Pesky Mordents for Finger Strength (Talking Tech)

mordent mordents

I love borrowing from classical music for the electric bass – especially in the technique department! Classical music looks at hundreds of years of teaching and working out getting the fingers strong and coordinated; this presents lots of data to draw from: how to best do and how to best teach technical proficiency! In this Talking Technique Episode – originally published on  – I present you a quite comprehensive technique workout that involves a so called “mordent”. Have a go at it and let me know what you think.

A mordent (singular for mordents) –

most likely something you have never heard of if you are an electric bassist – is an embellishment. It looks like this in the score:


A mordent signifies a quick alternation of the principal note (in this case the C2) with the note above or below.

It requires coordination, finger strength and precision so as to not sound sloppy and classical musicians pratice a detail like that meticulously, and for good reason, because it is good shedding for your expression and good shedding for your technique. I remember practicing those tiny little figures on the piano quite a bit as a kid. And they can be really handy for the bass, so follow me down the path of mordent practice!

It sheds one-finger-per-fret in the process as well, and is quite the muscle workout. This episode is, as so often, multi layered, as we are also practicing scales up a string in the process! It is important to go slow and stay relaxed. Enjoy!

Read and watch on notreble

My bass is a Consat by Marleaux

Sound by wolftrackaudio

Fretwrap by gruvgear

Strings: SR 2000 by Dean Markley

Find more gear information on my resources page.

Please Don’t Call it the “Cycle of Fourths”

fourths don't call it cycle of fourths Ariane Cap

My last post on fifths  (when not to play the perfect fifths) and the one before on the forgotten fifth are hopefully still fresh in your memory because there is one additional really important thing to know about the fifths. And I consider it super important, because it sits at the root of Western harmony since the classical times. And it is super relevant because with all the liberties we get to take and modal music we get to do these days (in pop, funk, jazz, scores), that V-I connection is still a big deal.

Why is V-I so important?

Because when a V chord (especially a dominant seventh chord!) resolves to the I chord, it is all about tension and release!

Within the V7 chord is a tritone – a very tense interval. It is formed between the third and seventh scale degrees. When it resolves – typically to the root and third of the I chord (could be major or minor, that I chord), we go from tension (tritone!) to release (root and third sounds very stable).

Ever since (and even before)  classical times, stories were told through harmonic tension and release. That’s why in classical theory books you see all this hubbub about the dominant and the subdominant (the main functions) and the sub-functions thereof.  Every single chord I can create within a key by stacking thirds has a certain “function”. And the V chord is tension city. And the I chord is “home”.

Listen to it on the bass and watch for the fret board shapes: tension – release:

What does the bass do?

Let’s say we are in the key of C, where G7 is my V chord and C my I.

So while the tritone in G7 (B and F) resolves to the third in C (C and E), the bass (playing the root) goes from the V (G) to the I (C).

If you go from the V down to the I, that is considered a “falling fifth”.

You could of course also go from the G below to the C above. This is not such a strong resolution, but entirely fine.  One reason why the following fifth feels like a stronger resolution is because of gravity. It is deeply ingrained in us that something that is higher up has more kinetic  energy and more energy is being released when it falls to the ground. Lifting something up from the ground takes energy letting something fall to the ground releases it

Cycle of Fifths

Practicing and understanding the cycle is a great idea. It teaches you a lot about key signatures, correct note naming, sharps and flats and fret board harmony and how to play in all keys and it is super educational for the lay out of notes on the bass! For example: have you ever noticed that E – A – D – G is a slice out of the cycle?

I distinguish between practicing the diatonic cycle and the regular cycle, but that is for another post! Important here is that in a diatonic cycle you skip the notes that are not part of the key. But you are still stepping through steps like the cycle outlines!

Most important, the cycle (especially the diatonic one!) shows up in music everywhere. Lots of songs have V-I in them, but many also have II – V – I in them. Even IV – V – I (as in a blues!) is in the cycle: blues in G: has G C and D in it. Can you find the three in the cycle?

There are some songs that take the entire diatonic cycle to the right (ascending fifths):

  • parts of Hotel California

for example.

But many more songs go “to the left”:

  • Still got the Blues
  • Autumn Leaves
  • Europa Santana
  • I will Survive

are examples of songs going through the entire diatonic cycle in minor;

  • Fly me to the Moon

is an example for the cycle in major. So, when we practice the sequence of the cycle (especially the diatonic cycle! And especially counter clockwise!), we practice something very practical.

The Cycle of Fifths versus the Cycle of Fourths?

Fourths and Fifths are inversions of each other. So if I ascend a fifth by going clockwise in the cycle, I might be tempted to say, okay now, if I practice the cycle counterclockwise, I go in ascending fourths, so I am actually practicing the “Cycle of Fourths”.

By calling it that, however, you really miss the entire point of this crucial bass movement. It would be much more fitting to call it the Cycle of descending Fifths.

