Buzz off, Fret Buzz! (Buzz-free Bass tone)

fret buzz

Got a fret buzz that is just not going away?

A fret buzz can really be putting a damper on the joy of playing. Here is help:

First – check your set up! Maybe your truss rod is not adjusted correctly, or you have a fret sticking out that is causing the buzz. Take your instrument to a trusted luthier and ask for the action to be checked. Or try it yourself, it is not very hard. Google bass set up and various videos will pop up to help square you away.*

Second – check your playing technique. If you overgrip the neck and squeeze the wood (unnecessarily), the tone will suffer.  Most buzzes, however, are due to improper placement of the fingers on the fretboard.

If you are doing this:

fret buzz music theory for the bass player

a buzzing tone response is likely.

Instead, do this:

fret buzz

Move your finger on top of the fret or slightly before it. It will instantly clean up your tone.

I say “on top of or slightly before the fret” – experiment with the best spot a little because if you are super on top – almost past it – you can get the super funky choked Rocco Prestia tone. To get that spot right (for your Tower-of-Power-inspired songs or covers) is a bit tricky, but so cool to explore. For the most common applications, on top or slightly before is best!

And make sure to not over-grip.

If you find yourself over-gripping…

No worries, you are not alone. It is easy to fall into the habit of wanting to fix a buzz by pressing harder. It does not really fix the issue, though, and makes for a bad habit.

My favorite remedy against that, is: if you notice you are over gripping, let your fretting hand drop for two or four beats every so often. Remind your body what relaxed feels like. Let it drop like a wet sock – do not move it down slowly or hold on to it somehow. Instead, really let loose and let gravity grab it. Please make sure your hand is not crashing into a table or chair, so clear the path. Other than that, this is a great way to remind your muscles what relaxed means like.

Changing the gripping habit

As always, a great way to tackle this is with a structured practice session such as the PORA technique. You can watch the video at that link or simply grab the infographic which details the 4 step procedure. Spend just 3 minutes each time you practice and you will see big rewards.

Happy playing!

Footnote to set up:

*One caveat: make sure to have the right sized Allen wrenches (there are metric and inch-sized sets). If you wear out a truss rod it could ruin your bass. Also: I like this tool to help me gauge (ha!) my action.

Our 20 Unit course tackles technique in each unit. We do left hand, right hand, and coordination exercises and build great technique from the ground up. It is a comprehensive program that you will get a lot out of.

Sign up for the course!

Honestly, (in addition to owning a library’s worth of bass books) I’ve subscribed to just about every web site offering bass lessons / structured programs. Seriously, EVERY ONE! This is the FIRST course I’ve completed start to finish. It’s that comprehensive and is presented in a professional / non-intimidating way.  

John G, Course participant’s response in Survey

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Tonic – Subdominant – Dominant – Why you need to know

dominant subdominant tonic functions Ariane Cap Music THeory for the bass player

If you have ever opened up a music theory book, you will see the “functions” of chords within a scale. They are famously named:

The “Functions”: Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant

  • Tonic (that’s the chord built on the first scale degree)
  • Subdominant (that’s the chord built on the fourth scale degree) and
  • Dominant (that’s the chord built on the fifth scale degree).

But why, oh why is that such a big deal? And why do you need to know this as a bass player?

For one, because if you compose a melody and you want to harmonize it, those chords come in mighty handy. And depending on which chord you choose, you flavor the melody and give your story meaning.

I like simple, and this shorthand – while truly simplified – really sums it up:

  • TONIC = home
  • SUBDOMINANT  = I am going somewhere/leaving home
  • DOMINANT = tension! I wanna go home!

Listen to any I – IV – V blues and verify the above.

Also, listen for this in many country and folk songs

Also, check this out: IV – I – V (in that order) is a snippet out of the cycle of fifths. Fifths constitute a very strong and pleasant sounding bass jump. Food for thought.

What about the minor chords?

Okay, so far we have talked about the three major chords within the major scale and their mighty functions. These sounds are so strong, that even the 3 minor chords that I can build in a major scale latch on to them. The minor chords and the diminished chord become sub-functions of the above.

Here is how:

  • The chords on the third scale degree and on the sixth scale degree share two notes with tonic. Hence: TONIC FUNCTION for 6th and 3rd scale degree chords.
  • The chord on the second scale degree shares two notes with the fourth scale degree: hence SUBDOMINANT FUNCTION.
  • The diminished chord on the seventh scale degree shares two notes with the dominant chord: hence DOMINANT FUNCTION.

