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The Basics

Scales, scales, scales ...

First we'll have to look at scales. One scale you all should know from school is the socalled C major scale, you remember?

C major scale

Some very simple things come in mind when looking at this scale, though they are in fact very simple they are important building blocks:

Too simple you think? No, this scale is a good tool for showing the concepts of all the rest. Lets play this scale on our bass, and now we will introduce the second way of showing notes. In the example above we used a reduced notation form (staff) which is very useful. The next notation of the C major scales will use the most common notation form for guitar and bass players: tablature or simply tab. If you dont know anything about tab, here is short introduction and use your browser's BACK button to return.

So here a C major scale in tab:

G |-------------0--2--4--5-----
D |----0--2--3-----------------
A |-3--------------------------
E |----------------------------
    C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

Tab notation shows the strings of the instrument and the frets where a certain note is played. So tab is very easy for stringed instruments with frets. For a viola tab is not the best idea.

If you play this scale on your instrument you can see that the distance between two notes is not always the same! In most cases you have to skip two frets, in some cases only one fret. Playing the C major scale on a single strings shows this even better:

G |---------------------------
D |---------------------------
A |-3--5--7--8--10-12-14-15---
E |---------------------------
    C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

The distance between two notes is called a fixed interval, and these are the two most basic intervals: one fret = half step and an interval of two frets = whole step. The frets of bass and guitar denote all half steps.

(There are other names like semitones etc. They all mean the same. I will use half step and whole step here).

The distance of one note to the next higher equally named note is called an octave.

Building rule for the major scale

If we take the C major scale and analyse the note distances, e.g. using our bass fretboard, we will find that the distances between the single notes are as follows (H = half step = 1 fret up, W = whole step = 2 frets up):


In fact, this is the construction rule for all major scales! If you take any note you can build the corresponding major scale by finding the notes using the construction rule WWHWWWH. Try to construct the B major scale with the notes we have up to now.

More notes

You found that designing the B major scale doesn't work with our ABCDEFG set of notes? Correct, there are more notes but not more letters. Take your bass and have a look at the A string. The next higher A is found at the 12th fret, not at the 8th fret. There must be additional notes, e.g. between C and D, as this is a whole step.

The C major scale is a subset of the mother of all scales, the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale has 12 steps but is also leads from a note one octave up. As we want to use only seven letters to denote the members of the scale we have to introduce an extension. Let's do it this way:
            A note which is one half step higher than the corresponding base note gets a '#'. If we are talking about this new note we call this thingie 'sharp'.
A note which is one half step lower than the base note gets a 'b', this is spoken 'flat'.

So the note between C and D is C# ('C sharp') or Db ('D flat'). BUT there is no note between E and F and between B and C.

So here is the chromatic C scale, showing all notes available on your fretboard:
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
or:   C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C

So the question comes up what notes do we use, F# or Gb? It depends on the majority in your scale. If you need flat or sharp notes dont mix, and if you have more flat notes use only flat notes.

Building the other major scales

Now we have the complete material for all scales. We could now apply our WWHWWWH rule to D, E, F etc. But there is a better way to go which shows us the relation between scales in an easy way.

If you take the C major scale divide it into two equal parts, called tetrachords:

C D E F ! G A B C
W W H ! W W H

As you can see the sequence starting with G in the second tetrachord is the beginning of a new major scale. Isn't that great? Lets fill the gap to the next G with notes from the C major scale and see what intervals we get:


Geeez, WWHWWHW is not the building rule for a major scale ... what can we do? Very simple: We have to raise F to F#, and then everything gets ok:

G A B C D E F# G

Now we have the G major scale: G - A - B - C - D - E - F# - G. And this scale has one sharp note. Now we could do this a second time, dividing the G major scale into two tetrachords again, the second one as the start of a new scale (D major scale), applying our WWHWWWH rule again, and so on and so on.

In the end we would get all major scales, for all notes, with one important thing: you will get double-sharp notes which means: a note plus two half steps giving the next pure note. And at a certain point is will be easier using flatted notes instead of sharp notes. And this would also lead into the Circle Of Fifth.


The next thing you could try is using different scale building rules. This would create other scales.

But we are talking about chords here, not about scales. We do know enough about scales for our approach to chords on bass.

Lets summarize this up to here:

So lets have a short view on Modes ...


1.) This is a lot of boring work but very helpful: Construct the major scales as we have done it for the G major scale.Find the point where it is useful to use flats not sharps.
2.) Play the C major scale starting on the E, A and D string (sixstring players welcome). Play it using open strings and never using open strings.
3.) Another important capability is locating notes on the fretboard. Again a dice game: make a table on paper, 1=C, 12=B, take two dice and ... alea jacta est. Locate the note on the fretboard. Use always the lowest note available, another time the highest note, aloow open strings or note, or write a program for your PC to do it :-)
4.) Another boring and interesting job: Starting from D in the C major scale build the corresponding scale only using notes from the C major scale.