Copyright

Walking Bass: Definition, Patterns & Technique

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 will cover 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.

A Walk in the Park

Get up. Step away from your screen. Go get a cup of coffee or a snack. I'll wait. 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 (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 have still 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.

A chord with root, 3rd, and 5th
A chord with root, 3rd and 5th. All other notes would be considered non-chord tones.

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 (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 (the passing tones between C and E are C#, D, and D#), while neighbor tones are approached from a chord tone and return to the same chord tone (e.g. C to D to C).

Walking Bass 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 Georg 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.

An early continuo part
A continuo part by J.S. Bach.

Walking Bass in Jazz

Boogie-woogie bass line
A boogie-woogie bass line. Image by Hyacinth at Wikipedia.

Walking bass is most readily associated with jazz, where musicians have used it in ensembles of all sizes and styles. Most often the bass lines are played by an acoustic or upright bass. The performer usually plucks the strings with his or her fingers instead of using a bow. This technique is called pizzicato. The jazz walking bass has its roots in boogie-woogie, a predecessor of swing, doo-wop, and other mid-20th-century genres. Boogie-woogie walking bass lines were often repetitive and simple, based primarily in chord tones but never repeating a note. Many boogie-woogie lines were based on arpeggios, patterns which move through each member of the chord in succession without any non-chord tones.

A bass played pizzicato
A bassist playing pizzicato.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account
Support