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WALKING BASS LINES 101:

Building simple walking lines using chord tones:
Walking bass lines are some of the neatest and most melodic sounding parts we get to play as bassists. Those of you who are fans of swing jazz, blues, or boogie are probably already familiar with the walking bass sound. Most of us associate the walking bass sound with a steady quarter note pulse that outlines the harmony of the tune, usually played in 4/4 time. There are many different ways we can approach walking bass lines. The style of music bears a heavy influence on the way a walking line might be played. If you listen to a lot of jazz, you have probably noticed that walking lines in that genre are very improvisational in nature. Rarely, if ever, will you here any repetitious phrasing when a jazz bassist is walking through the changes in the form of a tune if that player is experienced. It is almost as if they are playing a solo using quarter notes only. If you listen to a blues bassist walking, a level of improvisation still exists, but usually his or her phrasing will be more harmonically conservative, and lines will be played utilizing more consistent ‘shapes’ or sequences of chromaticisms and chord tones. Many ‘boogie’ style walking bass lines are based on a repetitious order of chord tones or scale tones, and the shape of the line stays the same over each chord change. Examples 1-3 show a few 8 bar examples of what you might hear from each of the genres mentioned:


Example 1: A jazz style walking bass line

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Example 2: A blues style walking bass line

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Example 3: A boogie style walking bass line

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With any walking bass line, it is important to remember that your responsibility as a bass player is twofold; you are the primary keeper of the pulse of the time, as well as the foundation of what is happening harmonically. This is especially true in jazz.

In this lesson, we will get into the basics of playing jazz walking bass lines. To start off with, we will use chord tones only to construct our bass lines. The reason for this is that chord tones (which can be played using arpeggio forms) are what the actual chord changes are made from. Needless to say then, the most conservative approach to outlining chord changes would be one in which you were only choosing from notes that were included in each chord.

Jazz tunes mostly consist of seventh chords. Seventh chords are 4 note chords consisting of a root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th taken from a scale. Here is a list of some common seventh chord types, along with their chord tones written using scale degrees:

To clarify even further, here is a list of the same chord types sharing C as the root, along with their chord tones:

Chord Type

Major 7 chord
          
Minor 7 chord
        
7 (Dominant 7)
      
Minor 7 b5
           
Diminished 7
 
     
Included Chord Tones

root, 3, 5, 7

root, b3, 5, b7

root, 3, 5, b7

root, b3, b5, b7

root, b3, b5, bb7

Chord

C Major 7

C Minor 7

C 7

C Minor 7 b5

C Diminished 7

Included Chord Tones

C, E, G, B

C, Eb, G, Bb

C, E, G, Bb

C, Eb, Gb, Bb

C, Eb, Gb, Bbb

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Chord tones are best played using arpeggio forms. Arpeggios are basically just broken chords. Figs.1-5 show some one octave seventh chord arpeggio patterns you can use that correspond to each mentioned chord type:

Figure 1: Major 7 arpeggio, single octave

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Figure 2: Minor 7 arpeggio, single octave

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Figure 3: 7 arpeggio, single octave

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Figure 4: Minor 7b5 arpeggio, single octave

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Figure 5: Diminished 7 arpeggio, single octave

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Using chord tones, simple walking bass lines can be constructed simply by choosing the appropriate arpeggio pattern for each chord change. Examples 4-8 are walking bass lines constructed from chord tones only.

Example 4:

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Example 5:

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Example 6:

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After playing through each example on your own, you will probably notice that the use of chord tones in your bass lines outlines the movement of each chord change without the need for any further accompaniment. This simple, yet effective approach makes for a great introduction to walking bass lines if you have never played them before. If you are already able to play walking lines, limiting yourself to chord tones only is a great way to improve your phrasing if you are having trouble connecting chords effectively. A chord tone only approach to soloing is also a great training method for effective phrasing and playing through changes.
After playing through each example, start writing out your own changes to play through. If you have a fake book or similar, try this same approach working through tunes in the book. I think you will find that this exercise helps to improve your harmonic awareness.

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