Want to know how to practice scales on the bass guitar and what’s the best way?
In this bass lesson, I’ll show you some tried and true exercises that’ll:
- make your scales sound sound musical
- develop your technique
- ingrain the notes of the fretboard
- develop your ear for voice leading (helpful when you improvise)
- get you playing scales in a way that’ll become a part of your musical vocabulary
If you’re ready to go all in with practicing your scales on the bass, this is the lesson for you. And the best part is, you won’t be needing much music theory for this bass lesson.
Let’s get started.
If you’re short on time, watch my video on how to practice your scales on the bass guitar. If you do it right, you’ll learn the notes of your fretboard and you’ll also learn how to hear how to resolve these notes in the context of a chord progression or single chord.
Part 1: Practice Scale Exercises Over A Single Chord
The following exercises are for practicing scales over a single chord. Practice them slowly and explore your rhythmic phrasing. In other words, you don’t have to be confined to playing only 8th-note lines.
Pro Tip: Having a backing track, recording, or metronome to play over and create some context is super-helpful. This will help you hear the tendencies for certain notes of the scale in relation to the tonic center. For example, in a C major scale, the note B will have a strong tendency to resolve up a half-step to the root note C.
To keep my workflow simple, I like to use an app, called iReal Pro for creating backing tracks to practice playing my scales over.
Another thing to keep in mind, is that for all of these exercises, use the full range of your instrument.
However, for the sake of keeping these exercises concise, we’ll limit our range within 2 octaves in the key of C. When you’re learning your scales at home, start on the lowest fret of your low E string, then continue playing the exercise to the highest notes on the fretboard.
Warm-up by quickly refreshing yourself with the notes of that scale. Simple run up and down the scale along your entire fretboard (exercise 1).
Buckle up, because these exercises ramp up in intensity pretty quickly. And, you’re going to learn your scales fast.
Now, for exercises 2-9, what you’re going to do is sequence each exercise for each degree of the scale.
By doing this, you’re going to cover a lot of ground by working on each diatonic scale degree and really start to develop muscle memory for your intervals. Practicing your scales this way also helps ingrain the sound of each scale degree. Take every opportunity to always be working on your ears… even when your practicing your scales.
Exercise 1: Scalar Runs
Try not to spend too much time on exercise 1, because this is not the most musical approach to playing scales. The purpose of this exercise is so that you can familiarize where the notes are on the fretboard and get the collection of the notes of a scale in your ear. Spend more time on exercises 2-9.
Exercise 2: Broken Interval (2nds)
When playing broken intervals, keep in mind that there are a few directions to choose from. You can play ascending broken intervals, descending broken intervals, or a mixture of both. To keep these exercises concise, I’ll show you a mixture of both. Mixing up the direction is how you get your scales to sound more musical.
Exercise 3: Broken Interval (3rds)
I practice thirds a lot when I’m trying to learn scales. Thirds have a melodic sound to them. Arpeggios are often made up of a series of third intervals. It’s a quick way to get the sound of the scale in your ears and you’ll know when you’re playing a wrong note!
Exercise 4: Broken Interval (4ths)
I like the sound of fourth intervals. A lot of modern jazz licks use fourths. Since this interval typically requires string crossing, you’ll develop your dexterity across the fretboard in no time. Explore using one finger per note and also try another approach where you simply barre both notes. Both ways work well. For me, I prefer one finger per note for fourth intervals.
Exercise 5: Broken Interval (5ths)
Fifth intervals have a powerful sound that I particularly like using in basslines and fills. Power chords are made up of the fifth interval.
Exercise 6: Broken Interval (6ths)
The interval of a sixth is a wide interval and also has a very melodic sound to it.
Exercise 7: Broken Interval (7ths)
Seventh intervals are a wide interval that can add drama to a melodic phrase. Practice these technical exercises as well. This interval will also force you to explore your entire fingerboard.
Exercise 8: Consecutive Note Groupings (3-Notes)
Once you get comfortable breaking up your scale into intervals, try playing scale fragments (consecutive groupings of notes). Learn to play scale patterns of three notes and try to play every note legato. This will help develop your technique for playing scale runs and also lines that can be used to connect phrases.
Exercise 9: Consecutive Note Groupings (4-Notes)
Scale patterns of four notes are also common to hear in a solo. Many guitarists will play phrases of 4-note groupings with the minor pentatonic scale.
Now that you got the sound of the scale in your ears, it’s time to start hearing and feeling each of the scale note’s resolution tendencies. This part is super important for developing your ears and muscle memory for resolving any scale shape that you play.
Part 2: Scale Practice Over a Chord Progression or a Tune
For the later half of your practice routine, choose a simple chord progression or a tune that you’re working on.
Map out, or write out each scale that you want to use for each chord in the progression.
What you’re going to do now is repeat Exercises 1-9, but each time you encounter a new chord where the scale changes, you’ll:
- connect the scale by resolving to the nearest scale tone
- then change direction and proceed playing the new scale in that new direction
If you want to memorize your scales, this exercise will force you to memorize your major and minor scales fast! So, practice scales this way often.
In the following examples, I’ll play each exercise over a minor ii V i chord progression and use a different scale for each chord.
- For the ii chord, I’m using a Locrian Natural 2 scale.
- For the V chord, I’m using an Altered Dominant scale.
- For the i chord, I’m using a Melodic Minor scale.
Challenge yourself to play a different scales for each chord so that you’re not practicing in one position the entire time.
Examples Connecting Scales Over A C minor ii V i
Practice these examples slowly. Also, pay attention to notes that are played on beat ‘and of 4’ leading to the notes played on beat ‘1’ of each measure.
You’ll notice that they’re often a half-step or whole-step apart. This is an effective way to create voice leading and a sense of resolution.
Internalize how each resolution sounds and feels, especially on quarter notes 1 and 3.
When you practice your scales this way, you’ll not only develop your ear, but also the muscle memory to play fluid sounding lines that resolve naturally on the chord tones.
Take a look and study the following examples as to how you can apply these scalar concepts in a musical way.
Example 1: Scalar Runs + Broken Interval (3rds) + Broken Interval (7ths)
Example 2: Broken Interval (2nds) + Consecutive Note Groupings (4-Notes) + Scalar Runs
Always do this when you practice scales
When you dive into each of these scale exercises, there’s a couple of habits that you must develop.
The first habit is to always practice scales in the context of a:
- chord progression or a tune
Being able to play a scale is not enough to know how to use it musically. That’s why developing this habit is so important.
When you practice within a context your ear starts to hear how each note in the scale either wants to resolve or not resolve. You’ll also develop the muscle memory to play fluid sounding lines along your fretboard.
If you feel a note in the scale wants to resolve, the second habit is to resolve it by moving the note either a half-step or whole-step above or below. This is how you teach your ears to hear voice leading.
Now It’s Your Turn
Now that you have the basic gist of how these exercises are structured and how to play them on your instrument, try it with all of the scales that you’re working on.
Remember to practice slowly, use the entire range of your instrument, and always play in context.
These are tried and true ways to practice scales. Keep at it and you’ll speed up your knowledge of the fretboard, and develop your ear and muscle memory for connecting your lines.
Click here for more bass guitar lessons like this.