MUSIC THEORY— Composing Bass Lines, Part 2

Walking Bass Lines

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     So on the first two bars, we’re going to outline the A chord by playing the tonic note on the down beat followed by the 3rd (C#) , the 5th (E) and the 6th(F#).  The F# leads us to the D on the downbeat of the next measure followed by C#, B and A. The next two bars are both A chords so we can play the same riff as the first measure followed by E, C#, B and then A again. You should be getting the idea by now so try filling in the rest of the progression yourself. If you need some help, click here for an audio demo. Don’t forget  to include the C (flatted 7th f the D chord) in the last bar in order to outline the dominant 7th for the turnaround.


      Boogie bass lines are just really long riffs that repeat several times over the repetition of the chord progression. Composing flowing, melodic bass lines is an art that takes practice and a good ear to pick up where you’re going. Since the movement of the above example is mostly scale-wise, the first thing to do to break the mold and create your own style is to play the notes in an other than scale-wise fashion. You can accomplish this by skipping the 3rd and going directly to the 5th or 6th and then working your way back to the 3rd in a couple of different ways. One thing I like to do is to play the tonic, the 5th, the tonic again and then the 3rd. You still get the movement  but  it’s not predictable. Another way is to go from the tonic to the 6th, then the 3rd and finally the 5th. A couple entirely different walking bass patterns would be tonic, 6th, 3rd 5th or tonic, 2nd, 5th, 3rd. Experiment with all the notes in the scale including the 7th.  The only note you can’t use is the flatted 7th unless the chord happens to be a dominant 7th. Adding some slides from either above or below the note will add some interest. Playing chromatically for a bar will add some tension and it doesn’t hurt to mimic the melody for a bar or two in places but don’t overdo it. 


For some great examples of fluid, melodic walking bass lines, listen to Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones from Led Zepellin, Chris Squire from YES, Geddy Lee from Rush, or just about any bass player from a progressive rock or jazz fusion band.

      Walking bass lines are a special class of bass line that can provide a contrapunctual (counterpoint) melody to the song or they can outline the chord structure in a scale-wise fashion. They can be free form or riff- based and are used often in jazz and blues but have found their way into rock, rockabilly, ska, and many other genres. They are of equal value,  never  syncopated and follow the meter of the song. So, if the song is in 4/4 time, there will be 4 quarter notes in each measure, one on each beat.  The tones are generally from the scale of the chord they’re played over but can include passing tones outside the scale. Many times arpeggios are used to outline the chordal structure.  So what are the rules for coming up with them?


    One type of walking bass line is the boogie-woogie bass line and the general pattern is that it rises in pitch for the first bar and then descends during the second bar and basically repeats this pattern for the remainder of the song. To keep things simple, let’s us our familiar 12 bar blues with alternating I and IV chords in A for the first section and a D7 at the end for a turnaround. Just as a reminder, the progression goes as follows – A/D/A/A/D/D/A/A/E/D/A/D7.