In this week’s lesson we’re looking at a very simple walking bass line through the chord changes of the Jazz standard Autumn Leaves. We’re going to use basic chord tones and repetitive lines that will act as a springboard in developing your own lines.

P.S. For a complete guide to Walking Bass Lines be sure to check out the full course here 

Autumn Leaves

OK first of all, here’s our simple bass line.

Let’s Look At The Chords…

As I mentioned this is a very simple line using only a couple of basic repeating melodic patterns. Once you have those patterns under your fingers you can start to experiment and add more and more figures on the fly as your vocabulary develops.

So first of all let’s just briefly look at the tune. Autumn Leaves is one of the most commonly used songs when it comes to learning jazz and with any jazz standard, it’s worth looking at the harmony and getting a feel for what’s going on in terms of basic chord sequences and key changes.

Autumn Leaves is pretty straightforward in that we have two main tonal centers, one in Bb major and then another in the relative minor key of G minor.

We start with a II-V-I progression in Bb Major.

Cm7 – F7 – Bbmaj7

We then have another II-V-I in the key of G minor (relative minor of Bb):

Am7b5 – D7 – Gm7

The Ebmaj7 helps to pivot between the two keys because it’s chord IV of Bb Major and chord VI of G Minor:

At the end of the 8 bars we have G7 chord acting as a secondary dominant chord to bring us back round to Cm7 again:

If you’re wondering what I mean by all these numbers, we’re looking at the chords in a key. Just follow work through the Music Theory For Bass series of lessons in the Lesson Map to learn more.

Two Simple Patterns

For this walking bass line I’m going to use only two scale patterns as the foundation for the whole thing. There are a couple of exceptions as you’ll see but for the most part we’re looking at one line for ascending and one line for descending.

  • For ascending lines I’m using the scale degrees 1 2 3 5
  • For descending lines I’m coming down the scale.: 1 7 6 5

These two patterns work for any chord movement by 4th. When measuring chord movement we look at the root movement in ascent. So Cm7 to F7 is movement by 4th because we have the root notes moving from C to F.

So for an ascending line over the Cm7 I can play C D Eb G.

This is the pattern of scale degrees 1 2 3 5 applied to the C Dorian scale. We use the Dorian scale because it’s the appropriate scale for this chord. We’re in the key of Bb Major so Cm7 is the second chord in the key. We match this to the second mode of the key, which is Dorian. To learn more about chords and scales within a key be sure to watch the Chords Within A Key lesson and the Modes Of The Major Scale lesson.

For the descending line I come down through the appropriate scale. If we look at the Bbmaj7 I descend through the notes of the Bb major scale. This leads us smoothly into the next chord of Ebmaj7.

A Few Exceptions

The two scale patterns work through most of the chords in Autumn Leaves because there is so much movement by 4th. However there are a few basic exceptions.

In bars 7-8, we have the same root note over two bars (Gm7-G7) so I’ve opted to simply descend through the arpeggio on the first bar and then use our 1-2-3-5 line for the second bar:

In bar 16 we also have Gm7 moving to Am7b5. This is movement of a 2nd so we need another line. I opted to use a basic chromatic approach:

In  bars 27-28 we have 4 chords lasting 2 beats each. In this instance, we can simply repeat each root note, giving us a smooth descending line:

Finally in bar 30 we have another 2 chords in the bar. This time we have wider movement by 4th so we can use root – 3rd patterns to bridge the larger gaps:

Practice Tips

Learn to play the walking bass line provided and always focus on how each line works over each chord. You are making a journey from one chord to the next and using the chord tones and scales, implied by the harmony, as your resources in building a road through the terrain.

Even though we’re actually memorizing a line and looking at repetitive scale patterns, the aim should be to improvise your walking line and have the freedom to move around the fretboard with complete confidence.

So as a quick example of how you might use this bass line as a springboard. Let’s look at adding one more pattern into the mix. This is a really popular chromatic line that works equally well over minor 7, dominant 7 and major 7 chords. Let’s use our opening Cm7 as the example:

So this line gives us a formula of root note – 2nd – minor 3rd – major 3rd. As with our previous scale patterns we can simply add this into our line wherever we have movement by 4th.

As you develop your walking bass line skills and vocabulary, you’ll begin to find many different ways of moving from one chord to the next, regardless of the intervallic  distance.

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