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In this free online bass lesson, we will discuss the fundamentals of constructing a walking bassline. Knowing how to play a walking bassline is a very useful skill. If you want to play jazz it is essential, but it is also prevalent in blues and rock among other genres.
The chief feature of a walking bass line is that it is played in quarter notes. While it is not necessary, it is often played with a legato feel. This doesn’t mean you have to play using legato techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs. Simply try to let the notes play out for their full values with minimal space between them.
The first note of these bass lines is usually the root, but it can be another chord tone. For our purposes, we will stick with the root. The question then is what do we play for the other three notes? There are three chief approaches used to fill out walking basslines: Chromatics, arpeggios and scales.
All of the following examples in this music lesson will use the chord progression G to C. Additionally, they all end with a note that will lead into a G, allowing you to loop the bassline.
This approach is centred around using half-step motion to get to the root of the next chord. Despite the fact that the notes are chromatic, notice they don’t grate on your ears at all.
Once you get a feel for it, it is easy to use this approach anytime you want. Be careful, because it can start getting redundant. The key is to mix the half-step motion in with the other techniques to create a smooth path to the next chord. The most important concept to take away from this technique is the half-step approach to each chord’s root note. This half-step approach works in just about any bassline.
Like chromatics, scales are a straight-forward and smooth way to connect chords. Check out this bassline:
In this example, we ascend the G7 Mixolydian scale, skipping the C when we get to it. Skipping over the root of the next chord will help to give it more impact when you land on it later. If you don’t know G Mixolydian, don’t worry, there is a Mixolydian music lesson in the side bar. From the C we simply ascend up the C Major scale until we get to the G7. From the G7 you can descend the same bassline, or come up with your own variation.
If you are having trouble creating a scalar bassline, add chromatics into the mix. By adding a note between a whole step in a scale you can fill up the time until the next chord.
Arpeggios are great material for constructing walking bass lines because you are melodically spelling out the chord. In this example we are playing a G major triad on the G7 and a descending C Major triad on the C. The connection between the chords is smoothed out with a half-step approach to each chord’s root.
Keep in mind that even if a chord chart calls for more complex chords like 7ths, 9ths and 11ths, basic triads will always be a sound choice. In addition, this will guarantee you aren’t getting in anyone else’s way. When it comes to those kinds of chords, things can get muddy if everyone tries to do too much.
Rhythm & Fast Changes
You don’t have to play only quarter notes in your walking basslines. Adding an eighth note here and there can help propel the music forward. Also, feel free to add fills when appropriate. Just think of quarter notes as the backbone of your bassline.
The other thing to keep in mind is you shouldn’t be intimidated by fast chord changes. If there are two chords to a bar, a simple bassline will work fine. Play the roots of the chords and precede them by a half-step approach. In situations where there are a lot of chords, the rapidly changing harmony is often times enough to keep the listener’s interest.
If you are also a guitar player, don’t think of this as just a bass lesson. The guitar has enough low range that you can create some convincing walking bass lines. Learning how to play walking bass on guitar can be a good entry way into the chords and bassline technique used in jazz.
If there is one thing to take away from this quickie bass lesson, it is that a walking bassline can be very flexible. The most important part is staying in the groove and connecting chords smoothly. For more free online music lessons, browse through our selection of articles.