Walking Bass Line Basics

June 1, 2011

by Andy LaVerne

Jazz pianists are always on the lookout for good bass players. They’re always in demand and can therefore be difficult to find. Fortunately, thanks to the nature of keyboard instruments, if all else fails, we can take matters into our own hands—our left hands, to be exact.

All great bass players have two things in common: They walk great bass lines, and they create great grooves. Additional components of convincing bass lines are note choice and forward motion. The bass provides the rhythmic and harmonic foundation for the rest of the band, so it’s imperative that there’s no hesitation when walking a bass line. In jazz, the quarter-note pulse generated by the bassist is mirrored by the drummer’s ride cymbal. The subtle accents and anticipations in the bass line are the glue that holds the groove together.

Here are some exercises to help you get your bass lines together. You can practice each one in four ways, ascending in complexity. To start, play the left hand alone as all quarter-notes, without the grace notes and anticipations. Second, play the left hand alone with grace notes and anticipations. From there, advance to playing the left hand as quarternotes only, but add the right hand chords. Finally, play the left hand including all embellishments, along with the right hand chords.

Click thumbnails to enlarge sheet music examples. Scroll down for audio examples.

1. Roots and Chromatic Approach Notes

Ex. 1a builds bass lines with roots and chromatic approach notes only, and is a good way to ease into bass lines. This technique works well with a harmonic rhythm of two chords per measure (in 4/4 time). We’re using chromatic approach notes from a half-step below the root of the next chord.

Ex. 1b is similar, but uses chromatic approach notes a half-step above the root of the next chord.

In Ex. 1c, we build bass lines with a combination of roots and approach notes a half-step above and a half-step below the root of the next chord.

2. Roots, Fifths, and Scalar Tricks

When faced with longer harmonic rhythms, the use of roots and fifths goes a long way. First play Ex. 2a as quarter-notes only, omitting grace notes and eighth-note triplets. (Play the first note of the eighth-note triplet as a quarter-note.) Notice the chromatic approach notes (upper and lower), along with repeated notes. Next, add the grace notes and triplet.


Ex. 2b adds scalar or stepwise motion to the mix. Here we walk up diatonically, but with the addition of chromatic tones. Use the same procedure as previously, playing left-hand quarter-notes only, then adding grace notes and anticipations along with the right hand chords. img

Ex. 2c adds stepwise descending and ascending motion.

3. I Got Bass Line!

Ex. 3 is built over chord changes based on George Gershwin’s jazz standard “I Got Rhythm,” incorporating many of the devices from the previous examples. “Rhythm Changes,” as they’re often called, make a great practice platform, as they employ varying harmonic rhythms and common chord progressions. Notice the use of octave displacement: going up or down the octave as the chords change. Try breaking this exercise up into smaller ones, and make sure to practice with a metronome. You can also accent the second and fourth beats of each measure for varying dynamic effect.

imgPianist, composer, and longtime Keyboard contributor Andy LaVerne has played and recorded with such renowned artists as Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Chick Corea. A Professor of Jazz Piano at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, his latest CD is titled Live From NY! Visit him at andylaverne.com. -- Jon Regen

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06-2011 Walking Bass Line Basics by KeyboardMag

*Video: Andy breaks down "How Deep Is the Ocean."

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