An Introduction to Playing Scales on the Bass

A bass guitar

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Once you've begun to get familiar with the note names, it's time to start learning some bass scales. Learning bass scales is a great way to get comfortable on your instrument, and to introduce yourself to some basic music theory. It will also help you come up with bass lines and improvise.

What Is a Scale?

A scale, put pure and simple, is a group of notes. As you may already be aware, there are only 12 notes in the octave. If you choose some subset of those 12 notes and play them in order, you've played a scale of some kind. Of course, certain sets of notes sound better and are more commonly used than others.

Most traditional scales have seven notes - the major scale for example. There are also pentatonic scales, which have five notes (hence the "pent" in pentatonic), and other unique scales with different numbers, such as six or eight. One scale even has all 12.

You may hear the word "key" used in much the same way as "scale". A key is another word for a selected group of notes out of the octave. The word scale is used more often to refer to the act of playing all the notes, while the word key just refers to the group as a whole.

Every scale, or key, has a "root". This is the note that the scale starts and ends on, and the one it is named for. For example, the root of a B major scale is B. Usually, you can hear which note this is. It will sound like the "home" or "base" of the scale. With a little practice, and sometimes with none, you can hum the root of a scale you hear, even if it didn't start in the right place. In much the same way, you can also probably pick out the root of the key of a song you're listening to.

The difference between a "right" note and a "wrong" note is basically whether or not it is a member of the key you're in. If you are playing a song in the key of C major, you probably shouldn't play any note that isn't in a C major scale. Learning your scales is how you learn to avoid wrong notes and play things that fit in well with the rest of the music.

There are many ways to play a scale on the bass. The simplest is to play all the notes of the scale from bottom to top, and perhaps back down again. Begin with the notes in a single octave of the scale, and once you are comfortable with that, go up two octaves.

When you learn a new scale, you will often have a fretboard diagram of the scale to look at. The attached picture is a fretboard diagram of an A major scale. It shows the notes you play and the fingers you use to play them. To play the scale using such a diagram, start at the lowest note (usually on the fourth or third string) and play each note on that string consecutively. Then, move up to the next string and do the same, and so on until you have played all the notes.

If you like, you can play the scale down from the top instead. You can use other patterns as well. For example, you could play the first note, then the third, then the second, then the fourth, etc. Mixing up the way you play scales will help you learn them well.

The diagram shown on the previous page is all well and good if you only want to play the scale in one place on the fretboard. But what if you want to move up or down and play notes outside this narrow, one-octave range? There are more notes of the key in other octaves and other hand positions along the fretboard.

From any hand position, your fingers can reach 16 different notes, using four frets and four strings. Only some of these are part of the scale, and they form a certain pattern. As you move your hand up or down, the pattern under your hand will change accordingly. If you move up or down 12 frets, an entire octave, you come back around to the same place in the pattern where you started.

Certain hand positions give you access to more notes in the scale than others do, and are therefore more useful. When you learn a scale, you learn the useful hand positions and memorize the pattern of notes under your fingers for each one. Fortunately, these patterns are the same for many scales, and there are typically only five useful hand positions in an octave. You can memorize five fingering patterns and use them for dozens of scales.

As an example, look at the accompanying fretboard diagram. This shows the first useful hand position of a minor pentatonic scale. The first position is the position in which the lowest note you can play is the root of the scale. The pattern shown will be the same anywhere where the root of the scale is under your first finger on the fourth string. If you are playing in G, that will be the third fret, whereas if you are playing in C, it will be the eighth.

Watch Now: Play a C Major Scale on Your Bass Guitar