My StudyBass

The concept in this lesson is very simple and extremely powerful for bass players. Bassists call it the fifth approach, or V approach.

As you examine basslines for their chord, scale, and chromatic notes, there's one often-played note which may confuse you. You will often mistake it for a scale tone, but it is really a special chord tone which bass players in all styles love to use: the fifth of the upcoming chord.

Forward Motion

The bass player's main role is to (1) lay down the rhythm, and (2) define the harmony.

You have a third role you can play, too. Good basslines often help drive the music forward. You help lead the listener from one harmony to the next. The fifth approach is a powerful tool for doing this.

What is the Fifth Approach?

The fifth approach is an approach note using the fifth of the chord to which you are going. It is a setup for the next chord.

To be clear, it's not the fifth of the chord you're currently playing, but the fifth of the next chord.

Listen to the example below.


the fifth approach

I end bar four with G (the fifth of C) to setup the C chord at the beginning. You can really hear the power of the fifth approach of that G note. It can't wait to go back to the C chord.

In bar two I end with the note C (the fifth of F). Yes, it is the root of the C chord, but it also functions as the fifth of F. In basslines it is powerful and common to emphasize notes which have a dual purpose like this.

In fact if you look, every new bar is being approached by its fifth. It works even when you stay on the same chord.

Why Does the Fifth Approach Work?

When we covered the diatonic chords of the major scale you may remember we said the strongest harmonic relationship in music is the V chord resolving to the I chord. The fifth approach exploits the natural tension and resolution sound of the V to I.

To really understand this, we need to discuss something in harmony called secondary dominant chords. If this next part gets too technical or goes over your head, don't get too frustrated. Just remember the fifth approach is simply the fifth of the chord you are going to.

Secondary Dominants

In the diatonic chords of the major scale, you learned the V chord is dominant. Each key only contains one dominant chord. This is the main, or primary, dominant chord of the key.

Temporary V Chords

In chord progressions you can use chords from outside of the key as well. A favorite is the dominant 7th.

Dominant chords produce a lot of tension wanting to resolve up a fourth (like V going to I).

A common trick in chord progressions is to use a dominant chord not in the key to setup some other chord. You use the V chord of where you're headed.

These temporary V chords are called secondary dominant chords.

Let's look at an example.

Secondary Dominant Example

In the key of C you may see this progression:
Cmaj7 – A7 – Dm7

In the key of C you'd expect a chord built on the note A to be the vi chord Am7, right? That's true, but using A7 instead creates a stronger transition to the ii chord Dm7.

Listen to the following example.
The first progression is Cmaj7 – Am7 – Dm7.
The second progression is Cmaj7 – A7 – Dm7.


Both work, but do you hear how the second progression more strongly leads you to the Dm7?

Why is it a stronger transition? Because A7 is the V chord which leads to D. When your ear hears that dominant A7 chord, it subconsciously expects the next chord to be some sort of D chord (major or minor).

Since D is the ii of the key of C, this A7 chord is analyzed as V/ii (said: “the five of two”).

Secondary dominants are V chords which resolve somewhere other than the I of the key.

Common Secondary Dominant Chords

Here's a table of the most common secondary dominant chords and what they'd be in the key of C:

Secondary Dominant Key of C
V/V - V  D7 – G7
V/IV - IV C7 – Fmaj7
V/ii - ii A7 – Dm7
V/vi - vi E7 – Am7
V/iii - iii B7 – Em7


Bassists and the Fifth Approach

On bass the fifth approach is the bass player implying the sound of the dominant V to I sound, or secondary dominant sound.

Because the fifth approach is used at a weak rhythmic point, it works regardless of whether the rest of the band plays that dominant chord or not. The band may still be playing an F chord while you're playing the note G setting up the C chord.

The bassist most often plays a single note as a fifth approach, but it's possible to outline more of the dominant chord, too. For example, you might play the root and third. That is, heading to a C chord you might approach it with G and B from the G7 chord (V of C).

Can I Use the Fifth Approach Anywhere?

The fifth approach is typically used at the end of a chord's duration like the last quarter, eighth, or sixteenth note. Remember, that's typically the weakest point in terms of rhythmic weight where any type of note can happen if it resolves well into the next note.

If you're heading to a new chord, using the fifth approach just before the new root will almost always work.

The fifth approach works in every style of music, too. You'll hear it in pop, jazz, funk, reggae, metal, you name it.

The Fifth of the Fifth

“If I can approach something with its fifth, couldn't I approach that fifth with its fifth?”

Okay, now we're getting into some serious harmonic voodoo. The answer is yes!

If you have enough time to squeeze it in, you can play the V of the V of the V of the V! The further back you go, the harder it might be to apply.

The fifth approach technique works because of its subtlety. If it sticks out, you've gone too far. You don't have to do it every chance you get. Don't overdo it with your new bass player superpower!

You Already Know This

If it hasn't occurred to you yet, I've already taught you this. When you practiced the StudyBass note memorization method (maybe you're still working on it), it went around the circle. C...F...Bb...Eb...etc. This is the V of the V of the V and so on.

C is the V of F. F is the V of Bb. Bb is the V of Eb, and so on. Man, you have a good teacher!

In Summary

Don't let the theory behind this overwhelm you. It's really easy. The fifth approach technique is just using the five of where you're going.

Let's look at some exercises and song examples so you can hear the fifth approach in action.