Walking Bass Lines

Walking bass patterns are among the most common (and essential) musical devices employed by blues and jazz bassists. The basic goal of a walking bass line is to help join two consecutive chords through a logical, melodic path. In other words, walking bass lines are used to bridge the gap between neighboring chords. There is no one right way to do this; however, there are usually some obvious choices to pick from.

The most common type of rhythm used in walking bass lines is the quarter note. If a chord shifts every measure in 4/4 time, you will have three quarter- note slots or gaps to fill in after you play each root note. This approach assumes that you are playing the root of each chord on beat one. Beats two, three, and four are then left for walking. Figure 8-6 outlines this approach.

Figure 8-6.

Constructing a walking bass line

What are the choices for filling in walking bass lines?

When filling in the open slots between roots, you can use scales, arpeggios (chord tones), or chromatics, which are passing tones that move in half steps. You also may use a combination of all of the above, which is the most common approach used by bassists.

Chapters 14 and 16 provide a more detailed account of how to create bass lines with chromatics or passing tones. For now, you should explore scales and arpeggios.

Figure 8-7 has you filling in the gaps using arpeggios and scales. For this exercise you'll be playing what is known as a ii-V-I chord progression. This is a common type of progression used over and over again in jazz. The first two times through the ii-V-I chord changes you'll be using arpeggios or notes extracted from the chord. On the third and fourth pass, you'll be using a more scalar approach, which builds off of the chord and the diatonic key center. In other words, you'll be using the scale of the key (the I chord), but you will be basing its upward or downward movement on the root of each chord (the ii, V, or I chords). When this is fully realized, it is called a mode. In Figure 8-7 you don't have time to play the whole mode (octave to octave), but you will be using notes culled from modes. Chapter 11 explores modes in greater detail.

Figure 8-7. Walking with arpeggios and scales

Getting back to the roots of jazz, it's time to learn the basic structure of the blues form. The best way to learn this form is to use chord functions or Roman numerals. Contrary to most of the rules of classical, Western harmony, the blues uses a dominant seventh on all of its chords. This is why early blues and jazz was so revolutionary (and what helps to keep it so relevant and powerful even today). Although there are many variations on the blues form, Figure 8-8 shows you the basic twelve-bar structure.

Figure 8-8.

Basic blues form

Figure 8-9.

Blues with walking bass line

Now it's time to use a walking bass line in the blues. Figure 8-9 makes use of sixths and dominant seventh harmonic extensions. You'll again be integrating scales and arpeggios with the goal of creating compelling musical statements. Once you've mastered the bass line in Figure 8-9, practice filling in beats two, three, and four with your own walking bass variations.

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