How To Play A Walking Bass Line: A Fundamental Guide

October 17, 2023
Man walking past a firestation by Clem Onojeghuo

All bass players need the ability to play a solid walking bass line. You don’t need to play jazz music to benefit from having this skill set.

Learning how to play walking bass lines helps you:

  • play lines with harmonic clarity
  • outline chord changes
  • lead the band when a new section of a song is coming up
  • obtain freedom with your fretboard
  • develop your ear for hearing tension and release
  • come up with better sounding bass fills
  • know your chord tones
  • and lots more

If you’re ready to go “all in” with walking bass, this guide is for you.

Let’s dive right in.

Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which provide me a small commission at no cost to you. These are merely good solutions for learning how to walk bass. You can read my affiliate disclosure in my privacy policy.

TL;DR

If you’re short on time, be sure to watch my video that breaks down 3 important movements for constructing walking bass lines that sound and feel good.

YouTube video
Walking Bass Line Fundamentals – 3 Movements You Should Know

Walking Bass Fundamentals

A walking bass line has three main movements. You’ll hear these movements in the bass lines from all great bass players, like Ray Brown, John Patitucci, John Clayton, and Christian McBride.

Movement #1: Chordal Movement (Chord Tones)

The most fundamental movement for walking bass involves focusing on chord tones. You’ll need to be familiar with your arpeggios in order to do this.

Now, not every tone carries the same importance.

For instance, if you have a 4-note chord, like Dmin7, your chord tones will be: D, F, A, C.

  • The most important chord tone is the root note, D.
  • The second most important chord tone is the 5th, A.

As a bass player, your job is to lay down a foundation for other instruments that are playing the melody. By giving the root along with the 5th, the root movement of a progression can be heard very strongly.

However, if you’re a melodic player, playing a solo, or creating a melodic line, the 3rd, F, would be the second most important tone.

Here are are your chord tones in order of importance to construct walking bass lines:

  1. Root note
  2. 5th
  3. 3rd
  4. 7th
  5. Extension (any note from an upper triad)

Here’s an example notation/tab of chordal movement. This is very similar to playing arpeggios and broken arpeggios. If you’re starting out, get familiar with playing just two notes per chord, mainly the root and 5ths. Once you master the art of playing the important notes in time, you can start applying other chord tones.

Example Walking Line Movement #1: Chordal Movement
Example Walking Line Movement #1: Chordal Movement

Movement #2: Scalar Movement (Half-Step or Whole-Step)

Another fundamental approach to walking bass is known as step-wise movement. This involves using scale notes to connect your chord tones.

This is an important approach, because it makes your bass lines sound more smooth.

When you listen to a bassist walk bass a majority of the line will be step-wise movement. Occasionally, there will be skips to larger intervals. But, that’s usually to create a musical effect.

If the entire line skipped around, the chord progression won’t sound glued together.

Here’s an example of scalar movement (notation and tab provided). Notice that the main emphasis is walking up or down a scale.

Example Walking Line Movement #2: Scalar Movement
Example Walking Line Movement #2: Scalar Movement

Movement #3: Chromatic Approach Note Movement (Non-Chordal Tones)

Finally, the third fundamental approach to walking bass involves chromatic approach notes.

A chromatic approach note can be either above or below a target note. It doesn’t matter too much whether the approach note is above or below the target.

Because the approach note is a half-step away, there will be a lot of energy to that note. A chromatic approach tone will want to resolve. This need for resolution is what creates forward motion to the next chord.

So, what a lot of bass players will do is place a chromatic approach note on beat 4 of the current measure to setup a strong tension and resolution when the next chord arrives.

Or, if the chords are moving fast (two beats per measure), many bassists will play root + chromatic approach note.

In this example, each chord lasts for two beats. In the notation and tab provided you’ll see that all you need to think about is the target root note.

Example Walking Line Movement #3: Chromatic Approach Movement
Example Walking Line Movement #3: Chromatic Approach Movement

How To Write Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Step-By-Step Process)

Let’s take the 3 fundamental movements of walking bass to construct a strong sounding bass line that outlines the chord changes.

We’ll use a common progression that you may have heard in jazz standards.

Popular Jazz Standard Chord Changes
Popular Jazz Standard Chord Changes

Step #1: Develop A Two Feel, Using only Root and 5th

When you’re first starting out, it helps to focus on a two feel. In other words, only play notes on beat 1 and beat 3.

This will help you internalize a swing feel, the duration of a measure, and hear the root movement of the cord changes. While you’re not quite “walking” yet, this step shouldn’t be skipped.

So, for our chord progression, play a two feel, using only these notes: root and 5th.

Two-Feel focusing on Root and Fifth
Two-Feel focusing on Root and Fifth

Step #2: Introduce Scale Notes To Connect Your Chord Tones

Once you feel comfortable with step 1, it’s time to start smoothing out our line by bringing in scale notes for each quarter-note.

For starters, if the chord lasts for 4 beats, play the root note on beat 1 and play the 5th on any of the remaining beats. 

That leaves you with 2 beats to play scale notes that connect your line.

A common shape or pattern is 1, 2, 3, 5.

We’ll use that for our example.

For any chord that lasts more than one measure, we’ll simply play the root on beat 1, and then use notes of the scale for that chord.

Connect Chord Tones (Root and Fifth) using Scale Tones

Step #3: Chromatic Approach Notes For Fast Moving Changes

Finally, let’s introduce a chromatic approach for any chords that last for 2 beats.

This approach can be highly effective for progressions, like Rhythm Changes, where you’ll often have two chords per bar.

Every now and then, you can also use a chromatic approach note for beat 4 of the measure. This can be helpful if you run out of range on your instrument.

When chords last for only 2 beats, there is actually a great deal of freedom that you have.

You can play the root note on the first beat. Then, you can play any note on the second beat.

You can even play any note on the first beat. Then, play the root note on the second beat. As long as the root is on one of those beats, it’ll sound good.

Chromatic Approach Notes for Fast Moving Changes (Measure 6)
Chromatic Approach Notes for Fast Moving Changes (Measure 6)

3 Tips For Improvising Walking Basslines

If you’re improvising a walking bassline for the first time, you might feel like there are so many notes to think about, and that the chords are passing by quickly.

When chords are moving quickly, here are 3 things that can help:

  1. Focus on the fundamental notes: root and 5th. Bass players can get away with playing the least amount of notes. Often, the less you play, the better you’ll sound, and also the band.
  2. Start out with a 2-feel: There’s no need to rush into playing every single quarter note. A 2-feel keeps things relaxed and the chord changes won’t feel as intimidating.
  3. Learn the melody of a tune: If you know the melody by heart you’ll know the form of the song and won’t lost as easily.

4 Books For Learning To Play Walking Bass Lines

There are many excellent resources for learning how do this valuable skill. Here are 4 books that can give you a strong foundation. In my personal experience, these books provide a solid foundation for learning how to play walking bass lines.

Now It’s Your Turn

You’ve learned the building blocks for constructing a walking bass line. Now it’s time for you to apply these concepts.

The fastest way to internalize these concepts is to work with chord progressions from real tunes.

Pick a jazz song and start out by applying a single concept over the entire tune. Then, transpose to a different key.

Focus on movements from one chord to another. And, come up with your own movements that you like.

Soon you’ll develop your own style for walking the bass.

For more bass lessons like this, click here.

PosidoVega

Hi! I’m Posido Vega, a multi-passionate creative. I’m an artist, bass player, jazz theory enthusiast, children’s book author and illustrator, and SEO 😅.

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