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I was listening to a piece and the bassist talked about playing several different modes over certain chords.

For example, over the first chord he was playing in D Dorian, obviously because it's a minor chord. Then he played D Locrian and phrygian over the V chord, saying these are available, along with many diminished and augmented scales. What I'm not understanding is that a lot of these notes aren't diatonic in the key of C major (the key of this progression). Finally, he played Dorian and mixolydian over the I chord for that #11 tension.

I'm a bassist and i tend to play in scales, arpeggios, and chords but as of late I'm trying to work on my soloing skills, hence this whole ordeal. If someone could help me understand why and how these modes are available that'd be great.

Also, when using this technique, how would you utilize it over a more busy progression? For example how about: IIm7-V7-I6 VIm7- bVI°7 VI7- IIm7 V7- IIIm7 VI7. (4/4 in C major, the dashes represent the end of each bar)

  • Not really...it's a question about a certain subject and technique. I give an example and then ask about applying it to another progression, i see that a lot on here. And why space everything out so much? I understand maybe having two paragraphs for this but it's kinda separated now. Please, leave me be. – MusicMan Sep 15 '17 at 20:22
  • MusicMan - when people edit its usually to make it clearer, and having your question split into 4 paragraphs is much easier to read than the block of text you had originally. Remember being easier to read is likely to get you better answers. – Doktor Mayhem Sep 18 '17 at 10:20
  • I apologize, my shift key doesn't work on my mobile device and i wasn't on my computer. I edited it though and spaced it out correctly. I just feel a little too criticized sometimes, I've seen far worst posts. Some without punctuation even. – MusicMan Sep 18 '17 at 21:34
  • If you do see ones like that, you can edit them or flag for mod attention - otherwise we may not see it. – Doktor Mayhem Sep 18 '17 at 22:10
  • Were you watching Rich Brown's bass lesson video? I just saw it, too, and it's awesome. – Alex Basson Sep 20 '17 at 2:22
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When it comes to soloing anything is "available" at any time. It just depends if it sounds good to you. The more notes that are diatonic to the key the more consonant or "inside" it will sound while more non-diatonic notes will make it sound more dissonant or "outside". As you're probably aware, this tension and release between dissonance and consonance is one of the key aspects of harmony.

What may be less obvious in your example is that a common trick in ii-V-I's is to go outside or purposefully introduce that tension on the V chord. So D Dorian over the Dm7 is diatonic and sets up the consonant sound of the key. Then over the G7 you have your options open to go a bit wild. You specifically want to create dissonance that can later be resolved so try focusing on creating something interesting rather than staying diatonic. Then on the I chord you bring it back home with resolution via consonance (by the way by the #11 I wonder if you mean Lydian which is common to avoid the natural F that sounds bad over a CMaj7).

That's just one way. You could introduce the tension over a different chord, never do it, or make it all dissonant and never resolve it. But what I described is one of the more common approaches.

If you search for something like "soloing over dominant chords" you'll find a lot of scales and modes to try out for that dissonance. But what those all come back to are highlighting extensions or alterations of the G7 in various ways. The less chord tones and/or the crazier the alterations the more outside it will sound. So part of choosing your mode/scale is deciding how far out you want to go.

(Obviously this only applies to solos. You'd stick closer to the diatonic scale and arpeggios when comping for somebody else. Otherwise you'd be stepping on their harmonic choices and creating chaos.)


EDIT: long response to comment

I have one quick question. Why is it all in D? Wouldn't you move to, let's say, G Locrian instead of D Locrian over the V7 chord? That V7 chord is a G after all. Is it preference? Would D Dorian-G Locrian-C Major be suitable?

D Dorian is essentially C Major and the reason that you use it over Dm7 is that Dm7 is the diatonic ii chord in C Major. Over the G7 you could move to G Mixolydian which again comes from C Major. So you're calling it something else but you're basically staying diatonic and thus producing an "inside" sound. If you wanted to play "outside" over the G7 you might pick a different mode/scale.

You'd have to ask said bassist why he chose to reference D modes over a G7. But you can just switch over to G—I personally prefer that—and change the name of the mode along with it. D Locrian is the same as G Phrygian and D Phrygian is the same G Aeolian.

