Here’s what we know. Walking bass lines are cool, deceptively simple, and every bass player wants to learn how to play them at some point. They convey tons of movement, and they build a scaffold for the rest of the band to play around. However, knowing those things still doesn’t quite tell us what a walking bass line is.
The main question when we break this down is, really, what makes a bass line “walking?” There are some specifics that all walking bass lines share. And while some bass lines might sound like they fall into this category, they might not. So, let’s take a look at the rules and the characteristics that make up a walking bass line.
Structure of a walking bass line
Quarter notes are king
Walking bass lines have a very specific kind of structure that most bass players stick to without too much deviation. In general, they will be made up of straight quarter notes, one per beat, four per bar. This is what gives the feeling of movement and carries the song forward on the low end. It’s also what provides a feeling of structure, especially when the rest of the band is playing rhythmically complicated parts and solos.
This isn’t to say that there is no deviation from those quarter notes whatsoever. There will be. And this is partly where a musician is able to be creative within a pretty strict structure. Just like a good poet can make a rigid poetic form completely unique and amazing, a great bass player can weave the most incredible sounds from the limited structure of a walking bass line.
Outlining and supporting chord progressions
In terms of notes played, a walking bass line’s main goal is to outline the chord progressions of the song as a whole. It’s also important for the bass line to connect chords by leading from one to another smoothly as well as overall sections of a song.
A good walking bass line can sound both random and completely expected at the same time. This is because while the bass notes will frame the chords being played by the rest of the band, the bass player has the freedom to choose the specific notes within that chord to play. They can also choose the ordering of notes each time they come to that chord again in the song.
For instance, if the guitar player is playing a C chord, the bass player can outline that by playing any of the notes within the C scale, for the most part. And when the guitar moves on to another chord, say a G, the bass can then use all of the notes in the G scale to support that. There are traditions and rules that determine what notes a bass player might use in each case. However, there is a lot of freedom as well.
Expressing creativity in a walking bass line
So, let’s explore how it’s even possible to find creativity in what seems like such a rigid thing. I’ve explained how someone might use scale notes to find diversity in the sound of a bass line. But, there’s even more to consider.
Think about the notes of a scale. Then, add the fact that there are octaves above and below that we can move to. And, there are many different intervals within a scale that we can play. If you add all of that together, a bass player has a LOT of options when it comes to simply outlining chords.
Breaking the rules
And what about that strict, one quarter note per beat rhythm? Well, again, rules are made to be broken, right? Some bass players might stick closely to that rhythm the whole way through a song. Others will use ghost notes and carefully and judiciously placed short runs to connect sections. As long as the main driving feel of the bass line is that four quarter notes per bar kind of feel, you may still have a legitimate walking bass line.
Then, let’s combine both of these aspects together and realize the possibilities. When you see how many options a bass player has in terms of notes, intervals, and rhythmic flair, it’s pretty clear to see how walking bass lines, even within a clear structure, can be almost anything. It’s also one of the main reasons why it’s so hard for beginners to know how to play a real walking bass line.
The main thing is, learn the rules, know the rules really well, and then break the rules. But, you have to break the rules in the right way. Easy, right?
Here’s Ari Roland explaining a bit about how to play walking bass lines on a double bass. Pay close attention to how his lines sound, all while he stresses the importance of quarter notes.
How to start with walking bass lines
The two feel
Using two half notes per bar, a bass player can express a similar feeling to a standard walking bass line. It will be slower, obviously, and not convey as much movement. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, some top-level bass players might use the two feel as a lead-in before going into the main quarter note feel of the rest of the song.
The two feel is also a great way to learn how to play walking bass lines. It can be easier to follow the changes within a song, and it requires less on-the-spot thinking as you move from chord to chord. It can also be a terrific way to learn how to play around chord progressions. If you’re only playing two notes per bar, you have more time to think about what notes make up the chord you’re currently on, and what might come next.
If you’re looking to get good at walking bass lines, you’ll want to dig into a bit of music theory for bass. You don’t necessarily need a master’s degree in music composition in order to understand how to play these bass lines. However, a little bit of knowledge of the circle of fifths and how basic chord progressions work will allow you to know where to go within a song and how best to get there.
Walking bass lines in jazz and blues
Walking bass lines are made to support a style of music that is largely based on lots of chord changes and soloing. Both jazz and blues are like this, even more so with jazz. When we hear a walking bass line, we almost always immediately think…ah yeah that’s jazz. They’ve become so intertwined over time, that the sound of a good walking bass line conjures up the image of a small jazz combo right away.
The main difference between the two, however, is that generally, you’ll notice a lot more repetition in a blues walking bass line. In a jazz setting, you’ll usually hear more variation in the notes and the patterns the bassist plays. A blues bass line will often feel a lot more regular and repeating to allow that blues feel to set in and let the guitars and vocals do the rest.
Walking bass lines can sound and feel like magic. It’s hard to take a set form and do something absolutely creative and poetic with it. When a master does it, it’s an amazing thing to hear and to watch.
If you’re looking to pick up this very useful skill, start slow with the two feel and practice a lot with backing tracks at different tempos. There are tons of great tutorials out there on YouTube and other places online. Find your favorite, and commit to practicing a bit every day. Pretty quickly you’ll learn not only what a walking bass line is, but how versatile and important they can be as well.