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This lesson will cover walking bass, a technique for improvising bass lines that’s used by musicians in many different genres from classical to jazz. You’ll learn about the technique and how musicians have used it throughout history.

A Walk in the Park

Get up.

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Step away from your screen. Go get a cup of coffee or a snack. I’ll wait.

Oh, and don’t forget to pay attention to the sound of your footsteps.Now, think about your walk to and from the kitchen. What did your footsteps sound like? They were probably regular and constant, like the ticking of a clock. Whatever tempo (speed) you took, it probably stayed the same the whole way. If you had stepped outside and walked down the street, the pulse would still probably have been constant, right? How about if you walked to the next town over? It might be a long walk, but it would have still had steady, regular footsteps.

This regular footstep pulse is everywhere in music, providing rhythm, drive, and stability in many different styles and genres. Jazz, bluegrass, and other kinds of musicians use a bass technique called walking bass to give their music that pulse. Walking bass lines are composed of moving notes with a constant, unchanging rhythm, like your footsteps might have when you’re walking. They’ve been used for centuries, everywhere from jazz and bluegrass to the baroque compositions of Bach and Handel. This lesson will take a look at walking bass throughout history and show you how musicians have used it in performance and composition.

Bass Lines

Walking bass is a form of bass line, or a musical line that usually provides the lowest voice of the musical texture. Many genres, including rock and pop (as well as older styles like Dixieland), use bass lines with regular rhythmic pulses, often either two or four notes to the measure.

However, many bass lines in these styles just repeat the root of the chord, or the note that the chord is based upon. When the harmony changes, so does the bass note, but there’s not much motion beyond that.

A chord with root, 3rd, and 5th
An early continuo part
Boogie-woogie bass line
A boogie-woogie bass line. Image by Hyacinth at Wikipedia.</p>
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<p>Walking bass is most readily associated with jazz, where musicians have used it in ensembles of all sizes and styles. Most often the bass lines are played by an acoustic or upright bass. The performer usually plucks the strings with his or her fingers instead of using a bow. This technique is called <b>pizzicato</b>. The jazz walking bass has its roots in <b>boogie-woogie</b>, a predecessor of swing, doo-wop, and other mid-20th-century genres. Boogie-woogie walking bass lines were often repetitive and simple, based primarily in chord tones but never repeating a note. Many boogie-woogie lines were based on <b>arpeggios</b>, patterns which move through each member of the chord in succession without any non-chord tones.</p>
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A bass played pizzicato
A bassist playing pizzicato.

With the advent of jazz, and especially with the development of bebop (a fast, heavily improvised style of jazz) in the 1930s and 40s, bassists began to improvise walking bass lines from start to finish. As with other styles, they would often play the roots and fifths of chords to provide structure while also using arpeggios and non-chord tones. Jazz bassists often include other techniques in their walking bass lines to embellish the regular pulse.

These can include:

  • Grace notes, short added notes that precede a regular note of the bass line, sounding something like a musical hiccup.
  • Raking, a series of short grace notes preceding a member of the bass line, so called because the bassist ‘rakes’ his/her fingers across the strings of the instrument to sound the grace notes before arriving back at the bass line.
  • Pedal point, in which the bassist breaks from the walking bass and holds a chord tone (usually the root or fifth) for multiple beats, and sometimes over the span of multiple harmonies.

In the sample bass line provided, note that most of the notes are quarter notes, meaning they last for only one beat. If you don’t read music, notice that many notes are the same shape, which means they have the same rhythmic value.

The use of grace notes and raking has been labeled for you.

A sample bass line
A sample jazz bass line - note the use of grace notes and rakes. Image by Greg Simon.</p>
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<h2>Lesson Summary</h2>
<p>While often associated with jazz, walking bass can be found in any genre. It is simply a moving bass line consisting of a constant rhythmic pulse; the walking bass name refers to the footstep-like regularity of the rhythmic motion. Regardless of the genre, walking bass lines use a combination of chord tones and non-chord tones (such as passing and neighbor tones) to outline and embellish harmonic progressions. Early walking bass lines can be found in the basso continuo patterns of the Baroque era, while later walking bass is popularly used in boogie-woogie and especially in jazz.</p>
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