If you are looking into how to play walking bass lines, there is a good chance you are past the beginning stages of piano. And while the lessons you will often find are geared around jazz piano; you can use walking bass lines in rockabilly, pop, rock n roll, boogie woogie, and so much more. Knowing how they work and how to play them will greatly increase the songs you can play and improvisation skills, plus they help with learning theory!
A little Music Theory Review
The point of the bass and drums in music is to get a specific vibe or groove going. That’s why it is called the rhythm section, they take care of the initial “feel” while the melody adds musical complexity and even story. And just as there are common chord progressions used there are also common bass and drum rhythms used depending on the genre.
Start with the Chord and Progression
The walking bass basically outlines the chords as they are played. Remember a basic major chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of the scale. We flatten or raise the third and fifth to get minor, augmented, diminished, or sus chords. And then on top of that we can add more notes to the triad to get 6th, 7th, 9th chords and more.
The key is to use the notes in the chord to get your bass line. So if we play a C major then our bass notes will revolve around C-E-G. And then when you switch to the next chord the bass will change to the appropriate chords.
The Walking Bass Basics
Another common feature of the walking bass is the use of syncopated quarter notes (this means on the beat). Most of the time it will be played in this very simple manner, which is great news for beginners. Later as we expand into genres like rock and funk, we will spice these notes up by adding some syncopation and 1/8 notes.
So – let’s get started!
One of the easiest first lines to learn has a simple boogie woogie vibe. Imagine a simple song with the chords C-F-G, starting on the second octave of your piano play quarter notes like so;
…that was for the C chord now…
…for the F chord and finish up with…
…the G chord. And then you can end it all on C again.
Voila you played a walking bass line. Now to technically make it a boogie woogie you will play the same line above but jumping on each note to the next octave. So C to C, E to E, G to G, A to A, and then the next octave C-C. This long stretch of your hand can be difficult so it’s fine to play the simplified version. You may have noticed that with the A in the bassline we are outlining a 6th chord, which is common in boogie woogie. If you play this walking bass line and add some C, F, G 6th, 7th, and 9th chords in with your right hand… you have a basic rock n roll Jerry Lee Lewis song going on.
Walking Bass in Jazz
Many folks who look into walking bass lines are potentially going to play jazz, so you will not see the C-F-G (I-IV-V) progression as much as you will see the common jazz Dm-G-C (ii-V-I). And just like in other genres you will be adding notes to really give it more flavor; it is common to see ii7-V7-Imaj7.
A great example of this is the famous song “Autumn Leaves.”
This song is often used in beginning jazz bass lessons as it is a perfect example of the walking bass line and the ii-v-I progression. This progression stays the same, but you notice the keys are changing. The Cm7-F7-Bbmaj is the ii-V-I and then we pivot on the Ebmaj to the relative minor of Bb which is Gm in the next ii-V-I. It’s not as complicated as it may have seemed at first, and that is what is so great about learning a little theory.
Regardless of the genre you play these walking bass lines will mostly be simple quarter notes that outline your chords and progressions. The easy quarter notes are great for practicing your left hand, while learning the chords you are playing. Even if your sheet music doesn’t have the chords above you can look at the notes of that walking bass line and have a great idea of what they may be (generally the first note of each measure is the root).
Popular Examples for Practice
There are so many songs and practice routines for walking bass lines that you will never have a problem finding examples. Depending on your particular level will determine the exact exercise and sheet music that you can play. If you are really advanced, you can tackle an ambitious Autumn Leaves!
- Joseph Kosma – Autumn Leaves (Level 54)
You will find songs are done in different keys (some try to stay true to original, while others are changed to suit player level). Even if a piece of sheet music may be a little advanced, break the keys and chords down, it is great practice. As you learn a new chord, outline the bass notes in quarter notes, and before you know it you will be doing as much improvising as playing other people’s songs!
- Michael Bublè – Moondance (Level 59)
- Queen – Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Level 64)
- Pink Floyd – Money (Level 50)
At Pink Floyd’s Money the walking bass is in a little different time signature, which gives it a unique feel.
Once you have a couple weeks of practice with left hand quarter notes you will start to feel more comfortable with bass lines. If you have ever wondered how a great musician seems to be able to play almost any song, it is because they know the chord progressions, common riffs, and rhythms for each style of music. And now that you know how to play a walking bass line you have a great idea of how to play jazz, boogie woogie, rockabilly, pop, and rock. Just keep studying those chords and eventually you will be able to play almost any song!