What I’ve Used For 20 Years To Write Bass Lines For A Living

This is a follow up lesson to The Best Bass Exercise I’ve Used For 30 Years!

I strongly recommend you watch that lesson. Not only will you get a fantastic technique workout, you'll learn about music theory, fretboard knowledge, and more.

The Best Bass Exercise!

Here's a reminder of the exercise from the previous lesson. In short, you play an ascending seventh arpeggio before descending the notes of the scale (or mode).

A Quick Harmony/Music Theory Lesson

Take a C Major scale. It has the notes C D E F G A B. Starting on each note, you can construct an arpeggio (or triad or chord) by playing the first, third, fifth, and seventh notes.

Here is what you get when you do that:

CMaj7    Dm7   Em7   FMaj7   G7   Am7   Bm7b5

Musicians number those chords using roman numerals. Upper case are major and lower case are minor chords.

    I            ii      iii         IV       V       vi       vi

CMaj7   Dm7  Em7  FMaj7   G7   Am7   Bm7b5

The magic happens when you learn the modes that fit to these arpeggios:

  • i - Ionian (major scale)
  • ii - Dorian 
  • iii - Phrygian
  • IV - Lydian
  • V - Mixolydian
  • vi - Aeolian (natural minor scale)
  • vii - Locrian

PRO TIP: To memorise the mode names use this mnemonic: I Don't Particularly Like Modes A Lot

ii iii vi - Jamming with minor chords

In the video lesson, I took the ii iii and vi chords (this is how musicians describe the chord progression) which are Dm7, Em7, and Am7. They're all minor so contain the same chord tones. The scale notes (the underlying modes) are slightly different (see below for some diagrams).

ii V I - Walking bass line

A ii V I is a common chord progression used in jazz and in C Major, it's Dm7 to G7 to CMaj7.

Use the chord and scale tones along with some swing rhythm to come up with a walking jazz bass line.

Are scale tones or chord tones more important?

I think some bass player overestimate the importance of chord tones. They are very important, don't get me wrong! It's just that they represent a set of note choices. That collection of notes grows when you consider the modes but they are just choices.

What you do with them is what creates music.


  1. Phrasing
  2. Rhythms
  3. Different styles

Ultimately, you learn this by listening to your favourite bass lines, figuring them out by ear and then analysing it and using ideas you like in your own playing.

Practice Tip

This may seem a little beyond you now but you just need to play a little bit everyday and, all of a sudden, the lightbulb moment will occur.

Do five to ten minutes a day. Play through the exercise above and just learn it even if you don't know how to use it creatively yet.

iii IV - Em7/Phrygian to FMaj7/Lydian

Take the arpeggio and modes on the iii and IV chords and come up with bass line. Start with extremely simple root notes (the bass player's bread and. butter!) then move onto root, fifth, seventh, octave. Then add in some notes from the modes.

V IV I - A bit like Sweet Home Alabama

Here's where we get to the serious business of learning patterns, and music theory to create bass lines. The V IV and I chords in the key of C are G, F, and C. That progression sounds a bit like Sweet Home Alabama.

Here are the shapes that fit over this chord progression.

Play just root notes, then triads (R-p5-3), then seventh arpeggios, then the scale/mode. Mix them up, play simple rhythms and create. Have fun with it!

V chord - G7:G Mixolydian for Bass Guitar
IV chord - FMaj7:FLydian for Bass Guitar
I chord - CMaj7:C Ionian for Bass Guitar

Learn patterns!

The above shapes are patterns. Memorise them.

Patterns are just music theory things like intervals, scales, triads, and arpeggios. It does help to know which one is which so make sure you understand some basic music theory.

Getting funky with modes

Take a Dorian mode and minor seventh arpeggio and create some funky lines using sixteenth notes, and articulations.

Dorian mode and minor seventh arpeggio for bass guitar

If you like the funk, check out my Funk Bass course and/or funk book.

Make your own killer bass technique exercises

Here's a technical exercise I made up in about thirty seconds using some if the ideas taught in this lesson. I wanted to work on hammer-ons, slides, and rhythm. Have a go!

I wrote a whole book of Creative Bass Technique Exercises if you want more like this.

There is A LOT in this lesson so I suggest you bookmark this page and work on these ideas for the next however long it takes to understand it.

You will use it for years to come!

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