When bass players learn beginn learning music, they often turn to scales first. Many bass players that I’ve seen put a disproportionate amount of energy on learning the scales and playing the scales and simultaneously using these scale routines to limit their playing. They begin to only think in terms of linear associations of notes.
For bass players, this is not a particularly beneficial route to travel considering most music out there for the most part is not linear like a scale to begin with. Music is built from an marriage of melody and harmony and harmony 99% of the time will come from chords.
Chord tones and chords themselves should be the focus of learning well above the scales. Not to say that scales don’t have a place (they totally do!), but in order to learn how to pivot musically, a study of chords will give you that mobility.
What are Chord Tones?
Chord tones are the notes (or tones) that make up a chord. When you play them together, you get the sound of the chord. But when you play them individually, you’re playing the tones that belong to that respective chord.
Take this example:
You have a C major chord, whose notes are C, E and G. When you play them together, you’re playing the C major chord, but when you play them one after another, you’re playing the fundamental tones of that chord – the tones that, essentially, make up the chord.
The challenge in understanding chord tones becomes being able to recognize them on the fly and make the adjustments accordingly to your playing.
In these styles, the job of the bass is to outline the chords and to compliment the harmony of the group. The easiest way to do this is to know what the chords going on around you are. If the chord being played was a minor chord with a diminished fifth, it wouldn’t make much sense to play chord tones that outline a major triad. At their core, chord tones are the chord and it makes sense to outline them accordingly or in some way that brings out the qualities of them.
Referencing what scale is being played is one component to understanding what notes are “better” than others in a situation involving harmony, but by no means should the answer stop there. Creating walking bass lines should mean that you are presented with the chords first over the scale in most cases.
Why Default to Teaching Scales Over Chords?
Every bass player has their own ideas as to why this is, but I was particularly fond of Andrew Pouska‘s explination at StudyBass.com. According to Pouska,
“Firstly, as I pointed out there is enough right about it that people eventually work it out and never think to look at it differently. People then continue to teach it to others the way they learned it.
Next, this approach of teaching scales works fine for most other instruments like guitar and piano. As a result, it trickles down to bass teaching. But, bass is a unique instrument playing a very critical role of supporting the chords. Other instruments won’t sound as weak if they don’t support the chords as well.”
Frankly, I think that answer neatly sums up the issue between scale and chord education for bassists.
So the moral of the post is this: chord tones are essential for learning how to properly outline chords and their musical qualities. And this is particularly relevant for bass players in the field of jazz, blues or even boogie woogie.