Hey, wait, doesn’t the third scale degree also share two notes with the Dominant? Astutely observed, and yes. But it just doesn’t sound tense because it does not contain the fourth which forms the interval of the tritone with the 7th, the tone called leading tone because it eagerly leads back home to the tonic when combined with said fourth scale degree. The III minor chord, therefore, sounds closer to a variation of home, hence tonic function.  And check out how strongly dominant sounding that 7th scale degree is. 

dominant subdominant tonic functions

Things to know:

  • You can build chords from every single scale degree of a scale.
  • You do this by employing the formula: “play one” – skip one – ” play one” – skip one – “play one” – taking only notes from the scale you are using.
    Example, G major. The scale is G A B C D E F# G. Let’s say you are building a chord from the first scale degree: G B D. Now you try the second scale degree (answers on the bottom).
  • If you build chords on various scale degrees you will get three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord. Do this in G major and find all seven chords. (Answer on the bottom, but you try first).
  • Check out all the chords:
    • The major chords are on the first, fourth and fifth scale degrees.
    • The minor chords are on the second, third and sixth scale degrees.
    • The seventh scale degree features a diminished triad.
  • You can add a fourth note, then you get seventh chords.
  • The tension in a dominant seven chord stems from the tritone between the third and seventh of the chord, which are the 7th and 4th scale degrees respectively – scale degree – a high tension that wants to resolve! And interestingly, both notes prefer to resolve by moving a half step

What it all means for the bass player:

  • If you are ever in the position to write or co-write a song, knowing about the effects of diatonic chords (“home/leaving home/wanna go home”) is very useful to help tell the story.
  • You can substitute the minor chords to create colorful variations of the main chords (the chord instrument players should be in on that, however). You can experiment with various bass notes, but I am not saying you can substitute a VI minor or III minor for any I. This creates a certain effect – experiment with it and see if you can hear the variations of “home”.

Oftentimes people start bringing in the modes when talking about scale degrees and chords. And while this is true (and practical, too), I want to make the point here that all the above applies to functional harmony – which indicates a context where tension and release are being created through the functions – Home/leaving home/I wanna go home.

This is very different from modal harmony. While we do use modes of G major, say, as we improvise over an Amin – D7 – Gmaj7 chord progression (that is a II-V-I) – all the modes of G major obviously use the same 7 notes. So, A dorian = notes of G major. D mixolydian = notes of G major. G major = notes of G major. I recommend thinking “blowing G major” while being mindful of that crucial first note in the measure to make your lines sound nice above the underlying chord. But, hey, the tonal material underlying all of this is one scale – G major. Not four, adding A dorian, C lydian, D mixolydian). If you prefer to think of them that way, it isn’t wrong, per se. But since we are in the land of functional harmony, I don’t find this a particularly good use for thinking of the modes. The modes are great for modal music. [see footnote below for an exception]*

Modal music creates the storyline of the song not by using the tension/release of the functional context, but by using scales and chords as colors. Lydian has a certain color, while locrian has a very different color. Also, depending on the kind of modal music, other elements of telling the story take prominence over functional chords. Examples could be melodic lines, rhythmic density, harmonic colors from dark to bright. This happens outside of the functional harmony context (and hence you hear the modes much more distinctly). Try improvising in dorian over a minor 6 chord in isolation or in the context of a functionally unrelated chord – the dorian character will jump out at you. If you use A dorian in a II V- I context, you are much more bound to hear the functional context of G major.  

How about a visual mnemonic?

  • Tony Tonic is home to sip a gin and tonic.
  • Sally Subdominant is going out.
  • Dominique Dominant has just landed on the roof and wants to go into the living room. V->I is like gravity – a pull-down, towards the baseline.

dominant subdominant tonic functions functional harmony music theory for the bass player ariane cap

And here a short video on functional versus modal music:

This is an excerpt from our course


*One exception is when modes containing notes chromatic to the key signature are used to create various color effects. For example: using the “altered scale”, which is the 7th mode of melodic minor, over the dominant chord.

Chord on the second scale degree of G major: A C E
All diatonic chords in G major: G (GBD), Am (ACE), Bm (BDF#), C (CEG), D (DF#A), Em (EGB), F#o (F#AC)
All diatonic four-note chords in G major: Gmaj7 (GBDF#), Am7 (ACEG), Bm7 (BDF#A), Cmaj7 (CEGB), D7 (DF#AC), Em7 (EGBD), F#min7b5 (F#ACE)

Learn music theory for the bass player, including modes, how to use them and what they sound like and more about diatonic chords and functions. Using it all in creative groove examples is what makes it easy to remember  Music Theory for the Bass Player.

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Hearing the Modes – Made super easy!

hearing the modes eartraining

Remember the shortcuts to Modes from last week?

Here is a great ear training exercise to hearing the modes. It is so amazingly easy, it is wild.

Remember there are three major modes, three minor modes and one mode that is in a class of its own.

The three major ones:

  • ionian
  • lydian (with the raised 4)
  • mixolydian (with the flat 7)

The three minor ones:

  • aeolian
  • dorian (with a raised 6)
  • phrygian (with a flat 2)

The outlier:

  • locrian (technically minor as well, but because it has two exceptions from the norm, I create a class of its own for it) – it’s a minor with a flat 5 and a flat 2.

Now here is how you can quickly be hearing them by ear:

Step 1 – major or minor?

If Major:

  • Does it sound like you are used to? —> Ionian!
  • Does it sound not what you’d expect on the bottom (lower part of the scale, that is called a tetrachord)? —> Lydian! (it sounds bright!)
  • Does it sound not what you’d expect on top (upper tetrachord)? —> Mixolydian! (it’s got a touch of bluesy!)

