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Learning how to walk basslines on guitar is not only a fun exercise and skill to get under your fingers,

but it is also a practical skill for a modern guitarist to get down. Being able to walk a bassline, and add comping if you like, allows you to play duos with singers, pianists, horn players and other guitarists, holding down the low end in your comping as the other musician improvises and/or plays the melody. While it may seem like a difficult task, learning how to walk basslines on guitar, if you break it down into a number of smaller, easier steps, this process becomes much more manageable. In this article we will explore five easy and fun exercises that will take you from playing wholenote basslines all the way up to walking quarter notes over your favorite tunes. For each of these steps, take your time. It is much more important to get a full grasp of one step before moving on than it is to skim through all 5 quickly. Walking basslines can be tricky, but if you have each step firmly under your fingers and in your ears, this process becomes much more manageable. Have a question or comment about this lesson? Post it in the Walking Basslines for Jazz Guitar thread at the MWG Forum.

Step 1: Whole Notes

The first step is to play the root note as a whole note for each chord in the progression. You can see this in the example below with the ii-V-I-VI changes in the key of C. There is a great Joe Pass saying that goes, When the chord changes, you change, and this is very applicable for walking basslines on guitar. When there is a new chord in the progression, you will want to play the root of that chord, at least for now. So starting with whole notes, or half notes if you are working on a tune that has more than one chord in each bar, is a great way to get this idea under your fingers and in your ears. Try playing this example, then take it to other keys, or apply it to another progression or tune that youre working on. The goal is to play one note per chord, in this case whole notes, and only use the root for each chord to create a strong base to build up as you move towards building a full, walking bassline. If you need to review this approach, check out my article Walking Basslines for Guitar: Construction, Whole Notes and Summertime.

Step 2: Half Notes

The next step is to add a second note in each bar, on beat three, to give you a half-note bassline. When doing so, you are going to want to approach each new chord by a half-step. Check out the example below. Notice how the first note in each bar is the tonic, and then the second note in each bar leads into the next tonic note by a half-step above or below that note. This is an important aspect of walking basslines, approaching chord tones by half steps, so it is worth spending the time on to really get into your ears and under your fingers. When you look at this example, you will notice that some half-step approaches are chromatic, outside the scale, and some are diatonic, from inside the scale. Both ways are fine, it depends on the situation. If you look at bar 2, the G7 chord, I used B to approach the Cmaj7 chord in bar 3, which is a diatonic half-step below the bass note C. I could have just as easily used Db to C in a chromatic approach from above in that bar. Its just a matter of taste when you have the option between playing diatonic and chromatic halfstep approach notes, and experience and the tune/feel/gig will help determine which one you use when you have the option. If you need to review this approach further, check out my article How to Play Basslines on Guitar: Half Note Exercises.

Step 3: Dotted Half Notes

The next step in the process is a rhythmic variation on the previous step. Here, you will play the first note in each bar as a dotted half-note, and the second note in the bar as a quarter note. This will help you add in the other quarter notes in the next two steps that will build your full walking bassline. When walking a quarter note bassline, the last quarter note in each bar will normally lead by halfstep to the root of the next chord. So, in this case you can hear how that approach sounds, with beat 4 of each bar leading by half-step to the next root, and no its just a matter of filling in the other two beats.

Step 4: 2 Quarter Notes

You can now start to fill in the other two quarter notes by adding a note on beat 3 of each bar. When doing so it is a good idea to start with a chord tone on beat 3, but this isnt always necessary as you will see in the Blues example below. Try learning the example below, and then take a progression or tune you are working on and apply this idea to those forms as well. Being able to see the tonic on beat 1, a chord tone on beat 3 and then a chromatic note on beat 4, and later beat 2 as in the next step, is essential to being able to walk basslines on the spot. So take your time with this idea, and work it into as many different musical situations and keys as you can before moving on to the next step in the process.

Step 5: Walking Basslines

You are now ready to fill in beat 2 of the bar and complete a full, walking bassline. To do so, you can add in either a chord tone or a chromatic note in this position, its up to you and your musical tastes which one you prefer and when. In the example below I used both, chromatic and diatonic notes, to fill in the second beat of each bar. This is cool too, using both interchangeably throughout a phrase or tune. Again, let your ears be your guide when choosing to work inside or outside of the given chord/scale in any given bar. This is not going to be easy to do on the fly if you are just starting out. So, what I did when I learned how to walk basslines, was I took a tune and wrote out 5-10 different basslines for that tune using the steps in this lesson. I then memorized those written out basslines and then began to create some of my own on the spot once I had them down. Then I would move onto a different tune and repeat the compose-memorize-play-improvise process all over again. If you do this with 3-4 tunes, youll be surprised how well you get this five-step approach under your fingers and into your ears, allowing you to apply it on the fly with tunes you know, or even with tunes that you are playing for the first time.

F Blues Bassline Example

To finish things up I have written out a bassline over a jazz blues in F progression. Here, I used a few common exceptions to the rule to show you how jazz guitarists and bassists bend the above rules a bit here and there to fit the musical situation. I did this in bars 1 and 4, where I put a non-chord tone on beat three, the Ab, and a chord tone on beat 4, the A. I did this because the A leads by half-step into the root of the next chord, Bb, and so it was a smoother transition than if I had placed the A on beat 3 and proceeded from there. As you get more comfortable with walking basslines, youll learn to see these exceptions and apply them to your own playing as well. And as always, the best way to learn how the pros do it is to transcribe basslines from records. Start with Blue Seven by Sonny Rollins. The opening two choruses are just walking bass, the second with drums, and so it is easy to hear. Its a classic bassline and one that is worth checking out in the practice room.