Your Guide To Never-Fail Walking Bass Lines
How large is the number called a Googol? You could Google it, but I’ll just tell you: A Googol is 10100, or one followed by a hundred zeros. That’s about how many quarter-notes I’ve played in my life, or at least it feels that way. As I’ve walked my way through my career, I’m still outlining chord changes and providing a foundation for the music, often by playing the root of every chord on the downbeat of every bar. Walking bass lines remain an essential component of my musical life.
Let’s look at a couple of methods to create beautifully constructed, practical, and musical-sounding bass lines without getting hung up on music theory. I’ll describe the basics of bass line construction, and then we’re off to the races … the walking races.
Walking bass lines are constructed with steady quarter-notes and only three melodic elements: chord tones, scale tones, and chromatic passing tones (sometimes called leading tones). You can create a beautiful-sounding line in 4/4 meter by playing a chord’s root on the downbeat, followed by either chord tones or scale tones on beats two and three, and then a chromatic tone on beatfour leading to the next root. Wait, I said I wasn’t going to get into theory, so let’s forget all of that for now and start walking. Grab your bass!
Example 1 shows a 12-bar blues in F. Imagine a nice, swinging groove in your head, and then play through the changes by thumping out the root of each chord on beat one of each measure. So far, so good … but what about the other three notes in the bar? Here’s the payoff for today’s lesson: If you outline the roots on the downbeats, all you need to do is lead into the next root with three chromatic passing tones [Ex. 2]. This method — playing the root on the downbeat, followed by three passing tones leading to the next root — works especially well on tunes where the harmony is moving around in intervals of 4ths and 5ths. The 12-bar blues provides the perfect playground for experimenting with this walking concept.
Example 2 starts with the root of each chord on beat one of every bar. This outlines the root movement unequivocally with a pleasant feeling of forward motion. The listener hears the chords moving through the blues, because the bass is in their face on beat one of every bar. To lead into the next bar, simply play three notes (beats two, three, and four), chromatically approaching the next root. Theory nerds could debate all day about which chord or scale tones those three chromatic notes might describe, but a theoretical analysis doesn’t matter on a practical level. The proof is in the sound and feeling. The bass line has rhythmic forward motion, and the root movement is clear.
Example 3 uses a slightly tricky variation of the chromatic approach heard in the previous exercise. I call this the chromatic upper double approach, but you don’t need to remember the term unless you want to start a heated discussion with someone on a bass forum. The concept behind Ex. 3 is simple: Play the root of the chord on the downbeat; play a half-step below the next target note (the root in the next bar) on beat two; then play two chromatic approach notes from above on beats three and four. You’ll notice if we follow this formula in the first bar, an F major triad appears, followed by a chromatic leading tone (the note B) on beat four. In the second bar, the line gets more harmonically adventurous with the root Bb (beat one) followed by an E (beat two), which is a half-step below the next root, F, followed by the notes G and Gb leading back to the root F in bar 3.
In bars 9 and 21 on beat two, I chose to go with the chord tone Bb (the 3rd of the Gm7 chord) rather than force the crunchy-sounding B natural over the Gm7. Also note that the major 7th of the chord appears in the bass line in certain bars (3, 5, 15, 17). This slight rub with the flatted 7th in the chord might sound too rich if the tempo is slow. At a medium or fast tempo, however, the chromaticism of this concept trumps the feeling of playing a clashing note on the 7th of the chord.
The techniques in both examples give the feeling of rhythmic forward motion. Since the notes on beats two, three, and four are all leading into the next chord, a pleasant push to the following downbeat is created. The blues choruses in Examples 2 and 3 are found in my new walking-bass course at Discover Double Bass [https://discoverdoublebass.com/john-goldsby]. Experiment with these two walking bass techniques — mix and match, and find your own path through standard chord progressions. Until next time, keep swinging!
Improve Your Walking!
5 Books To Help You Practice Walking & Reading
1. Easy Jazz Conception by Jim Snidero, played by Paul Gill [Advance Music] https://www.alfred.com/easy-jazz-conception-bass-lines/p/01-ADV14768/
2. Building Walking Bass Lines by Ed Friedland [Hal Leonard] https://www.halleonard.com/product/695008/building-walking-bass-lines
3. Bass Notes by John Goldsby [Aebersold Jazz] https://www.jazzbooks.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=JAJAZZ&Product_Code=BN
4. Berklee Jazz Bass by Bruce Gertz, Rich Appleman & Whit Browne [Berklee Press] https://berkleepress.com/bass/berklee-jazz-bass/
5. Walking Bassics: The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing by Ed Fuqua [Sher Music] https://www.shermusic.com/1883217504.php
Walk On: Four videos featuring a lot of walking bass
Paul Thompson looks at one of the greatest walking bass players ever to grace the jazz scene: Sam Jones.
Ray Brown powers through one of his favorite blues tunes, playing the melody and walking on “Frankie and Johnny.” Kudos to Tina Sinko for the transcription.
The legendary John Clayton shows off his show-biz skills, plus his incredible walking bass technique, in this rare video from Dutch television.
Here’s my walking bass line étude on the changes to the jazz standard “Killer Joe” — with a big tip of my hat to Ray Brown!
After playing a Googol of quarter-notes in his career, John still (often) plays the root on the downbeat. Check out his new walking bass video lesson series Lay it Down at DiscoverDoubleBass.com and johngoldsby.com.