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When improvising or writing a walking bass line the bass note (usually the root of the chord) is played on the chord change, but how do you choose the other notes for a walking bass line? Is there a pattern or technique that is used to write/improvise the line and are there certain sets of notes that are preferred or avoided when writing/improvising a walking bass line?

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Listen to a ton of Charlie Hayden and Paul Chambers recordings. Study & practice ~_* –  Carl Witthoft Jul 18 at 11:51
    
very lazy advice –  Michael Martinez Jul 18 at 19:11

6 Answers 6

A walking bass line can in principle contain arbitrary chromatic runs, but obviously it's not a good idea to do that all the time. Often it's best to keep mostly to the chord notes and add some extra melodic spice just when it makes sense for supporting the harmonic movement. Other times, there may be a particular melodic line consisting almost entirely of diatonic scale elements that fits the harmonies really well.

What notes to choose for a song depends of course on what style it's supposed to sound like. A "walking bass" that's reduced mostly to a I-V alternation will sound a lot like country/folk; a line with many chord tones including minor 7ths and perhaps minor 3rds in a major key is of course bluesy, and the more melody, chromaticity and modality you add the more firmly the result will be jazz.

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The point of a bass line is to express the melody and harmony of a song.

This means that you should play the notes that make up the chord as well as the notes of the melody. I know that sometimes this is hard, because a chord has (usually) a minimum of 4 notes and the melody can have as many and even more, but you need to find the most important ones.

So, to find out what notes you'll play, you need to think this:

What instruments am I playing with? (besides drums).

  • If you have a lead instrument in the band, like a trumpet or a sax or a singer, you won't need to cover the melody. The lead instrument will take care of that.
  • If you have a lead instrument but not a piano, you'll need to express clearly the harmony to the lead instrument, or else, he won't be able to solo.
  • If you don't have a lead instrument, let's say it's just a piano-bass-drums trio, (most likely) you'll need to express the melody as well; the piano can take care of that, but you'll need to fill in.
  • If you are the only musician along with a drummer, you'll need to play the melody and the harmony at the same time.

Now, choosing the correct notes:

Like I said, there are many notes that you could/should play, but no one can play them all.

  • What I usually do, is take every bar and play it by itself. I see the chord(s) that are being played as well as the melody and see what notes I like better.
  • Next thing I do is to see where the melody is taking me. I will try to find the notes of the melody that drive me to the next chord/bar of melody.

The melody and the chords are connected, so the one leads to the other. What you need is to find the notes that have this work in a song and play them.

A great great great example is Marc Johnson. He used to play with Bill Evans before the latter died. You can listen to Bill's live recording called Last Waltz (can't find a decent copy online) and more specifically the song Nardis. In that song you'll hear how the walking bass line expresses the harmony and fills in the melody. At the bass solo (where there is no other instrument), you'll hear the melody as well as the harmony.

When you are a beginner on walking bass, you should mainly stick to the chord/melody notes. If you try to play notes that don't belong might sound more dissonant than you want. Some chromatic notes are nice and good, but don't overdo it unless you are really experienced with jazz harmony and you know what you are doing.

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Mark J. Smith’s video lessons at TalkingBass.net include an excellent introduction to walking bass lines.

His technique is to target a chord tone (usually the root) at each chord change, using three kinds of walking movement to make the musical journey between each target note. You can use arpeggios, scales, or chromatic passing tones to make the journey. Arpeggios are good for covering large distances between notes, while chromatic notes add color between closer notes.

Smith plans to add more lessons in his walking bass series, but even with just the overview, it was a huge help to me.

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I once wrote a software walking jazz bass line generator that created reasonable bass lines in 4/4 time given a key and a sequence of chords (one chord per measure). Source code is not available but I'll explain the basics of the algorithm here. I know it's not really art and it only represents a gross simplification of the actual practice, but it can give you a starting idea.

  • On the first beat, play the root. (*)
  • On the fourth beat, play either (*):
    • The note that is one degree below the root of the next chord . If diatonically it's a major second away from the next root, you can optionally raise it chromatically.
    • The note that is diatonically one degree above the root of the next chord. If it's a major second and you played this note on the third beat, you can use a chromatically lowered version of it here (my favorite, but use sparingly).
    • The fifth of the next root (only if it's diatonic in the main key).
  • On the second and third beat, connect the first and fourth notes either with an arpeggio using chord notes or with a diatonic or chromatic stepwise walk. Having a chord note on the third beat is better.

The code was also littered with rules about what types of jumps were acceptable (stepwise motion is always acceptable) between which beats but it's probably better to go with your ear here.

(*) These rules don't cover a cool jazz trick: If the previous chord's root and the current chord root form a descending fifth (or ascending fourth) interval, you can play the minor seventh of the previous chord on the fourth beat of the previous bar and start the new bar with the third of the current chord. If used sparingly, it works quite well on V > I progressions. (like G B D F | E . . . for G7 | Cmaj7)

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"Improvising" live according to a deterministic algorithm, why not... –  leftaroundabout Jul 18 at 11:28

When I'm composing a walking bass line, I think there are a few goals to complete, depending on how well I can play the tune or the progression.

  1. Play simple chord tones, maybe 1-3-5-3 or 1-3-5-7 through the tune. Better this than a trainwreck!
  2. Play only chord tones, but connect them to create a smooth motion. So for a I-IV progression I might play (I)1-3-5-7 (IV)3-1-3-5 .

    (these are the scale notes according to each chord in case that isn't clear

  3. Play chord tones on beats 1 and 3, as these are harmonically the most important notes to hit, and use scalar or chromatic notes to connect these. So for a I-IV-V I might play (I)1-3-5-b5 (IV)1-b1-1-b2 (v)1-b7-6-5

  4. Use scalar notes to create a very smooth wave like motion, up the scales through a few chords, then down through a few. I might get wayyy up the neck doing this, then come all the way back down. It keeps it very interesting and can bring a lot of energy to the song, but always be careful of inappropriately going to high and then losing the bass aspect.

These are just some tips for note choice, but remember that throwing a good balance of ghost notes in there and rhythmic variation (triplets!!) can keep it bouncy, fun, and exciting. However to get to the level where you can improvise that sort of stuff takes some serious work so don't feel bad about sticking with technique #1!

It's also sometimes very hard to hear in older recordings, but transcription of bass parts is a great great way to understand what these amazing players are thinking over the chords and what kind of sounds they are using. Even transcribing guitar parts/solos can give you this insight, too!

Happy walking

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The role of the bass primarily is to highlight not only the chord's root but it's fifth as well. You can approach the root and/or fifth with either:

  • a chromatic approach (half-step below)
  • a diatonic note (from the scale of the key the passage is in.)
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