6th is found by counting up or down eight half-steps (Ex. 2). Play a major scale in
broken-6th intervals, and you’ll see and hear that some of the intervals are major 6ths and
some minor 6ths (Ex. 3).
Bass lines, solos, and chords can all be analyzed by the relationships between intervals. Intervals
that are played successively (one after the other) are called melodic intervals, horizontal intervals,
or linear intervals. Two notes played simultaneously, such as the notes in a chord, or in a double-stop
on the bass, line up vertically and are described as a harmonic interval or vertical interval.
A minor 6th interval can also be named an augmented
5th, depending on the key signature and
how accidentals are used. For example, a C7#5 contains
a minor-6th interval between the notes C and
G#. An Fm7 chord also has a minor-6th interval
between the notes C and the Ab above it; the G#
and Ab in both chords are the same pitch, but are
written differently to fit the harmonic construction.
Similarly, the minor-6th interval sounds the
same, whether it is C to G# or C to Ab. The Ab and
G# are called enharmonic equivalents (two spellings
of the same note). The intervals C to Ab and C to
G# are both minor-6th intervals, even though the
notes are spelled differently, and the notes function
differently in each chord.
You can play any scale in 6ths, like the E harmonic
minor in Ex. 4. Apply this exercise to some
of the scales you already have under your fingers.
If you’re used to playing scales up and down diatonically
or in 3rds, this exercise will force you out
of your comfort zone and into a world of melodic
leaps and bounds.
The inversion of a 6th interval yields another
melodic friend of ours, the 3rd. Example 5 shows
that the major 3rd interval (notated as “3”) between
the notes C and E, when inverted, becomes a minor
6th (m6) interval between the notes E and C. The
minor 3rd (m3) interval between the notes C and
Eb, when inverted, becomes a major 6th (6) interval
between the notes Eb and C.
Example 6 is an excerpt from my solo on the Bb
blues “Misterioso” [Live at the Nachbar, Bass Lion
2008, bass solo starts at 3:40]. Alto saxophonist Jacob
Duncan ends his solo with a quote of the original
Thelonious Monk melody, which is based on 6th
intervals. For my bass solo, I pick up on Duncan’s
idea and play the entire first 12 bars only
using intervals of major and minor 6ths. I use two
proven devices for building an interesting solo:
quoting from the melody, and repeating musical
phrases. I am referring to the original melody,
but also altering some of the rhythms for a surprise
effect. The glue that holds this solo chorus
together is the combination of minor-6th and
Learning to play melodic bass lines and solos is
not hard, once you’ve mastered some basic technical
and theoretical material. By using 6th intervals
in your lines and solos, you’ll open up your
playing, and become known as a melodic bassist.
Develop your 6th sense!
Learn To Recognize
Many common songs begin with an interval
of a major 6th or minor 6th. You
can train your ear to recognize these
intervals by listening to songs and recognizing
the first interval of the melody.
Start by singing the interval to any of
these melodies; then pick up your bass
and match the pitches. This is great ear
training on a very practical level.
Songs Beginning With Major 6th
“Days of Wine and Roses”
“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”
“Take the A Train”
“When Sunny Gets Blue”
Songs Beginning With Minor 6th
“In My Life”
“Manhã de Carnaval”