If Minor:

  • Does it sound like you are used to? —> Aeolian!
  • Does it sound not what you’d expect on the bottom (lower part of the scale, that is called a tetrachord)? —> Phrygian (dramatic! Spanish))
  • Does it sound not what you’d expect on top (upper tetrachord)? —> Dorian! (a happy minor)

In order to identify locrian: listen for a sound that is not what you’d expect on the bottom and the top. Locrian sounds incomplete. If you feel compelled to sing one more note at the end of it -> that’s locrian, the seventh mode!

Modal music is like a palette of colors, you can sort them from darkest to brightest:

locrian – phrygian – aeolian – dorian – mixolydian – ionian – lydian

Here is a sample video from our course to demonstrate this:

Much more on modes, how to use them in grooves and more in the course.

Uncover your hidden “talent” – If you have a bit of discipline, courage, and an open mind? This is the course for you.

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Are the Modes all Greek to You? (Super Short Cut!)

Modes course music theory for the bass playe aeolian ionian phrygian lydian mixolydian

Are you Mystified by the Modes?

I have a theory (not a music theory in this case, ha) which is that some are eyeing the modes with suspicion because they have such complicated sounding names. As always, I aim to simplify things and point out the deliciousness of the musical topic at hand. Modes, dear lowenders, are really beautiful. A must know for the bassist, and really, not hard at all!

Have you heard that ionian starts on the first scale degree, dorian on the second, phrygian on the third etc? Okay, this is true yet only partly helpful. Because: if I hear C ionian played, and right after that, D dorian – my ears still have that strong C note in their mind (which we had just established as the tonic ) – so it is really hard to hear the beautifully romantic and somewhat cheery, yet potentially sad sounding dorian.

What’s the fix?

Start all of them from the same root!

  • C Ionian
  • C Dorian
  • C Phrygian


How to figure them out?

Now in order to figure out C dorian, you may go – okay, so dorian, that starts on the second scale degree, so I gotta go down one whole step to find the parent scale. okay, so that is Bb major. And the key signature of that is…. and then dorian is the second mode of that…

Ah!!! So, okay, if you are well versed with music theory, that process is automatic. But if not: too cumbersome!

For the easy route, do this:

Step 1:

know the major scale really well. Know the natural minor scale really well. Play these two in all sorts of keys.

Step 2: 

learn this by heart:

  • There are three major modes and three minor modes.
  • Each is different by only one note compared to the “regular” major or “regular” minor scale.
  • And then there is locrian (a type of minor, but because it has two exceptions, I put it in its own category).

Now let’s learn that difference of one Note:

The three major modes are:

  • ionian – regular major (in a modal context/chord, where both the 3rd and 4th sound, ionian can sound a bit harsh, it has a sus-type quality to it, a bit of a rub)
  • lydian – major with a sharp 4 (a raised fourth scale degree!) – sounds sweet, bright.
  • mixolydian – major with a flat seventh scale degree – sounds bluesy or funky in many contexts.

The three minor modes are:

  • aeolian – regular minor – sounds romantic and longing, somewhat dark.
  • dorian – minor with a raised sixth scale degree – sounds like a “happy minor”. Often used in Celtic music. Check “What do we do with the Drunken Sailor?”
  • phrygian – minor with a b2 (it starts with a half step!) – sounds Spanish, dramatic, dark.

And then there is…

  • locrian – the one with two exceptions: locrian is a minor mode with a flat 5 AND a flat 2. Locrian sounds kinda bleak, very dark and dreary! (Focus on practicing the other ones first)

What to do

Practice them all from the same root to better hear the difference in sound. Then, take two modes differing in only one note – focus on that note and how it affects the intervallic relationships in the next steps. Hear them back to back.

Improvise with them. Record a sustaining chord (looper, digital recorder, computer or use something like iRealPro), then play some lines over it. I find it useful to start with playing the triad and add the surrounding notes. The triad gives you the core sound, surrounding notes give you the extra colors. Practice landing on any of the scale steps and hear how it sounds against the sustained chord.

Finally, start using them in songs (that is for a different post) and compose some music with them.

So, what chords to play over you ask? Here they are:

  • Ionian: maj7 (Example: Gmaj7) or maj711 if you want
  • Lydian: maj7#11 (Example: Gmaj7#11)
  • Mixolydian: Dominant 7 (Example: G7)
  • Aeolian: min7 (Example: Gmin7)
  • Dorian: min6 (Example: Gmin6)
  • Phrygian: min7b9 (Example: Gmin7b2)
  • Locrian: min7b5 (Example: Gm7b5, AKA G “half diminished”)

Be aware that when you hear modes in this context you really hear their modal potential. If you play modes in a functional harmony context (such as in a II-V-I chord progression) you won’t hear their modal beauty as much, because, functional harmony has a different way of expressing tension and release.

So, in the Course Music Theory for the Bass Player, we work our way up from intervals to scales to modes. Then we go through every single mode and practice it with jam tracks and point out its particular beauty. Here is an excerpt – check out a few Phrygian samples!

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course