As for why they work or not, I'd refer you back to what I said about it all coming down to chord tones, extensions, and alterations of those tones. You have a harmonic context that you're playing against. That is, the band is playing a chord and no matter what you play you could look at as either you're playing a note that's in that chord or you're not. If you play a chord tone it will sound inside/consonant and if you don't it will sound varying degrees of outside/dissonant depending on which note you play.

Now think of a scale or a mode as a shortcut to tap into that harmonic context without having to think about each note and how it relates to the harmony (not that that's a bad thing, but it's hard to do at first). You're picking a group of notes that are some degree of either inside or outside in a way that you're familiar with. As for how to get familiar with that I'd recommend two things:

  • Play them against chords to hear them
  • Write them out paying attention to which chord tones a particular scale gets you.

For example, with that G7 in mind as the context, let's write out the chord tones and the extensions:

G7 G B D F A C E 1 3 5 b7 9 11 13

Now we'll consider G Mixolydian as the prototypical example of "inside" because it has only the chord tones and unaltered extensions. Everything is just diatonic from the V7 chord and it's extensions.

G Mixolydian (C Major) G A B C D E F 1 9 3 11 5 13 b7

And I guess it's arguable as to what could be considered the prototypical "outside" scale, but we'll use G Altered Dominant (aka G Super Locrian, the 7th mode of melodic/jazz minor). The point of the altered scale is that it has all of the altered extension notes: b9, #9, 3rd (b11 but you wouldn't actually call it that because it's already a chord tone as the 3rd), #11, b13, b7 (#13, same you wouldn't actually call it this).

G Altered (Ab Melodic Minor) G Ab A# B C# Eb F 1 b9 #9 3 #11 b13 b7 (b11) (#13)

Now let's write out your D Locrian and D Phrygian as G Phrygian and G Aeolian, respectively:

G Phrygian (aka D Locrian, aka Eb Major) G Ab Bb C D Eb F 1 b9 b3 4 5 b13 b7

G Aeolian (aka D Phrygian, aka Bb Major) G A Bb C D Eb F 1 9 b3 4 5 b13 b7

In both, one thing to note is that they both contain a G Minor Pentatonic scale and some extensions/alterations. The minor pentatonic is a common scale over dominant chords in blues and rock as you may be aware—it's typically the first thing people try soloing with—and the extensions give it some extra outside flavor.

G Minor Penatonic G Bb C D F 1 b3 4 5 b7

So as far as inside/outside your examples are going to fit somewhere in the middle between inside and outside leaning a bit more outside but in a familiar way given that they contain the G Minor Pentatonic.

Any time you're unsure if or why a scale/mode works, just write it out and see what chord tones it's getting you. And of course listen to it to see if you even like the sound.

I know many things are available but I'm afraid of taking that concept too far

You'll have to use your ears for that part. There's not much theory to help with it because it's a matter of taste. If it sounds too boring to you, go a bit further outside. If it sounds too dissonant, go back inside a bit. Also pay attention to where you play what notes. Playing outside tends to work better if you use inside notes on strong beats and to resolve to.

  • I have one quick question. Why is it all in D? Wouldn't you move to, let's say, G Locrian instead of D Locrian over the V7 chord? That V7 chord is a G after all. Is it preference? Would D Dorian-G Locrian-C Major be suitable? – MusicMan Sep 18 '17 at 20:49
  • Could you help me answer this comment? I'm just feeling very unsure still. I know many things are available but I'm afraid of taking that concept too far – MusicMan Sep 19 '17 at 20:46
  • @MusicMan sure I've responded in an update to my answer above because I had way too many characters for a comment. – user37496 Sep 19 '17 at 23:12
  • @MusicMan - I just happened to stumble across this video last night and I can confirm that this idea is specific to soloing. The way he explained it, he was just using the modes in D as an example. He stated earlier on that you could just solo over C major the whole time, so the use of the modes was another example of that. A traditional approach to Jazz soloing is to use Chord Scales, a scale assigned to each chord type, where this is an alternate approach. You could choose to have each mode you use based on the root of the chord it's over but that's just not how his example was framed. – Basstickler Sep 21 '17 at 16:09
  • @user37496 - I'd argue against your labeling of the tones for the altered scale. b11 and #13 don't really describe the function of those notes. They are 3 and b7 and function as such in a normal altered setting. We could argue that there are instances of b11 and #13 but those are not at all common or representative of the function. I also think that it could bring some confusion for someone trying to learn how to use those chords. Otherwise, this is a great answer. +1 – Basstickler Sep 21 '17 at 16:18

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