“Walking” refers to a type of bass line which uses continuous quarter notes to drive the music forward, usually in conjunction with a drummer’s ride cymbal and/or hi hat cymbal. Walking bass lines set the foundation for a swing groove by creating a strong pulse and a flowing, connected sound.
While advanced level walking lines strive to create linear movement and outline the chord changes, fundamental techniques and skills should be developed fully before moving into harmonic considerations.
The primary function of the line is to groove, provide a good steady pulse, and make the music swing. The notes should be a secondary consideration. For that reason, we will start with the simplest line possible and build from there, focusing on time and feel, first and foremost.
The simplest notes to play, which fulfill the primary role of a walking bass line, are the roots of the chords. Roots played in quarter notes through a chord progression tell everyone the harmonic foundation of a tune.
First, you’ll need to know the names of the notes. The diagram below shows the locations and names of the notes in the 1st position on a bass guitar, or ½ and 1st positions for the upright bass. For example, the E string is the bottom horizontal line, and notes move higher in pitch as they move to the right on each string.
The notation below shows the locations of the first position notes on the bass clef staff. Learning all the notes and how to read them in music notation does not have to be learned all at once, or at first. You can learn them as the song or exercise you’re working on requires them. Also, while reading and sight-reading is a wonderful long term goal, it is not needed to begin playing music.
We’ll begin with a basic 12-bar blues in the key of C, which will use the notes C, F, and G as the roots of the chords. A simple chord chart, which shows the chords, how long each chord lasts, and what order they are in, is shown below.
The diagonal slashes that appear in some bars indicate continuation of the previously specified chord. Often, slashes will mean “make up your part” based on the chord symbols and the genre you are playing. In this exercise we will be continuing to play the given note in quarter notes so that we will have the following sequence for a basic 12-bar blues in the key of C:
Strive for big, fully connected quarter notes with as little space between them.
Playing only the roots of the chords in quarter notes is a perfectly fine way to accompany a soloist or play with an ensemble. “Different instrumentalists like different sounds on the bass. Some like what we call pedal point…” - Milt Hinton
Playing only the roots of the chords is also a great way to work on providing a good, steady pulse with a good full sound. “Learn how to get a good sound and play the bass in tune, that’s the most important thing you can do” - Ray Brown