This week we’re looking at walking bass lines. We’ll be taking small single chord phrases as a practice tool for building your walking bass vocabulary in simple, easy steps.

Vocabulary – Music and Speech

When we walk through a tune, be it a blues or a jazz standard, we generally walk through a chord progression. This means that we can’t just randomly play around on a single scale or arpeggio. We have to constantly look ahead and target the next chord.

On the face of it this can seem like a pretty big task. It’s tough enough when we’re outlining one chord with the appropriate notes but when we have to start aiming for another chord while developing an overall arc and journey, that’s when your brain can start to fry.

This is where developing your vocabulary comes into play. Just as with improvising a solo, improvising a walking line is very much like the improvisation in everyday speech. When we hold a conversation, we make use of words and language we’ve learned over many years to express our thoughts and intention. Letters become words become sentences. These are our building blocks of language.

But… we don’t think about the individual letters of those words when we talk. We barely think of the words. With practice of talking we build up a vocabulary of words and phrases. We find ourselves using the same words in the same way and with the same rhythmic or melodic cadence even though the overall topic of conversation might be totally different.

In walking bass lines, chord tones and scales are the letters and phrases are the words we can put together in building an overall line. Yes, we need to recognize the nuts and bolts of how these phrases are made just as how we need to know how to spell the words we use but when we improvise a walking bass line, that knowledge of chord tones and scales should very much be taken for granted. They’re only letters. The overall line and journey should be our main concern and to get to that point requires a walking vocabulary. We want to see phrases not scales.

First Steps

With this in mind, we’re going to look at getting started with a vocabulary for moving through changes. For this lesson we’re going to stick to one key and once chord change but all of the principles can be applied to any key and most importantly any chord change.

Our example progression is simply a recurring Cmaj7 – G7. This is chords 1 to 5 in the key of C major.

Practice Track:

The following example phrases should be practiced in isolation before applying to the track. Start with two simple lines and then gradually add the rest until you can move fludily around the fretboard. Use single string lines to move into higher positions.

CMaj7 to G7 Descending

G7 to CMaj7 Ascending

Combined Lines

CMaj7 to G7 Ascending

G7 to CMaj7 Descending


Upper Octave

Alternative Fingering

Single String Lines

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