Jazz Concepts: Building Patterns to Improve Your Grooves

Spies, mathematicians, pro football quarterbacks, chess grandmasters, and bass players are brilliant at recognizing patterns.
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Spies, mathematicians, pro football quarterbacks, chess grandmasters, and bass players are brilliant at recognizing patterns.
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Spies, mathematicians, pro football quarterbacks, chess grandmasters, and bass players are brilliant at recognizing patterns. The best bassists know in advance what will happen during a performance, because they hear patterns. They can suss out the fundamental groove from a skittish drummer, anticipate the guitarist’s wacky substitute chord change, and embrace the laid-back mojo of a singer. Like the chess grandmaster who only considers the absolute best move or the star quarterback who finds the one open receiver amidst a field of chaos, the experienced bassist effectively organizes sound and cherry-picks patterns to create beautiful, groovilating bass-ness.

You’ve probably already practiced patterns, whether you know it or not. Many patterns are simply a scale or melodic fragment, or an arpeggio that aligns with a particular harmony. There is no singular melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic pattern you can learn to become a better bassist, but practicing a wide range of simple patterns will help you develop your ability to react and create on the fly.

In his milestone book Patterns for Jazz [Alfred Music], Jerry Coker writes, “The jazz musician pre-hears in his mind the next musical event, and then has the added task of playing it cleanly and with feeling.” Coker makes a case for learning a series of patterns as the basis for a useful musical vocabulary. Every pattern should be mastered in all 12 keys, and Coker suggests playing each pattern through four chord progressions: (1) the cycle of 5ths, (2) chromatic, (3) stepwise, and (4) in groupings of minor 3rd intervals.

This month, we’ll look at some basic and complex patterns and ways to learn them. To summarize the Coker method, he suggests practicing every pattern through all 12 keys in the following four sequences:

1. Cycle of 5ths
C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab (G#), Db (C#), Gb (F#), B, E, A, D, G

2. Chromatic
C, Db (C#), D, Eb (D#), E, F, Gb (F#), G, Ab (G#), A, Bb, B

3. Stepwise
C, D, E, Gb (F#), Ab (G#), Bb, C, Db (C#), Eb, F, G, A, B

4. Minor 3rd Intervals
C, Eb, Gb (F#), A, F, Ab (G#), B, D, Bb, Db (C#), E, G

Example 1 shows a typical pattern over a major chord. Most patterns can be analyzed numerically by the scale degrees of the notes. This pattern can be numerically described as 1231. In the first bar, the notes are C, D, E, and C, which are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 1st notes in the C major scale. The pattern moves through the cycle of 5ths, and the pattern starts on the root of each chord. When we analyze patterns with numbers, we can also call them digital patterns.

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Example 2 uses the same digital pattern, 1231, over a minor chord or minor scale sound. The 1231 pattern over the Cm chord yields the notes C, D, Eb, C, because the 3rd of the scale or chord is minor. You can dig deeper into patterns on your own by writing out some numerical combinations and playing them on the bass. Some common digital patterns to get you started are: 1212, 1321, 1235, 3213, 5321, 1717, 1767, 1757, 1351, 5315, 1357, 7531.

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Let’s look at some trickier patterns. Example 3 is a six-note digital pattern that does not start on the root of the chord or scale. The formula here is: 513431. Over a C major chord, the pattern begins on the low G (5), then C (1), E (3), F (4), E (3), C (1). Example 4 changes one note of the pattern to fit the C minor sound: G (5), C (1), Eb (b3), F (4), Eb (b3), C (1). Example 5 implies a C7 sound: E (3), Bb (b7), C (1), F (4), E (3), C (1).

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Coker’s four sequences of playing through all 12 keys are patterns in themselves. This is useful, because they are typical root movements found in countless songs. You should also write out your own root-movement progressions. You’ll be surprised what you discover when you slow your thought process and deliberate over a progression with pencil and paper!

Example 6 uses the digital pattern from Ex. 3 and Coker’s stepwise root motion: C, D, E, Gb (F#), Ab (G#), Bb, C, Db (C#), Eb, F, G, A, B. The stepwise root movement lets you comfortably move up the fingerboard with a minimum of fingering adjustments. Once you have the pattern under your fingers, try to play the same sequence making every chord minor. Create your own digital patterns and practice them using Coker’s four root-movement sequences.

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Great technique isn’t the ability to play ridiculously complicated things at fast tempos. Great technique grows from the mastery of simple things. Next month, we’ll explore more patterns and ways to grow your technique.



Study with John this summer at the Aebersold Jazz Workshops or at the Sligo Jazz Project in Ireland. More info at johngoldsby.com.