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Try to think outside the dots of the pentatonic scale— take it a half-step up or down and see what happens. Photo by Meghan Molumby
October 14, 1992. Not necessarily a huge date for music, but for Atlanta Braves fans, it was epic. It’s the date of “The Slide,” where the Braves’ Sid Bream beat out outfielder Barry Bonds’ throw at home to beat the Pirates 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th inning and move on to the World Series. It was a huge moment for each team. Over the next 12 seasons, the Braves won at least a division title each year. The Pirates, however, suffered 20 straight losing seasons after that October night, and have just recently turned the corner by finally charting a winning record this past season.
What if Sid Bream had been half a step slower? What if Barry Bonds had been half a step faster? Would the franchises have gone in the same direction, or would they have swapped destinies? It certainly makes for a great bar stool debate.
Just like in that game (and the sports world in general), half a step can have tremendous implications. It’s such a tiny motion, yet it could mean the difference between winning and losing. For us bassists (and musicians in general), it matters a lot as well. At its core, a half-step is such a wonderful little bugger. It can mean the difference in suspension and resolution, dissonance or harmony, and makes the Western 12-tone scales possible. But let’s forget theory for a moment, and talk about how a half-step can move mountains.
Go grab your bass. At 100 bpm, play a simple whole-note on C, then a whole-note on F. This example is extremely basic, and not very exciting (though some would argue that this is as much as you need to play in the studio). Now, play a C again, but this time, play an E on the 4th beat, then the F. That little half-step doesn’t seem like much, but didn’t that very simple pattern just get interesting? Try it again, but this time go the other way with it by playing an F# instead of an E. Now you’re getting funky, and you aren’t really trying.
I realize many of you are past the basic exercise above. However, we started there to get to the next level. When you look down the neck of your bass, you’ll probably see those fancy dots or markers adorning the fretboard (upright players, please bear with me). How many times do we find ourselves “playing in the box,” relying on the pentatonic scale to carry us through? We often follow the dots playing it safe, and this can sound, well, ordinary. There’s a whole new world living between the dots that some bassists fail to see. Of course this is all dependent on the key signature, song, and musical situation, but musical exploration leads to better licks, better bass lines, and (literally) thinking outside of the box.
When you go to rehearsal or a jam session, how often do you find you and your bandmates jamming in A? It seems like the go-to key, right? How about trying something novel, basic, and simply wonderful next time: Move up (or down) a half-step! Now your mind has to work a little bit, the horn section loves you, and for some reason that some of you psychologists might understand, a Bb (or an Ab) simply sounds warmer. This simple half-step move up or down is a great exercise in learning your fretboard and testing your music theory.
I’ve also picked up on a creative learning and practice method involving a half-step. Try tuning one or two of your bass strings a half-step up or down. When you play, you are going to find your fingers in different positions than normal, but your ears will open up with your brain fueling your fingers rather than muscle memory. Work up a bass line in this tuning. Now, tune back to 440 and try to recreate that line. Barring any open-string chords, you will find your hands and fingers are now out of your comfort zone. For me, this sparks new and interesting ideas.
This brings me to my next example of a half-step shaking things up. How many times have you sat down to learn a record and found that it is a half-step off? I know consideration is made for horns and violins on recordings, but lots of bands intentionally record slightly faster, and then slow the recording down for warmth. Bands will also tune down for “manual” warmth and ease of vocalization. A slacker string makes guitarists feel better about their bends, too. If you’re going into the studio soon, try tuning down a half-step and see how the song grabs you. You may find that mojo you were looking for. This simple and tiny change can prove to be the difference in your playing and creativity. So go out and find your own half-step to greatness, and I promise no more baseball references until April.