WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO LEARN TO GET around the bass—from bottom to top and top to bottom? Arpeggios! This month, we’ll look at the best techniques for practicing broken chords.
In his e-book Melodic Arpeggios and Triad Combining for Bass, John Patitucci writes, “If we can enjoy working on these crucial building blocks, we will buy ourselves a tremendous amount of freedom when it comes to expression, whether we are dealing with the music of Mozart or Coltrane.” Patitucci’s compact and excellent ebook outlines the importance of mastering arpeggios, with the goal of keeping practice material fresh and engaging.
Bassist Josh Fossgreen also deals with arpeggios in his free-for-the-taking mini-ebook, Play Da Bass [joshfossgreen.com]. He writes, “You can extrapolate these ideas to an immense amount of material: All four types of triads (major, minor, diminished, augmented), and all three inversions. You can do this in any key, and you can play most of the patterns either starting on the A or the E string. You can also start at the top of the arpeggio instead of the bottom. A lot of the fun of this technique is in the infinite possibilities!”
The common method for learning arpeggios is from the bottom up, starting on the of the chord, and playing up in combinations of either major-3rd or minor-3rd intervals. In these examples, we use chords to the 9th, which is one octave above the 2nd note found in a particular scale. For example, in a C major scale, D is the 2nd note. If we raise the note D one octave so it sits at the top of a C chord, the note is called the 9th.
You can build a C major 9 (Cmaj9) arpeggio by starting on C and using every other note of a C major scale: C–E–G– B–D (Ex. 1). We can also refer to these notes as the 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 of the chord. Notes of a scale, and notes in an arpeggio, are often analyzed by the number of their scale degree, so musicians use numbers when talking about chords, i.e., “Don’t play the b9 on a Cmaj9 chord.”
Examples 2 and 3 show the notes in a C9 arpeggio and C minor 9 (Cm9) arpeggio, respectively. For now, it suffices to be aware that in a Cmaj9, the 3rd and 7th are E and B; in a C9, the 3rd and 7th are E and Bb; and in a Cm9, the 3rd and 7th are Eb and Bb. In next month’s Woodshed, we’ll look at the mathematical construction of these chords and find out why a C9 chord sounds funky and a Cm9 chord sounds so sad and poignant.
In his ebook, Fossgreen suggests an important practice tip in passing: “Start at the top of the arpeggio.” This is huge! Although numerous bass technique books deal with arpeggios, most of them miss a crucial point: They are weighted toward starting on the root of a chord and playing up the arpeggio. What’s the problem with that? We miss half of the good stuff — starting at the top of the arpeggio and descending. As bassists, we are so fixated on the root (which is a good thing), that we miss many hip options when we play a bass line or solo (which is a bad thing). Examples 4–6 show grooves that climb up and down Cmaj9, C9, and Cm9 arpeggios. Play them a comfortable tempo to get their shapes under your fingers—as well as their sounds in your ear.
Example 7 turns the world upside down by starting the arpeggio at the top. Play the C in bar 1, then jump up to the 9th (D) on beat one of bar 2. Play down the arpeggio, and land on the root–7th–root combination to bring things back home. Check out the tablature and you’ll see that this arpeggio lends itself to raking down the strings.
Example 8 avoids starting on the root, instead beginning at the top of the Cmaj9 chord and playing down the arpeggio. This is a giant step more advanced than Ex. 7. To be completely comfortable starting on a note other than the root, you have to slowly train yourself to see and hear the Cmaj9, and immediately grab the D on top. Once you can play the Cmaj9 flawlessly from the top down, move on to C9 and Cm9. Then play the three arpeggios through 12 keys all over the bass.
Now that you have shaken your case of “root-itis,” you can begin experimenting with lines that start on the upper partials of a chord. Example 9 is a broken arpeggio line starting on the 9th of the Cm9 chord. You can adjust the 3rds and 7ths and play this pattern over a Cmaj9 and C9.
Invent some of your own lines starting on the 9th. You’ll find that this exercise will give you a new awareness of the real sound of major, minor, and dominant chords. Don’t lose track of the root of the chord, and certainly don’t abandon your function as a bassist when you’re trying these techniques with other musicians. Next month, we’ll explore more chords from the top down. Until then, bottoms up!
5 Books To Take You Higher (Or Lower)
Vade Mecum for the Double Bass by George Vance [Carl Fischer Music]
This modern classical bass method uses an organic approach to the fingerboard, taking the student from the lowest depths of the instrument to its highest peaks with a logical, easy-to-grasp system.
Chord Studies for Electric Bass by Rich Appleman & Joseph Viola [Berklee Press Publications]
Due to the lack of good bass material when I was starting out back in the dark ages of music pedagogy, I practiced out of the bass-friendly book Chord Studies for Trombone. Since the ’80s, the folks at Berklee have offered this arpeggio practice method specifically for bass.
Melodic Arpeggios & Triad Combining for Bass by John Patitucci [David Gage String Instruments]
Patitucci’s ebook is available only in Kindle format, but it offers a valuable insight into how he thinks about practicing arpeggios. iPad users can access Kindle books using the iPad Kindle app.
Play Da Bass by Josh Fossgreen [joshfossgreen.com]
It’s short, it’s free, it’s got some nice licks and good ideas—grab it!
Bass Arpeggio Finder by Chad Johnson [Hal Leonard]
This complete guide catalogues 1,300 bass arpeggios using fingerboard charts and standard notation. Johnson explains arpeggio construction clearly and shows inversions and many possible fingering possibilities through the use of fingerboard diagrams.
Visit John on the web at johngoldsby.com for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bass-related questions.