Walking Bass Line Tutorial in 3 Steps (with Bass Tab)

Step 3: Contour and Flow Create Motion

There are a couple of terms that we'll want to use to talk about the final step of our walking bass tutorial.  The first term is "Contour".  Contour is a term that describes the transitions from note to note.  Bass lines with a smooth contour are more desirable, stable and ultimately more energetic.  A jagged contour (when your fingers leap all over the fretboard) is less desirable, less stable and distracting.

[bctt tweet="Bass lines with a smooth contour are more desirable, stable and ultimately more energetic." username="music_protest"]

Better Bass Guitar Lines: Rhythm, Chromatics and Leading Tones

Before we look more deeply at contour, let's introduce the second term: "Flow".  Flow refers to the predictability the listener experiences from note to note.  The pursuit of flow should inform our choice of chord tones and common tones.  Ultimately, you want the listener to be able to anticipate where you're going with your bass line.  If they can anticipate where you're going, that means they're engaged!

The best ways to create contour and flow are:

  • Rhythmic variation
  • Chromatics ("wrong" notes)
  • Leading tones (more on this in a minute)

Rhythmic Variation

Put simply, rhythmic variation is changing up the rhythm of your phrases so that it flows differently.  Simply allow the rhythm to fluctuate between larger and smaller subdivisions of the beat.  In the next bass tab example, you'll see use of 1/8th notes mixed with 1/4 notes.  Even this simple rhythmic variation contributes interest and motion to our bass line.

Chromatics ("Wrong" Notes)

Chromatics aren't necessarily "wrong" notes, but they are NOT in the key.  This means that they aren't natural chord tones and they will typically sound "tense".  But, as long as that tension "resolves", it can sound great!  In the walking bass line tab below, I've used a chromatic at the end of measure 2.  I play a C on the 4th beat of measure 2.  Our chord progression is in the key of D major, which doesn't contain a C (it contains C#).  Also important - the A7 chord that governs measure 2 uses C# as a chord tone.  Would you think that's a strike against my note choice?  NO, there's method to this madness!  Notice how elegantly, the C# moves to the C (my chromatic choice) and then on down to B?  Chromatics need to be resolved, so I end my "chromatic line" on B.

Leading Tones

A leading tone is a tone that is a half-step below a specific note:

  • B is the leading tone of C.
  • A is the leading tone of Bb.
  • F# is the leading tone of G.

In fact, F# is my note choice as measure 3 transitions to measure 4 in the bass tab below.  F# is the 7th degree of a G major scale (that's the definition of a leading tone).  The effect that F# has "leading" into measure 4 is that it sounds as if we're "leading" the listeners' ear to a final destination, right?  We are!  In this case, F# is a chord tone within Bm AND it is a note that lives in our home key (D major).  So, this isn't a chromatic, instead it is a leading tone.

In the example below, you'll find all 3 important upgrades to our bass line - rhythmic variation, chromatics and leading tones. Walking bass should be an expression of stability, motion, contour and flow.

Walking Bass Line Tab Step 3: Contour & Flow

You can download the final walking bass line tab here: View Tab

[bctt tweet="Walking bass should be an expression of stability, motion, contour and flow." username="music_protest"]

Note: It is also unlikely that your bass line will have the right mix of stability AND motion unless you combine your note choices with good contour and flow.

Pro Tip: Enforce Smooth Contour in Major 3rds (M3)

Constraining your bass line's motion to the interval of a major third is another helpful guide to follow.   This enforces the right balance between  motion and stability, because you don't move too far from note to note. Of course, there are never any hard and fast rules in music.  Plenty of great bass lines use 4ths, 5ths and octaves.

Note: A major third (M3) is defined as the musical distance of 4 semitones (or 2 whole tones).  On a bass guitars fretboard, this translates to 4 frets.

So, now that you know your chord tones and common tones you can flesh out a walking bass line.  Once you develop your creation with the aforementioned idea of contour and flow, you'll be impressed that your bass lines take on new life.   Your new bass lines can be polished further if you constraine notes in direction by fewer than 4 semitones (or 4 frets) at a time.  Do all this and you can add "walking bass lines" to your musical resume.  Congratulations!

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