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I've been playing bass for about a year, so pardon my question, what is the relation between chords, arpeggios and scales? I always learn and played scales, but in order to learn this new jazz bassline my teacher has me do, it only shows the chord (G7, C7, etc, etc) and no notes. How am I suppose to play it? Im trying to learn more apreggios but I can seem to put two and two together and see what arpeggios have to do with chords. I also am wondering what the chord tone (if that is the right word) means in the difference of playing it, like the different of a deminshed chord and any other chord.

I hope I'm not getting ahead of myself, is there anyway I can learn to play chords?

  • Teacher should be explaining all this - or should have already! The how and the why. But welcome to the site where several will come up with everything you need - and more! – Tim May 20 '18 at 6:55
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Not that you can't ask here, but given that you have a teacher and your teacher gave you the material, your teacher would be the perfect person to ask.

Anyway, let's start with a few very basic definitions:

  • Scale: An ordered collection of notes. For our purposes we'll use a C Major scale which you are probably familiar with.
  • Chord: Several notes played at the same time
  • Arpeggio: The notes of a chord played one at a time in succession.

Now how do they relate to each other? There's a lot to this question so, again, we'll have to keep it very basic.

To start with the chords we use are usually built from a scale. If we take a C Major scale and harmonize it in 3rds, we'll get a chord for each degree in the scale. In other words we'll create a chord from each scale degree by stacking 3rds which is like taking every other note from the scale.

  • CMaj7: C, E, G, B
  • Dm7: D, F, A, C
  • Em7: E, G, B, D
  • FMaj7: F, A, C, E
  • G7: G, B, D, F
  • Am7: A, C, E, G
  • Bm7(b5): B, D, F, A

So we used a scale to build some chords. And now we can use the chords to build a chord progression:

Dm7 | G7 | CMaj7

Now let's say the pianist is playing those as full chords (playing all the notes simultaneously). As a bass player your job is to outline that same harmony but usually using single notes. The easiest way to do that is by using arpeggios. So during the bar of Dm7, you'd play the notes D, F, A, or C. And during the bar of G7 you'd play the notes G, B, D, or F. These are all notes of C Major scale so you could just play that. But you'll outline the harmony better—and it will sound better—if you target the chord tones, or the notes that make up that specific chord, by playing an arpeggio.

Walking Bass

All that said, there's a bit more to walking bass lines than just playing arpeggios. You usually want to play certain notes on certain beats and throw in some passing notes as well. Here are few tips to get started:

  • The first beat should usually be the root of the chord (D for Dm7). It's pretty important that the bass player is covering the root of the chord because the pianist or guitarist playing the chords might not.
  • The third beat (assuming the chord lasts a full bar) should be a chord tone
  • The second and fourth beats may be passing tones (leading you from one chord tone to the next) from the chord scale. (Remember how we built the chord from a scale? We can use notes of that scale as passing notes—technically we'd probably say the "chord scale" is D Dorian for Dm7 and G Mixolydian for G7 but those are still the same notes as C Major)
  • Don't leap into or away from any passing tone or non-chord tone. Try to use stepwise motion instead.
  • Chromatic half-steps from above or below leading into the next chord can work well and are very idiomatic in jazz bass lines. Just don't abuse them too much or it starts to sound cliché.

That's definitely a simplification of it and those rules are not set in stone. But that should get you started.

  • Thanks for helping me understand. So if I'm playing the chord of c major for 4 beats and I play a chord tone on beats one and three, how would I do that? C, E, and G are the chord tones right, so what would I use as the passing notes? Would I use open D if I'm going C to E? – Hayden Armstrong May 20 '18 at 4:17
  • If you are playing C on beat 1 and E on beat 3, then yes, D would be a good option for beat 2 as a passing note. As for beat 4, that depends on what the next chord is. – user37496 May 20 '18 at 4:36
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Chords are just several notes played at the same time. So that G7 in your exercise: the G7 chord has the notes G, B, D and F (if you're asking why, that's because if you changed any of the notes, it wouldn't be a G7 anymore, it would be a different chord; the G7 sound is actually defined by the notes G, B, D and F put together). And if I play them all at the same time, like on a piano, I get that very specific G7 sound. Now, you can think of arpeggios as really just chords played one note at a time. So on your bass, if you play G, then B, then D, then F, (i.e., NOT all at the same time, but instead one by one) what you did is arpeggiate the notes of the G7 chord - but we now call it a G7 arpeggio because you played it one note at a time, "bottom to top" starting from G and ending at the F. There really isn't any trick here, so if it feels like you're missing something, you really aren't (from a practical perspective). Arpeggios are chords just broken up into pieces, and chords are arpeggios played all at once. Make sense?

Now as far as scales go, that gets a little more complicated because names of what are called modes get involved. The scale that is typically taught to accompany a G7 sound is called G mixolydian. If that name sounds scary, that's totally fine; I normally don't teach students modes until they're well acquainted with chords and arpeggios first, and then the major and minor scales (I'm aware most teachers tend to teach them earlier than that). As far as playing bass goes, it's far more important for you to become acquainted with your chords and arpeggios first (and be able to know all of the chord tones of any given chord, or figure them out) because a good jazz musician "knows all of his/her changes," i.e., knows their chords and arpeggios inside and out.

As far as basslines go: They are, out of necessity, mainly constructed out of chord tones because the bass has the task of both describing the harmony as well as keeping time. If you're new to playing jazz bass and you use that G mixolydian scale on that G7, you could make it sound like a whole bunch of other unrelated chords and could cause confusion to the other players on the bandstand. However if you play that G7 arpeggio by itself, absolutely nobody will be confused as to what chord you're playing (even if a plain G7 isn't super interesting to the ear, it's still 100% right). That's in part why arpeggios are so important for building basslines. After you learn your arpeggios (and chords) you can start creating more interesting basslines by adding other stuff to them, like approach notes, passing tones, scale tones, and so on. I hope that clears it up a little.

  • To become a really splendid answer, walking bass needs explaining. Can't get away with just arpeggios as a walking bass. – Tim May 20 '18 at 6:53

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