Chord Tone Patterns For Bassists

A primer for the notes you can experiment with on the lead sheet.

You can call this a brief first time explanation or a simple refresher – either way, I’ll make it as brief and simple of an explanation as possible. Remember, what I’m showing you does not take the place of a real education, it’s just to get you playing along with jazz today!

The Nashville Number System: Each “tone” or “note” in the scale has a number – 1 through 8. You’ve been exposed to this system your entire life, you just might not have known it. In elementary school, we all sang, “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So La Ti, Do.” That’s the Nashville Number System in a nutshell.

It is very typical that teachers first explain scales using the Major C scale, because that scale has no sharps or flats. If we put the #1 marker in the pattern on the fret where the C-note is and play the notes in the pattern, you will climb the scale as follows: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The lower “Do” (#1) on the scale is the root note – in this case a lower C, the higher “Do” (#8) is the Octave of the lower C. Low-C up the scale to High-C. Try it.

Now, a quick overview on how a note is sharped, or flatted on the scale.

So if a chord reads “Cmajb5″ – we play the notes in the Major Scale starting on the fret for “C”, but where you see the 5, make it flat (b) like the chord description says too.

Playing jazz from charts and lead sheets will require you to play the specific 1-8 notes in a scale to make sounds that are in the same key as the other musicians. A sharp or flat note can make a dissonant sound – like wub,wub,wub,wub – and it’s noticeable. These chord descriptions are meant to show you what to play so you don’t get the wub-wub sound.

The good news is, for 90% of the time, maybe all the time, you can use 4 patterns to survive playing to a chart. What’s better, you don’t have to play all the notes in a scale. Remember the Nashville Number System we referenced above? Well, you’re going to focus on the 1-3-5 and 7 of that system – hence, making the tones found in 7th chords. Whoa, now it all makes sense. Major 7th, Minor 7th, Dominant 7th and then we’ll review the Minor 7th flat 5.

Now, you don’t need to have the letters under your fingertips to do this, we’re using patterns. However, with time, you’re going to want to take a course or learn about the specifics to be fully versed. If, however, you want to start playing some jazz standards and getting into the jazz tracks on this website, check out the 4 chord-tone patterns below and when you’re going to use them.

Those 4 patterns are going to get you through virtually any chart. If you see something that says min7th#13 – well, play the minor 7th and don’t worry about the sharp 13th. If you see a C6, play the root/fifth combination. If you hit a note that falls a half-step out with the piano, just keep walking that bass, it’s jazz. Memorize these four patterns and use them as you start with the lead sheets and backing tracks. Start with roots (1), roots and fifths (1 and 5) and roots, fifths and octaves (1, 5 and 8). Slowly integrate the other notes in the pattern into your playing. Bam! You’re playing jazz, have fun!