Better basslines How do you use modes on bass?

Posted by

We have all heard about them and most of us have probably spend a good time memorizing them, but for a lot of us the modes remain a concept that is really hard to apply to real music making. In this article I will hopefully shed some light onto the subject.

What are modes?

To put it simple, a mode is just a scale. But where it gets interesting is that modes are connected to each other and are related to the key in which you are playing. There are seven modes in every major key that are all a bit different. Every mode can be played over a specific chord in the key. From a practical point of view, you could also see a mode as a shape on your neck that you can use to create a bass line. Below you see all the modes and their shapes. Note that the orange circles indicate the root notes (note you start the shape on).

All the different modes and their shapes

Why should you learn modes?

Modes and their shapes give you a great overview of where on the neck you can find the notes that will sound good in your bass lines. If you know all seven of the modes and their shapes, and you know which mode fits on which chord, you can apply these shapes and create bass lines that sound great instantly.

Also check out: Why learn music theory, and where do I begin? When you are new to music theory

Working from a problem

I think the best way to learn about modes and how to apply them, is by working from a situation in where you would benefit from using them. So that’s exactly what we will do.

Imagine the guitar player in your band shows up for rehearsal one day and tells you about this great new chord progression he created. He’s wondering if you could play a nice bass line on it. The chord progression is as followed:

The new masterpiece in the making

Where do you start?

Of course the first thing you do is search for your root notes and make sure that you play them on the first downbeat of every bar. You should also figure out which of the chords are major and which are minor, because this tell you which of your arpeggios you should use. As you can see from the chord symbols, the C, G and F chords are major, and the A and D chords are minor (this is indicated here as the letters “mi” behind the chord). If this isn’t clear to you yet, be sure to check out my lesson about chords by clicking here.

So u know now

  1. What note to play on the downbeat of every bar.
  2. Which chords contain a major third (C, F and G)
  3. Which chords contain a minor third (Dmi and Ami)

What mode works where?

Now it’s time to talk modes. To determine what mode works where, you first need to know what key you are in since all the modes relate to the key of the song. In the example we are using (your guitar player’s new masterpiece) the key is C. This means that all the notes from the C-major scale can be used in creating your bass lines. The key of C contains the notes:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

Next step is to find out what the relationship of the chords in the song are to the key. Just like we discussed before in our article about transposing, you can use the Nashville Number System to give every note inside the scale a Roman Numeral. This numeral indicates the chord’s relationship to the key of the song. It also tells you which mode works on which chord. For the key of C you will have:

Roman NumeralChordsMode
ICIonian
IIDmiDorian
IIIEmiPhrygian
IVFLydian
VGMixolydian
VIAmiAeolian
VIIBmi(b5)Locrian

So this means:

So what you can do now is use the notes of the C Ionian scale for the first bar, the G Mixolydian scale for the second bar, the A Aeloian scale for you third bar, etc. This doesn’t mean you should run the whole scale. Just play something that connects the chord. Like for example:

In the first bar I’m moving from the root note via the third and fourth note from the C Ionian mode, to the G in the second bar. I’m using the fifth root and third note of the G mixolydian mode in the second bar, and I’m playing a descending line in the third bar using the seventh and fifth of the Aeolian mode.

If you would like to see more examples of how you can apply modes, check out my free series called Groove Backpack via https://bassessentials.com/category/free-bass-lessons-online/how-to-write-basslines-groove-backpack/.

In this series I apply the modes to actual bass lines and explain how I do it. You can find a video and a transcription for every groove.

Remember it’s just the same notes

Even though all of this might seem like a whole lot of new information to process, you should keep in mind that you are still playing the same 7 notes that are in the key of C, you are just playing them using a different shape in a different order:

The C Ionian mode has the notes C – D – E – F – G – A – B whilst the G Mixolydian mode has the notes G – A – B – C – D – E – F. Same notes, different order.

So to summarize

  1. Determine what key the song is in.
  2. Determine what the relationship of the chords are to this key, and use the modes that go with them.

A little piece of mind

The most important thing when playing bass lines is understanding that your root notes are always the most important and strongest-sounding notes to play. Then you have your chord tones which are in this case thirds and fifths. The rest of the notes in the modes are coloring tones that you add to create tension/movement/flavor/etc.

In a lot of situations just using your roots, thirds, fifths and octaves will definitely work and they are exactly what the song needs. I believe you should never use notes from the modes just for the sake of using them. Of course there are also times you might feel your lines need some more color. This is were your modes can work their magic.

Practical approach

The way we study music nowadays is a bit backwards in the sense that we spend a lot of time studying theory before we (if ever) apply it. Only then do we move on to actual playing.

I believe (and many with me) that music is a language and you shouldn’t learn it from a textbook, but by trying, failing, learning and trying again. Of course having an understanding of the grammar is always a plus and will definitely come in handy.

By approaching modes as tools you can use to solve a problem, instead of approaching them as a concept that you study but never find practical use for, modes will be part of your playing in no time.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy: Create your own basslines: Adding to the root notes

I hope you found this article helpful! Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are and if you have any questions or suggestions.

12 comments

  1. Great information to summarize my thoughts and experiences perfectly after playing bass these 56 years! Bravo!

  2. Excellent explanation of the modes. The clearest I have seen. Not so easy to implement but than you to demestify this modes. Love your posts. Keep up the great work!

  3. Thank You. I have read several articles, on this. But with your explanation, the light came on. The chart was an excellent visual that put it al together for me.

  4. Great post, something that I’m embarrassed to admit how long I’ve been playing without every being able to wrap my brain around… Admittedly though I’ve had far more than the”average’number of head injuries/brain trauma but even without the extra common knowledge I’ve been blessed to play with some exceptional bands and just to pass on a little trick that helped me feel as confident as I do when playing with others is to simply close your eyes, leave every ounce of ego you’ve ever developed with the guitarists and singer, and play only what the song is asking for. This little ” trick” is what helped me be respected as a rock solid bassist who’s biggest secret is that I couldn’t play a solo to save my life!
    Respect to you for spelling out modes in such a readable way! Next time try using brown shades instead of the mirrors and grow out the beard or shave it, you’ll look more like a bassist instead of a guitarist lol.. I’m just messing with ya but that’s my bassist dry humor that most people can’t tell if it’s a joke or not.

    1. Hi Brian, I’m glad you found the article helpful. Also, being dependable and laying a great foundation should be the starting point for every bass player. I will consider your manscaping advice when I have the next appointment with my stylist ;). Hope to see you around!

  5. Thanks for this! Easiest explanation so far . However, I’m still confused about one thing. If it’s just the same seven notes how will it sound any different to not thinking about modes at all and just playing the notes from the C major scale and changing the root for each chord change? I’m missing something simple I’m sure. Thanks for the article, I’ll definitely be checking out more

    1. Hey Rich, thanks for the kind words! The difference is mostly that to create a good bassline you have to outline the chords/harmony. And that often means playing the root note of the chord on the first count of the bar. That’s why you approach a D minor chord in the key of C as a D Dorian chord. It also means that playing the 3rd and the 5th of the chord will sound great.

      When finding a part for a song you should always aim to find something that sounds nice. Don’t let the theory be your source of inspiration, but simply a tool you can use to make sense of it all or give you some grip on the possibilities you have. Hope that makes sense. See you around!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *