Bass Bit 10: The Whole Tone Scale (BB# 10)

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The Whole Tone Scale

Fun to Play and Sounds Great!


In my book (Music Theory for the Bass Player) I describe the whole tone scale quite early on. Although it is usually considered somewhat advanced faire I like to introduce it for a variety of reasons:

  • it helps to understand the interval of major seconds and how major seconds are laid out on the bass
  • it is a symmetric scale, so the shape is very accessible
  • there are lots of fun shapes within that scale
  • once you find a fun lick you can easily shift it up or down without having to worry about “wrong notes”
  • it has lots of applications in pop, jazz etc.
  • it sounds flat out super hip!


Learn how to play it. Follow along with the fingerings in the book and then use this material to make hip music with it. As always, I recommend using a delay pedal or background track.





In this video I am playing my Marleaux Consat bass by Gerald Marleaux.

As always, the axe is strung with Dean Markley SR 2000s.

TC electronic delay pedal, amp and cab.

Fretwrap? that’s by Gruvgear!




[Intro playing: 0.00 to 0.10]

Bass Bit #10! We’ve reached double digits. Today, it’s still all about seconds, but today it’s about the major second. In the last Bass Bit, I was talking about the chromatic scale and all the fun that can be had by just putting on a delay pedal and using that to practice your chromatic scale. And today, we’re going to do something similar with the scale that is made up out of all whole steps. It’s called the whole tone scale. It is used for any kind of dominant chord, it has a dominant sound (if you don’t know yet what that is, don’t worry about it, later in the book we’ll get to it!) For now let’s just say it’s a dominant sound, it’s a sound that has tension in its most basic form. And it has a sharp 5, and the sharp 5 is an interval that we will get to also. This is just to say it has a lot of tension and it also has some sort of openness to it so if you’re looking to hear the sound of the whole tone scale, you probably know the Stevie Wonder song “You Are The Sunshine of My Life”, in the intro of that, Stevie plays the whole tone scale.

And in the book on page 28, on the bottom, you see examples of two whole tone scales written out in scores and in tab which gives you one octave of an E whole tone scale [playing: 1.41] and I will play that for you with the fingering that I have in the book. 

[playing: 1.45 to 1.58] So, I like to do three notes on one string, then shift, then play three notes on the next string, then shift again. And now here I’m turning around already coz I’m just doing it for one octave, and then I’m going all the way back down again.

[playing: 1.59 to 2.01] Okay, so it’s always the same idea: three whole steps. Then this next whole step, I’m just doing by [playing: 2.04 to 2.12] going one string down, which as we know is a whole step, and then I’m doing three again, and go for one between strings and that’s the end of my octave so I’m just gonna go down again.

And, then I also have an example of the G whole tone scale. Now if I play the scale [playing: 2.18 to 2.21] from E to E, it’s not really an E whole tone scale per se because it really has no beginning or end. In a sense, the chord symbol would say E7#5 right? [playing: 2.36 to 2.40] So that’s of relevance because my first note will then be E that I’m playing (on beat one of the bar). But other than that, there are only two whole tone scales. There are the ones that contain these six notes [playing: 2.48 to 2.51] and then there are the ones that contain the other six notes.

Since all the distances between the notes are the same, i.e. one whole step, this scale doesn’t really have a beginning and an end. But the chord symbol of course will say one of those six notes. So six notes for one scale, six notes for the other scale. And the scale that starts with E [playing 3.11 to 3.12] has the same notes than the scale that start with F# has the [playing 3.16]  same notes that starts with G#. And in symmetric scales like this, you do not have to worry about whether you name your notes by sharps or flats. It can get incredibly complicated to do it so that it is “correct” in music theory terms . We have to mix sharps and flats in those kinds of scales else it gets too crazy! Because it would be [playing: 3.35 to 3.44] E, F#, G#, A#, B#, Cx (double sharp) and then Dx. It makes no sense because now I’m at the octave so can I just say E (please!) you know. You have a lot of freedom in naming these notes in the symmetric scales. Not so in other scales, but in the symmetric scales you do. We’ll get to all of that later.

