Walking Bass Line Tutorial in 3 Steps (with Bass Tab)
The bass line is often the lifeblood of any song or live performance. A “walking” bass line is popular because it provides both energy and stability. If the bass lacks energy, then the song or performance will lack energy, too. In addition, if the bass is unstable, the song becomes unstable as well. The simplest way to elevate the emotional impact of your song is with a great bass line. This is true, whether you’re playing your a synth, upright, cello or bass guitar.
First and foremost a bass line must be stable. This is because it is, quite literally, the base (pun intended) upon which your musical structure stands. Like the foundation of a building, the bass line has to support all of the activity that depends and relies upon it. Fortunately, we can achieve this stability easily. We start by focusing on every musician’s best friend – the arpeggio.
Arpeggios will make your bass line stable by creating a solid link to the harmony (a.k.a. chords). Using arpeggio tones will spell out the harmony for your listeners. Since an arpeggio consists of the same pitches in any given chord, arpeggios function like chords. Great bass players make sure they’re using the notes in the current chord at all times. This takes effort and time to study and learn. However, learning to do this is essential, so… It’s like learning to mix concrete correctly before pouring the foundation of your house!
Next, an awesome bass line will convey plenty of energy. This gets people moving on the dance floor. Plus, it will animate the other musical elements in the song (like the melody or harmony). To help me make my point, I’ll replace the term “energy” with “motion” as we continue.
Motion in a bass line does 3 important things:
- Animates all of the other elements in the song
- Keeps the listener engaged
- Keeps feet on the dance floor
When a bass player continually moves between chord tones (notes in an arpeggio), they are well on their way to playing a walking bass line. When you hear it, a walking bass line has inherent motion. It *sounds* like walking *feels*. Hence, it is called a “walking” bass line – kinda obvious, right?!
Now, we have a way to stablize our bass guitar lines. We’ve also talked about creating motion (a.k.a. energy). In the following pages and paragraphs, we’re going to define a very simple, 3-step process for extracting a great walking bass line from ANY chord progression.
Step 1: Know Your Chord Progression and Chord Tones
We’re defining a very simple 3-step process for playing an awesome walking bass line under ANY chord progression. An awesome bass line requires a few essential characteristics:
- Motion (energy)
- Animation (enhancing harmony and melody)
So, the first thing we have to do is identify our chord progression. This is where you start, so you can determine the appropriate chord tones (a.k.a. arpeggio) for each chord. Let’s take a chord progression like this:
Of course, you always want to play an amazing and flexible bass line. But, how? When we know our chords, we can identify our arpeggio. Once we have that figured out, all we need to do is make sure our bass line relies on the 4 notes in our arpeggio for each chord. The 4 notes in an arpeggio would typically be:
- (R) the root note
- (3rd) the third – which would typically be major or minor
- (5th) the fifth
- (7th) the seventh – which would ALSO typically be major or minor
Note: We want to consider the 7th even if the chord progression is not specifying 7th chords. We want to do this because the 7th plays in important role in constructing any kind of bass line. You should assume that the 7th is implied even if it isn’t actually being played (this is one of those amazing psychoacoustic phenomenon that you want to be aware of)!
Anatomy of an Arpeggio
Keep in mind that its ideal to know your chord tones ASAP. That way, you can improvise and be expressive on bass, in realtime. In other words, you want to be able to translate a chord into an arpeggio within a couple of seconds (if not faster). That kind of familiarity will make it easier to play and create at the same time – which is really, really fun!
Take a look at the table below and the “anatomy of an arpeggio” on the right. Both will help explain the exact notes in our arpeggio for each of the 4 chords in our progression. These represent the pool of notes you’ll want to be playing. Also, these are the notes you want to be able to identify almost immediately, so that you can improvise and compose better walking bass lines. This isn’t really optional, so just do the work to memorize chords and arpeggios. You’ll be very, very glad you did!
Next, we want to separate out a very special kind of tone from our chord tones – we want the “common tones”. We’re going to see how common tones help us next.
Review Your Chord Tones/Arpeggios
On the previous page, we identified our chord progression and we talked about using chord tones (a.k.a. arpeggios) to build out the skeleton of our walking bass line. Below, you can see an example of the skeleton of our eventual walking bass line tab. Notice that we are starting with ascending arpeggios for each chord. This is too simple to pass for a bass line, but it is still where we want to start.
Load this jam track and play along.
Step 2: Know Your Common Tones
Now, we need to introduce the idea of common tones. We’ve already identified our chord tones and we’ll use these as scaffolding for our walking bass line. But, if we look again at our chord tones (see the info below), we’ll find a lot of tones in “common” between the chords. For example, the tone “A” is the root of our A chord (V), the 5th of our D chord (I) and the *implied* 7th of our Bm chord. I’ve tried to make this really clear by identifying all our common tones in below (look for matching common tones).