Because, check it out:

  •  C7 is the V of F
  • F7 is the V of Bb
  • Bb7 is the V of Eb…

See it in the cycle?  I added purple V -> Is into it, so you can see it clearly.

fourths don't call it cycle of fourths Ariane Cap

And that is exactly the reason that when you practice this sequence it feels like you are running down a hill and cannot stop!

Because each note pushes into the next… another V – I ad infinitum, you can go round and round and round 🙂

Please don’t call it the cycle of fourths. It is the cycle of descending fifths.

Or the “circle” if you will. But Carol Kaye told me once that that outed you as a classical person in the 60s and that to be hip it’s the “cycle”. Cycle it is!

Cycle of falling fifths, cool?

When you should not play the perfect fifth…

The Perfect Fifth is always safe to use, right? Yes. Except when it isn’t!

Related, in case you missed it:

The Fifth – Why it is the bassist’s best buddy

The Forgotten Fifth

We often refer to “perfect fifths” as just “fifths” – that is sort of an okay thing to do, since there are no “major” and “minor” fifths.

There are augmented and diminished fifths, but since they are less common, just saying “fifth” and meaning a perfect  fifth has become a widely used shortcut.

If you’d just say: play me a third – unless it is clear from context, I’d have to ask you, well, you want a major or minor one? I’d also want to know whether you mean ascending or descending. But the important point here is, the third needs a qualifier as for major or minor.

The fifth, not so much. A fifth is likely just a “perfect” or “pure” fifth. Even though, from a tuning standpoint, the fretted fifth is not exactly pure or perfect either! That has to do with equal tempered tuning, Equal tempered tuning is available on the bass via the frets! We even have a few perfect fifths available on the bass, via harmonics 🙂

All this to say, typically when we talk about fifths, (and fourths and octaves and unisons, too!) we mean the “perfect” kind.

But, as astute readers of my book Music Theory for the Bass Player know: All intervals (major, minor and perfect ones!) come in the augmented as well as diminished variety.

  • diminished means: make a minor or perfect interval smaller by a half step.
  • augmented means: make a major or perfect interval bigger by a half step.

When you should not play the perfect fifth

  • If a fifth is smaller by a half step you get a diminished fifth. The chord would say b5 or come with an ø or o or dim after the letter name. There could also be additional chord information, such as o7 or min7b5. Whenever you spot any of these (b5, dim, o, ø) no matter what else is in the chord: play a diminished fifth.
  • If the fifth is bigger by a half step you get an augmented fifth. The chord would say C+ or Caug or C#5 or +5. These, too, can be a bit hidden amongst other info, such as Cmaj7+ or Caug add9 – With complex chords like these, if you are confused and don’t know chord-scale-theory yet – no worries, just be a sleuth for them plusses and augs and elevate the fifth by a half step.

What do they sound like?

  • A perfect fifth sounds very stable and does not introduce a lot of different flavors to a chord. It mostly adss weight and power (hence the expression “power chord”). In a melody, fifths sound strong, bold and heroic.
  • A diminished fifth sounds tense, wants to resolve.
  • An augmented fifth sounds eerie, suspenseful. Can also sound mysterious.

That diminished fifth sounds the same as a #4, right? And that #5 in that augmented chord, that sounds like a b6 (or b13)?

Well, yes, the sound of just the intervals is the same, but intervals usually do not occur in isolation, they occur within a context such as a chord progression, a key or a chord scale. In modern modal music and non-tonal music all bets are off in terms of Common Era harmony rules, because there it is all about colors and shapes rather than about tension and release coming from the V-> I connection. In all of these worlds (diatonic, modal, mix of the two), correct chord naming is crucial. If a chord is named correctly and the musician knows how to read it, it provides a lot of info on what the composer intended.

Here is why this is important

Chord names oftentimes stand for much more than only the chord tones. Chords can point to the composer’s vision of a special voicing, or they point to an entire scale or they outline a key or key change.

For example, consider a C7b13 chord: you are safe to play a perfect 5th in your groove. This chord symbol implies a seventh chord with an added b6 or b13 (which is the b6 an octave up)
If the chord symbol, however, is a C7+, the perfect fifth would not reflect the composers intention. As you know by now, a + chord calls for an augmented fifth, which can also  imply a whole tone scale for example, and a perfect fifth would clash.

Similarly, if the chord symbol says Cm7#11, it is totally fine to play a perfect fifth. Cm7#11 is the fourth mode of harmonic minor or the fourth mode of harmonic major. This scale definitely has a perfect fifth in it and using the fifth in the bass will work well!

If the chord, however, says Cm7b5, then there is no perfect fifth, because the fifth is, as the chord name implies, a “b5” and the perfect fifth would clash.

So next time you wonder why I insist on correct note naming, remember the above. Right there in the name is a clue for what you would play on the bass:

  • #4 —> perfect fifth A-OK!
  • b5 —-> perfect fifth not so good!
  • b13 —>perfect fifth A-OK!
  • #5 —->perfect fifth not so good!

