How to Play a Walking Bass Line

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If you are ready to swing your grooves with a jazz band, you need to know exactly how to approach your instrument. One of the major "must knows" for jazz is knowing how to play a walking bass line. Whether you are reading tab paper or sheet music, finding the right approach will make all the difference in how the bass sounds with the rest of the group.

  • Figure out the root note of each of the measures. This will typically be written in on the staff paper, even if it is tab. For example, if the song has a C as the guide note, you know that this is the root note you will start on.

  • Think about how this relates to other notes. You want to find notes that will fit in with the original root note that you have. The easiest way to do this is to just play a C over and over again. However, you can walk around this by walking up the next interval, or fret, then go back down again. You can also go up two intervals or frets, then back down again. The idea is to circle around the root note that the sheet music starts you on.

  • Use chord structures. An easy way to walk without sounding like you hit the wrong note is to understand the chords in each of the measures. This will typically be the root note, plus the third and fifth of the measure. If all else fails, go to these notes. For example, if the structure starts on C, you can use an E and a G as the next sets of notes to ease the tension or finding something that doesn't quite fit. If you want to step up a little more to the right notes, walk up to the E, then back to the C with the D in between.

  • Find the same notes in different places. An easy way to make sure that you are walking into the right area is to find the similar notes on the neck of the bass from the bottom to the top. If your C is the first note, find all of the Cs on the bass neck. Use this as your guideline to walk into different areas on the instrument. You can then start making patterns while you are making walking lines.

  • Think about rhythm. The most important part of playing the walking bass line is not just about where you walk, but how you walk. Typically, walking bass lines will be an even and consistent sound because it is part of the rhythm section and needs to keep a steady beat. You will want to use straight quarter notes, hitting one note every time there is a beat. At times, you can add in a little extra swing, like an eighth or sixteenth note that leads back to the strong beat, but make sure that it always goes back to the stronger rhythm areas.

Tips & Warnings

  • Don't be too cautious about what you are doing. Walking bass is not something that is dictated or strict in how you play it. Have fun with going to different sounds and notes and walking to the different areas of the bass.

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