Common Tones and Motion
Remember back when we were talking about stability and motion? Common tones make it easier to build stability and motion into your bass guitar lines. A common tone is simply a tone that exists in 2 adjacent chords. For example, as we move through our chord progression starting on D and we moved to A, the common tone would be the note “A”. The note A is the 5th of D, while it is the root (R) of A.
We want to use this to our advantage, so that chord motion/transitions can be “glued” together, so to speak. So, we want to organize our note choices using common tones to maintain stability during chord transitions.
Check out the modified bass tab below. Here, we can see common tones in use (with the same color-coding as the table above).
Load this jam track and play along.
Elegance and Stability
Notice how the transitions from the D > A7 and from Bm > G both pivot quickly around common tones. The bass tab shows we’re using an A (fret 7 on the D string) in the measure that is using the D major chord. Then, on the A7, we start the measure on this exact same note. It makes for an elegant and stable transition between D > A7 because they share a common tone! Plus, its all the better that the common tone is the root of the A7 chord…
We saw how chord tones provide stability. Now, we can see how common tones maintain that stability and add motion. It is especially effective to use common tones during chord transitions. Next, we’re going to see how we can create even more motion.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Load this jam track and play along.
You can download the final walking bass line tab here: View Tab
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.
Now, Build Your Own Walking Bass Line
Now, let’s summarize how you can start taking advantage of the key points in this bass tutorial for yourself. A quick summary will keep things simple and straightforward:
First, by constraining our note choices to chord tones, we are reinforcing the chord progression. This contributes to the bass line being stable.
Next, by identifying common tones between chords, you can reinforce the line’s stability while enhancing the motion between chords. Common tones also maintain some “safe zones” on the fretboard (tones you can fall back on). With common tones, you know you can return to them at any point in time to lock in with the song’s chord progression.
Finally, you’ll want to explore using rhythmic variation, chromatics and leading tones to add contour and flow. Take it one step further by constraining your note choices to only those notes within 4 semitones (or frets) of your current location. Do all this and you can be sure that listeners are hearing a well-balanced and well-contoured bass line. If people understand your bass line intuitively, then they can groove to it.
Build Your Own Bass Guitar Lines
Music is a fascinating study, but it is an even richer experience. That’s what the following hands on exercise is all about. Now, it is time for you to compose your own walking bass line by following the 3 steps we just outlined. Don’t be shy – soon you’ll understand just how fun all of this music theory can be.
- Check out the jam track made especially for this tutorial. It contains exactly the chord progression we’ve been talking about and plays back at a tempo of 110 bpm.
- Play the arpeggios for each chord keeping time with the jam track. If this seems too hard at first, practice memorizing major, minor and dominant arpeggios – you can download arpeggio bass tab here.
- Be alert about playing common tones. Perhaps you could emphasize them by simply playing them twice as you’re playing the arpeggios in time, with the jam track. It doesn’t matter how you emphasize common tones as long as you’re training yourself to be aware of them. That’s the main idea – be aware of what you’re doing.
- Create more interest and motion using rhythmic variation, chromatics and leading tones.
- Next, navigate between notes, constraining yourself to notes that are within a 4 semitone range (or 4 frets) of your current location at any point in time. This is a great way to experiment with improvising and creating cool walking bass lines on-the-fly.
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 constrain 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!
Typically, students struggle to achieve all of this with satisfactory results. So, don’t be discouraged if your first attempt doesn’t result in an amazing bass line. Instead, continue to try this hands on exercise 5 or 6 more times. If you’re still having trouble, then you’d be well-advised to focus some time learning the following:
- Download this arpeggio bass tab and memorize the root position arpeggios for major, minor and dominant 7th chords. These are the main 3 chord qualities you need to master (and they will probably be all you’ll ever need). You’ll have them memorized when you can play them at 200 bpm with a metronome or drum machine.
- Learn the names of the arpeggio notes (i.e. chord tones) within every major, minor and dominant chord. Quiz yourself: “What’s the 7th of an Ab7 chord? What’s the 3rd of a G7 chord?” and so on…
The 3-step process outlined here is useful in any genre of music. I’ve used walking bass in rock bands, electronic music and cover bands. Once you master the technique, you’ll find that you can put your own artistic signature on your bass lines for whatever style you want to play. Remember that bass lines must be stable and have motion to be compelling. Mastering these 3 steps will empower your bass lines to always be stable and energetic. Furthermore, these 3 steps encourage improvisation, so your bass lines will always be your OWN creation.
If you have questions or something you’d like to add, please comment below. If you learned something new, let us know! Thanks for reading and good luck!