Harmonic Awareness, Part 2

HOWDY, AND WELCOME BACK TO Harmonic Awareness!

HOWDY, AND WELCOME BACK TO Harmonic Awareness!

Before we get started: Due to an editing error that was discovered too late to fix, we neglected to include the first eight bars of “Autumn Leaves” in 1st inversion. Sorry about that! There it is in Ex. 1.

Now that we’ve covered root position and 1st inversions, let’s continue with 2nd and 3rd inversions. For bass players, of course, these inversions aren’t quite as functional— they can make these chords sound muddy—but getting comfortable with these shapes and sounds will help you “see” a chord from any point within the chord, and you’ll begin to recognize the interconnectedness of every chord within a progression. We spend so much time hovering around roots that when it’s time to outline a chord from a different note (in a solo, for example), some of us have a hard time.

The solution? Walking arpeggios through tunes from every inversion. In Examples 2and 3, I’ve outlined arpeggios starting from either the 5th or the 7th of the “Autumn Leaves” chord progression; in Ex. 4, each chord has either the 5th or 7th in the bass. These voicings won’t necessarily sound good under a soloist, and they’ll likely clash and insinuate other harmonies if you play them against a guitarist’s chords. But walking though these arpeggios is a fantastic exercise that’ll help you broaden your fingerboard knowledge.

Example 5 represents my favorite chordal exercise: Playing the chords in a progression by starting with a basic chord shape and only moving each note as needed—by no more than a half- or whole-step, or not at all. It’s difficult to do in real time, so take it chord by chord until you’ve got it, and then try it at a slow tempo. (Some chords don’t contain the root.) I’ve yet to find a better exercise that helps me see the interconnectedness of chords within the context of a tune.

Remember to keep changing the tunes you work through. Each progression will challenge you in a new way and further enhance your ability to play through changes.

Portland, Oregon-based bassist and educator Damian Erskine has toured and recorded with a long list of greats, from Gino Vanelli and the Peter Erskine New Trio to the Jaco Pastorius Big Band. Visit him at damianerskine.com.