Here is where it can get tricky for us bassists

When you see a chord such as C, C7, C7b9 #9 etc, the perfect fifth is certainly fine to play! C7alt – perfect fifth can be ok, or could clash. Best to check with the harmony players. Ambiguities may show up if a bad chart misstates a #4 for a b5, or a #5 for a b13 .

Many real books and charts take liberties with naming. I have especially seen mix ups between +5 (no perfect fifth!) and b13 (perfect fifth is fine). Context and experience will tell you what is what and of course your ears are your ultimate guide.

A useful TIP: If unsure, play the b13 that is written instead of the perfect fifth. That is an awfully crude shortcut and with experience you can analyze songs quickly to determine what is what, but in a pinch, it will work and sound okay (if everyone is working off the same chart!)

The Take-Away: Playing the fifth is a surefire way to break away from just the root and to liven up the groove while staying out of the way, we just need to make sure to follow the context of the chords or the chord changes to adjust for b5s and +5s!


The Forgotten Fifth (Have it Under Your Fingers?)

Fingering a Fifth

You probably know it as a “1 by 2”: one string up, two frets over, like this (the numbers are fingering options for fifths):

fifth forgotten

According to my Wall Chart’s interval formula, this is a “1 by 2” – one string up, two frets over.

The Forgotten Fifth

But what about this one:

fifths other fingering

According to my Wall Chart’s  interval formula, that is a “2 by -3”: 2 strings over, three frets back.

Across two strings you get your fifth covered between the pinky and the first finger. Totally one-finger-per-fret! And totally useful, especially for triads.

The two graphs above are taken from my book, Music Theory for the Bass Player, and the video that goes with this page, is this one:

Check this out:

When you play a 5th below the root you are actually playing the interval of a 4th.

That is because…

Fifths and fourths are inversions of each other.

I am sure you have done this: played a 1 – 5 groove with the 5th below the root. So you’d play C (let’s say that’s what the chord is) and the G (the 5th scale degree of C) below that C. Technically speaking the interval you just played is a 4th, however. Fourths and fifths are inversions of each other: in music 4 + 5 = 8 (inversions add up to the octave, which is 8)

Watch the CG ascending form a fifth, while the CG descending forms a fourth: fifth ariane cap

Yes, you are playing the fifth scale degree if you go down to that G, but the interval you are playing is that of a fourth descending. If you were to play a fifth descending from the C, you’d end up at the F below.

It is correct to say you are “playing the fifth below” (meaning the G, which is the fifth scale degree of C major), but be aware that the interval you are playing is that of a fourth (so you are “playing a fourth down”. Sounds close when you say it in words, but to understand the difference is important.

Another way to think of it:

C is the root. G is the 5th. Where you play that G doesn’t matter. You can play it a 5th above or a 4th below that C. A bit of a different effect, but!

More on the fifth to come! Stay tuned!

The Fifth – Why it is Your Best Buddy…

fifth ariane cap

Root – Five – Root – Five…

it is a kind of signature bass line – and it works! In country, bluegrass, folk music, as well as in bossa (where it’s root – five – five – root root – five – five); also, a great way to start playing walking bass, for example, is to play root – root – five – five – it gives you four beats per bar and outlines the chord change. For many styles the bass alternating characteristic rhythmic pattern and with a style-intrinsic  feel plays a key role. There are many subtleties to root-five and there is lots to say on that, but in this post I want to talk about why the fifth is a bassist’s best friend in so many styles…

A Bassist’s Best Friend?

The 5th shows up early in the overtone series – you can verify that by playing a harmonic on the seventh fret. So you have a harmonic on the 12th (first overtone, the octave) and the next one at the seventh fret – which produces the 5th up. Of course tuning wise that 5th is a tad higher than the fretted D would be, which has to do with our tuning system being well-tempered or equal tempered.

Why is this relevant? Early overtones are contained in the note. So if I hit the open G, the overtones of octaves and fifths are also heard. So the fifth is a very related note, it sounds not too foreign to the root. Hence, when playing the fifth in a groove you add information, but one that is very close to the root. You can easily verify this on your bass. Play a high G (I recommend the 10th fret on the A string) and listen to the sound. Then add a fifth above (D on the 12th fret of D). Play both notes at the same time. it sounds fuller, richer, but still pretty G-ish. On the other hand, if you would make that D an Eb for example, it definitely sounds like a new sound.

So, the fifth is a bassist’s best friend because:

  • it sounds congruent with the root,
  • does not introduce an entirely new sound quality, just adds fullness to the root sound,
  • is not likely to clash with any extensions or coors the chord players might add,
  • adds variety without drawing too much attention.
  • The five pulling to the one is a very strong bass movement (more on that later)

So now you know one reason why fifths are a bass player’s best friend! But there is much more to fifths, stay tuned for the next blog post on fifths!