Even though solos on bass aren’t as common as other instruments (guitar, piano, saxophone etc.), it’s not something to be afraid of. Often the fear comes from not knowing what to do and what scales/arpeggios/sounds to use. Let’s start with a couple of common scales to get you moving. Figure A is the classic minor pentatonic scale (‘pent’ meaning five, so it only uses five different notes, although it can obviously be repeated and played in consecutive octaves), this example being one octave of G minor pentatonic.
Run the scale ascending and descending getting your ear used to the sound. You’ve probably heard it before in some form, be it improvised solos or well-known riffs and licks that have used it (or elements of it) in their construction. Try hammer-ons and pull-offs too for a different feel and sound and of course you can use fingers or a pick, or even slapping. The minor pentatonic scale is spelt 1, b3, 4, 5, b7 (8) and it’s important to be able to both play and work out the scale anywhere on the neck.
Figure B extends G minor pentatonic by starting on a low F (a tone below the root note) and then ascending up two octaves. Try some different fingerings to get used to the position shifts and remember – this is just a suggested (and common) pattern, if you know the notes (G, Bb, C, D, F in this case) you can play the scale anywhere on the neck.
What type of chords does this work over? When can I use this scale? How do I know what key a song is in? These are some of the common questions that typically arise next after putting some time into learning the scale.
Analysing chord progressions and learning what scales are used where and when takes time and is a huge topic in itself. As a brief starting point G minor pentatonic can be played over G minor chords (hence the minor part of the name) and will also work over chord progressions that use chords from the key of G minor. There are then a heap of exceptions to these rules too. Figure C, D and E highlight some possible chord progressions to try when improvising with G minor pentatonic.
The G minor pentatonic scale is also sometimes used over a 12 bar blues in G (and indeed a G Major or Dominant 7 chord) which can cause some confusion. Again, there are many schools of thought on these ideas and many other scale options too. Try it for yourself and use your ear – some notes may not sound like they fit as well as others which will move us to seek out other ideas which we’ll get into next issue.