MODERN, BLUESY, MAJOR-, AND MINOR-ISH all at once: I heard the sound when I was listening to Bob Mintzer’s “Aha” [For the Moment, MCG Jazz, 2012], with the fabulous rhythm section of Lincoln Goines (bass) and Peter Erskine (drums). Saxophonist and composer Mintzer wrote the angular line over an intense baião bass line. His melody is based on major triads, played in sequence in major-3rd intervals, a device that was introduced in the ’60s by saxophonist Oliver Nelson, and has since been used in jazz tunes by everyone from Michael Brecker to Joe Zawinul.
On the “Aha” track, Goines lays down a solid bass groove that anchors the D to E minor sound, while the melody instruments render the ever-so-hip line built on the augmented scale (Ex. 1). Why do bassists need to understand the augmented scale, arguably a saxophone-like harmonic and melodic structure? Because the augmented scale’s modern sound has become part of the jazz language. Plus, the augmented scale lies nicely on the bass, and you can use it to scare the wits out of your not-so-scale-savvy bandmates.
Like the diminished scale, the whole-tone scale, and the chromatic scale, the augmented scale is symmetrical: It is built using a repeated pattern of intervals, where more than one root will yield the same set of notes. For example, play a D whole-tone scale (Ex. 2, built using all whole-step intervals), and then use any of its notes— E, Gb, Ab, Bb, C—as a root to start another whole-tone scale, and you still have the same group of notes. Since the whole-tone scale and the augmented scale both have only six notes, they are in the family of hexatonic scales.
Example 3 shows the construction of the augmented scale: half-step, minor 3rd, half-step, minor 3rd, half-step, minor 3rd. The combination of half-step and minor 3rd intervals gives this scale a funky quality. Because of the symmetry, every pattern derived from the scale sounds logical. Unfortunately, though, the scale doesn’t quite fit any chord perfectly. There’s always a rub between certain notes of the scale and most traditional chords, which is why the scale sounds hip and funky.
Example 4 is the alternate construction of the augmented scale: minor 3rd, half-step, minor 3rd, half-step, minor 3rd, half-step. Example 3 begins with a half-step interval, and Ex. 4 has the same notes, beginning with a minor 3rd interval. Since the scale is symmetrical, both scales sound the same, but the starting point will influence your left-hand fingering, and—more important—how you hear a scale against a particular harmony.
Example 5 shows the granddaddy of all augmented scale licks, heard in the song “Hoe-Down” [Oliver Nelson, Blues and the Abstract Truth, Impulse, 1961]. The tune starts with a call-and-response hoedown-sounding horn melody, and the bridge reveals this line using the augmented scale. Paul Chambers outlines the descending major triads in his bass line. Chambers was familiar with chords moving in major 3rd intervals from his work with saxophonist John Coltrane. Check out the major-3rd harmonic scheme of “Giant Steps” [John Coltrane, Giant Steps, Atlantic, 1960], which Chambers also anchored.
There are several ways to think about and practice the augmented scale. It’s composed of two augmented triads, one half-step apart (Ex. 6). For example, try playing both the Bb and B augmented triads over a Bmaj7(#5) containing the notes B, D#, G, and A# (or Bb). Approach each note of the B augmented triad from a half-step below to lead into the target note (Bb to B, D to D#, F# to G).
The scale contains three major triads. Try playing the three major triads shown in Ex. 7 in a pattern over various chords, for example: Dmaj7#5, Ebm(maj7#11), or D7#9b13. There is always at least one note in the scale that doesn’t fit the chord perfectly, but to the listener, the logic of the symmetrical structure will prevail.
Rearranging the notes in the scale also produces three minor triads (Ex. 8). Experiment with building melodies and patterns using the triads in Examples 6–8. You’ll surprise yourself with lots of new sounds once you can hear the major 3rd movement.
Example 9 shows a typical pattern using the augmented sound over a G altered chord (in this case, a G7#9b13) to a Cm(maj7). As a reference point, you can start the augmented pattern on the G7 chord’s b13 (#5), 3rd, or root. In the 3rd bar, play the augmented scale over the Cm(maj7), which emphasizes the chord’s b7th, major 7th, 9th, b3rd, #4th, and 5th.
Have a good listen to augmented triads, and the augmented scale, and pay attention to how they sound up and down the bass. Even if you’ve never thought much beyond major and minor chords in your bassplaying career, you might find that the augmented scale becomes your new secret friend.
Visit John on the web at johngoldsby.com for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bass-related questions.