So, whole tone scale! On top of page 29, you see a dot [playing: 4.03 to 4.10] diagram that details how to finger the whole tone scale. Going up you use the black numbers, going down use the gray numbers. And, when I’m going up again, it’s always just two, [playing: 4.19 to 4.36] I mean three notes per string and then you scoot – 1,2,4, 1 scoot 2,4, 1 scoot 2,4. And when you go down, you go, 4,2 scoot 1, 4,2 scoot 1, 4,2 scoot 1, 4,2 go back.

I’m showing you a little bit of a different pattern on the scale below on page 29, the second one from the top: here, since I’m not starting on an open string, the fingering is [playing: 4.47 to 4.57]  2,4 and then 1 scoot, 2, 4, 1 scoot, 2, 4 and then I can flip up here: 1, 2, 4, 1, 3.

So that would be another way to build a whole tone scale over two octaves. The whole tone scale has some pretty cool shapes in it. Check this out: [playing: 5.09 to 5.12]  2,4,1,3, 2,4,1,3. That’s not the whole scale – we’re missing a note in it – but if you wanted to improvise in it, or have some fun with it [playing: 5.18 to 5.22], then that’s kind of a cool shape to mess with.

It’s also an interesting fingering exercise. And you can also, [playing: 5.28 to 5.45] find any kind of shape and then move that around. Then you go like that and then flip that around. It’s all symmetric, so any kind of shape or pattern [playing: 5.47 to 5.49] that you like, you can move in multiples of the interval by which we are symmetric in, which is the whole tone or whole step!

Once again, I like to put on the delay pedal and then just have myself a good old time [playing: 6.01 to 6.24]. See, I can come up with any shape that’s within my scale and then move that up in multiples of the interval by which I’m symmetric in in this symmetric scale. In this case, that will be the major second. I can move it up by a major second or by multiples thereof, which would mean [playing: 6.35 to 6.52] two major seconds! So instead of playing by, like, up a whole step, I can play it up a major third. This is a major third and it’s two whole steps – we’ll get to that very soon. Do that again, so I just go 1,2 right? So that’s one way to think about it.

Another interval by which the whole tone scale is symmetric through multiplication would be the so called tri-tone [playing: 7.00]. Again, we’re a couple pages in. We will get to the tri-tone, but it’s just, instead of moving something up 1, 2 whole steps, I’m moving it up 3 whole steps [playing: 7.12] and that gives me the D-flat. So I can go directly from [playing: 7.15 to 7.17] the G to the D-flat by using this [playing: 7.19 to 7.22] D-flat. And so I can create fun shapes like this [playing: 7.26 to 7.49]. With the delay pedal it’s a lot of fun to just keep repeating these things.

You can look at these patterns in the book with the dots and find patterns within that. Take a pad and a paper and write a whole tone pattern up, in that you make dots everywhere on the fret board where the whole tone scale would be. Basically you are gonna be marking out exactly half of the notes of the fret board. More or less, because we are just skipping one-half step everytime. And then find shapes within that and move them around. So it’s a geeky and really fun scale. And again, the sound that we’re having when we’re using it, is a dominant chord with a sharp 5 in it; and if that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it. By the end of the book, you will know. You can also use a background track or pop it into iReal Pro and just jam with that sound.

[playing: 8.47 to 9.33] Much fun to be had with the whole tone scale. I’d love it if you could record yourself a little bit playing around with some of these concepts. Make a recording send it to me. I’d love to see it, hear it. And today I’m signing off, Bass Bit #10. This is Ariane.


  • April 7, 2017, 18:35  Reply

    I’m a big advocate of people using technology with tech savvy students, but more imrttoanply in using technology in a considered way that really benefits the students. Kudos to this post for doing both.

    • Ari
      April 8, 2017, 19:35

      Sherry, thank you, this is great to hear! Thank you for checking it out and for commenting!

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