Preface to Mode Shapes for Bass

This book came out of my own need for a simple system for understanding the electric bass. In 1992, I was first starting to get seriously interested in the bass. I had prior experience with guitar, piano and alto saxophone, and had been playing bass as well. I was starting to get opportunities to play jazz and other styles on bass with various groups, and I found I had three specific problems.

First was the "chord charts" I was often given to read. I did not yet have skills to address the chord changes in order to play bass lines that were functional, appropriate, creative, and that sounded and felt good. A bass line, even a very simple one, is a kind of countermelody that underpins and connects one chord to the next. I needed a way of thinking on the bass that allowed me to spin these countermelodies easily, and to know what to do with different chord types. In other words, I needed to know what scales go with what chords, and I needed to get fluent enough with those scales to be able to see a chord change and know what to do instantly, without thinking. This led me to pick up a book called The Jazz Language by Dan Haerle to learn about the modes of the major scale, and the chords that go with each mode. The modes of the major scale have four of the five basic seventh-chord types: major, minor, dominant and half-diminished (min7b5). The remaining type is diminished. The Haerle text gave me the information I needed, but I still needed a way to apply it in performance with other musicians.

Second was my lack of technique. I saw a Jaco Pastorius instructional video in which he demonstrated some of his techniques and exercises he had practiced. I noticed that his left hand fingers were in a "one-finger-per-fret" position for almost all of this challenging material. I decided that if I wanted to have anything approaching that kind of dexterity, I was going to have to develop a consistent left hand technique which used all four fingers.

Third was my under-developed ability to "hear." I realized that in order to play good bass lines, it was not enough to just know what to play and be able to physically execute it. In order to look at a chord chart and play a bass line that sounded musical in context with the rest of the group, I needed to be able to always read a few bars ahead in the chart and imagine what I was about to play. I needed to be able to know what the line would sound like before I played it.

I set about solving all three of these problems first by writing out a fingering diagram for a one-octave major scale on three strings. I practiced it up and down with a metronome, using four-fingered technique, until I was very comfortable with it and was sure I knew it cold. This helped stretch out my hand and get accustomed to using all four fingers. Then, I wrote out similar diagrams for the six remaining modes of the major scale, and practiced all of them the same way. These diagrams are what I call mode shapes. Once I had practiced and absorbed all seven mode shapes deep into my mind and muscle memory, I began practicing the modes together, grouped by key. I practiced them all ascending, all descending, and alternating between ascending and descending in what I call "zig-zag" fashion. I shuffled them around a few other ways, too. This was to be sure I was learning the shapes from a wide variety of approaches, and not getting attached to any particular approach.

My technique problem improved simply from all the drilling on the shapes and using the four-fingered technique consistently. My "hearing" problem started getting better as I got more and more accustomed to hearing each scale degree of each mode and how they relate to the root notes. I got better at hearing what bassists were doing on recordings and I took that understanding with me to my own playing. Finally, as I got very comfortable with all the mode shapes in all keys, my chord chart reading improved immensely. I knew the notes on the fingerboard a lot better, and knowing the shapes helped me find which notes fit with which chords a lot more easily.

This book is simply my practice regimen from those days, finally written down. Practicing the material I've set down here, along with a healthy dose of group playing experience with many musicians, prepared me to enter Temple University in 1994 and pursue a degree in jazz performance. My instructor there, Vince Fay, introduced me to Charlie Parker transcriptions, classical cello literature, rigorous reading studies, harmonic and melodic minor modes, and scores of jazz tunes. My time at Temple under Vince's tutelage was the start of a rewarding career playing the bass.

I hope that the approach I have laid out here will help others as I know it has helped me. I think this book can provide valuable building blocks in a bassist's development. However, it is certainly not a "be all and end all" text to be practiced to the exclusion of other things. Mode Shapes for Bass will be a good addition to a curriculum that also includes reading, learning tunes, listening, and a lot of playing experience. Enjoy.

©2000 Andrew Pfaff


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