Understanding Walking Bass Lines


A major part of the Bass player's job is to (generally) "tell the truth". That is to say to "let the other musicians know what the chord is by playing the root on the 1 beat". (At least in a straight progression [eg. one that doesn't involve a downward line]).

The other part of the Bass player's job is to let the rest of the band know what the next chord is going to be.

A Bass player doesn't think: | 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 |.

A Bass player thinks: 2 - 3 - 4 - | 1 .

In other words beat 1 of bar 2 is the target note and the 2 - 3 - 4 before it are the notes leading the band into bar 2 beat 1.

To oversimplify the Bass player's job:

* Hit the root on the 1.

* Use a leading tone on the 4 (it can be either an upper leading tone or a lower leading tone. Example: you can approach a "target D" from either the C# [lower leading tone] or from an Eb [upper leading tone]).

* Beats 2 & 3 can pretty much be whatever you like, but most Bass players will prefer to use tones that are in the current chord.

* * * * * * *

Typical bass patterns over chords that last 4 beats:

- The 1->4 walk up (A -> D) [the quality of the chords doesn't matter]

Bar 1 Beat 1: A
Bar 1 Beat 2: B
Bar 1 Beat 3: C
Bar 1 Beat 4: C#
Bar 2 Beat 1: D (target note)

- The 1->5 walk up (A -> E) [the quality of the chords doesn't matter]

Bar 1 Beat 1: A
Bar 1 Beat 2: C#
Bar 1 Beat 3: D
Bar 1 Beat 4: D#
Bar 2 Beat 1: E (target note)

Notice that in both the above examples the "target note" is preceded by 3 ascending chromatics.

- The 1->4 walk down (A -> D) [the quality of the chords doesn't matter]

Bar 1 Beat 1: A
Bar 1 Beat 2: G
Bar 1 Beat 3: F#
Bar 1 Beat 4: E
Bar 2 Beat 1: D (target note)

- The 1->5 walk down (A -> E) [the quality of the chords doesn't matter]

Bar 1 Beat 1: A
Bar 1 Beat 2: G
Bar 1 Beat 3: F#
Bar 1 Beat 4: F
Bar 2 Beat 1: E (target note)

* * * * * * *

Typical bass patterns over chords that last 2 beats:

- The 1->4 diatonic lower leading tone principle (A -> D) [the quality of the chords doesn't matter]

Bar 1 Beat 1: A
Bar 1 Beat 2: C#
Bar 1 Beat 3: D (target note)

- The 1->4 tritone upper leading tone principle (A -> D) [the quality of the chords doesn't matter]

Bar 1 Beat 1: A
Bar 1 Beat 2: Eb
Bar 1 Beat 3: D (target note)

* * * * * * *

The "upper leading tone" example above is the "jazzier" of the two. Try this bass line over a typical turnaround in G:

Bar 1 Beat 1: G (G Maj)
Bar 1 Beat 2: B
Bar 1 Beat 3: Bb (Bbdim7 - subsitute for Em)
Bar 1 Beat 4: E

Bar 2 Beat 1: Eb (Am)
Bar 2 Beat 2: A
Bar 2 Beat 3: Ab (Ab7 - substitute for D7)
Bar 2 Beat 4: D

Bar 3 Beat 1: G (G Maj)

Play the RH chords on the off-beat.

* * * * * * *

I have stayed with quarter note examples above and have not addressed the "hiccup" (two eighth notes on the 4th beat) or the "stumble" (triplet on the 4th beat), however the same principles apply. That is to say, in general, the target note will be preceded by a chromatic line - whether ascending or descending.

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