Walking Bass: Definition, Patterns & Technique

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  • 0:04 Definition
  • 1:24 Bass Lines
  • 2:59 In Classical Music
  • 3:38 In Jazz
  • 4:46 Other Jazz Techniques
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson covers walking bass, a technique for improvising bass lines that's used by musicians in many different genres, from classical to jazz. You'll learn about the technique and how musicians have used it throughout history.


Get up. Step away from your screen. Go get a cup of coffee or a snack. Oh, and don't forget to pay attention to the sound of your footsteps.

Now, think about your walk to and from the kitchen. What did your footsteps sound like? They were probably regular and constant, like the ticking of a clock. Whatever tempo (aka speed) you took, it probably stayed the same the whole way. If you had stepped outside and walked down the street, the pulse would still probably have been constant, right? How about if you walked to the next town over? It might be a long walk, but it would still have had steady, regular footsteps.

This regular footstep pulse is everywhere in music, providing rhythm, drive, and stability in many different styles and genres. Jazz, bluegrass, and other kinds of musicians use a bass technique called walking bass to give their music that pulse. Walking bass lines are composed of moving notes with a constant, unchanging rhythm, like your footsteps might have when you're walking. They've been used for centuries, everywhere from jazz and bluegrass to the baroque compositions of Bach and Handel. This lesson will take a look at walking bass throughout history and show you how musicians have used it in performance and composition.

Bass Lines

Walking bass is a form of bass line, or a musical line that usually provides the lowest voice of the musical texture. Many genres, including rock and pop (as well as older styles like Dixieland), use bass lines with regular rhythmic pulses, often either two or four notes to the measure. However, many bass lines in these styles just repeat the root of the chord, or the note that the chord is based upon. When the harmony changes, so does the bass note, but there's not much motion beyond that.

In other styles, like marches or stride piano, we might hear a one-five bass line, which alternates between the root of chord and the fifth, or the third and highest member of the chord. For example, over a C major chord, a one-five bass line would go between C and G.

There are thousands of variations of bass line that move freely between notes and aren't limited to these pitches, but in order for it to be a walking bass, the rhythm must be constant and it must move between notes without being limited to the root or fifth.

To move outside roots and fifths, walking bass lines often move between notes of a chord (or chord tones) and notes outside the chord. These non-chord tones can be classified a number of ways: passing tones are notes that fit between two different members of the chord. For example, the passing tones between C and E are C#, D, and D#. Neighbor tones are approached from a chord tone and return to the same chord tone: for example C to D to C.

In Classical Music

Composers were using walking bass lines long before the days of jazz. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, composers of the Baroque era such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel often employed a technique called basso continuo in their instrumental compositions. These walking bass lines were played by the bass and cello, which were sometimes joined by a wind instrument such as the bassoon. Continuo parts would outline the harmonies of a composition; the chords themselves were played by an instrument such as harpsichord, whose performer would often improvise his part based on the chord progression.

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