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
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.
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.
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.