The Walking Bass Line Primer—Part One

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A walking bass line, it’s one of the signature sounds in jazz.

It’s even safe to say improvising walking bass lines iare among the skills just about every musician who plays jazz should have. So the question for aspiring jazz pianists is straightforward:

How to play them?

The answer to that question actually begins away from the piano. That’s because it helps to know exactly what walking bass lines are and why they exist in the first place.

It’s simple enough, but:

If you know how to walk a bass line then you a lot about what underlies the art of jazz improvisation. That’s because one learns from walking bass lines—doing and listening to them— how feel, rhythm, and sound are everything.

In fact, it’s probably safe to say that feel and rhythm are everything in every and all styles of music. So, in this case, jazz and the art of walking bass lines is an instance where we need to acquire a special skill that itself has a long history.

Walk a bass line—one step at a time

Walking bass lines are named as they are because they sound like, well, they’re walking.

But that’s a metaphor. It works, and it’s helpful, only to the extent that it’s handle to imagine something like a walking bass line.

Therefore, the initial, beginning step—the first step in a longer journey—is to know what walking bass lines feel and sound like. To acquire that knowledge it’s probably best to hear walking bass lines as played by jazz improvisers such as Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, and Ray Brown.

As we listen to them play—they’re all bassists, let’s emphasise feel and sound. Emphasise in the sense of listen to walking bass lines—really listen—and you’ll know what they should sound like.

There’s a simple truth here which is this:

If we don’t know what a walking bass sounds like we simply won’t be able to play it. In other words, sound comes first. Hearing comes first. Knowing what we want to play based on what we hear comes first.

That also means that knowledge of which scale to use or what notes, in particular, sound best—that’s knowledge that’s overrated. That’s because, to say it again, feel and sound or sound and feel come first!

Walk a bass line—that second step

There are pianists and organists who walk bass lines and if we’re going to learn how to do it, then we need to hear them and listen. Listen intently!

The two pianists who come to mind for most are Dave McKenna and Lennie Tristano. They had different styles and neither sounds anything like the other.

And there are others. Art Tatum had facility enough to walk bass lines with four-note chords that spanned a tenth. So we could listen to him right now for feel and sound. But, at the same time, let’s be realistic:

There are and have been very few pianists who walk bass lines like Art Tatum. So definitely, we put him on our list for feel and sound.

Walking bass lines—the third step

Our goal with walking bass line is to play a quarter note on each and every beat of each and every measure. Just as we’ve heard Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, and Ray Brown when they play walking bass lines. Or Dave McKenna and Lennie Tristano.

That said, the stated goal—walk bass lines with unending streams of quarter notes doesn’t really mimic actual practice or the goal we eventually seek. That’s because very few musicians play bass lines in such a rigorous fashion.

What happens is sooner or later everyone who learns how to walk a bass line also learns how to pause the line from time to time. But, that point aside, a perfect beginning is

Learn how to walk a bass line with quarters. It’s a place to start.

From there, one can begin to walk bass lines that diverge from the quarter-note model. But now, let’s think about something that’s already been said. It’s something we probably all know without even having to say it. That something (we’ll say it just to be sure that we’re understanding it!) is:

Learning how to play walking bass lines means listening to them until you have a model in your own head of how they should sound and feel.

It really is a simply question of listen, listen, and keep listening! Keep listening to musicians who walk bass lines in a style in which you’d like to play them.

Hit the target—step four

So, first things first, without worrying at all about correct pitches or chords just play any number of quarter notes towards the bottom of the piano.

As you play them, make them sound like, well, walking bass lines. If you’ve spent enough time listening to the musicians listed above and if you’ve internalised the sound and feel they produce then you will be able to play some kind of abstract representation of a walking bass line.

That so-called abstract representation to which I refer, it doesn’t have to be perfect. All it has to do is sound such that someone listening to it might say

That’s a walking bass line!

And to point our what we’ve been saying, to get the sound and feel of a walking bass line has nothing to do with the question of which notes to play. That’s because, again, sound and feel and not the correct notes, come first.

In fact, there may not even be such as thing as the correct notes. Although it’s true that some notes, with practice, will sound better to us than others.

Of course you can play along with a metronome if you wish. Many practice with the metronome clacking on all four beats, some practice with the metronome clicking on beats two and four only and, really, any way in which one might use the metronome is effective.

But, just to point out all possibilities, I’ve also known distinguished musicians and teachers who said and say:

Don’t practice with a metronome. Learn how to feel a beat in of itself without aid from a mechanical device.

But, the key, again, is even as we speak of metronomes, is chords and scales don’t matter at all. So, basically, walk around the bottom of the piano, abstractly. Walk by step and walk with leaps (smaller leaps perhaps rather than larger leaps. But the key is to walk. And to stay towards the bottom of the piano.

And why do we stay towards the bottom of the piano? The answer to that question is that’s where most bass players begin—in that particular range—the bottom part of the instrument—with walking bass lines. And that again, brings up the core concept, which is:

Produce the sound and feel of a walking bass line.

If and when you’ve done enough listening, you’ll have the feel of a walking bass line if only because you’ll just know what it sounds like. And, again, chords and scales don’t matter. But sound and feel—they’re everything!.

Walking bass lines—the first summary

I’ve focused on sound and feel. That’s because getting walking bass lines into a groove or a pocket, as jazz musicians sometimes say, is an essential skill. Indeed, it might be the only skill!

What’s next?

What’s next is The Walking Bass Line Primer—Part Two. In that post, it’s upcoming, I’ll define some of the harmonic and melodic aspects of the walking bass lines that bassists and pianists play.

So, in this upcoming post I’m now mentioning, I will discuss chords and scales. But, once again, chords and scales are important only after we have a feel and a sound for the overall style of a walking bass line.

Let’a add one more name to our listening list. That would be Charlie Haydn on recordings where he plays with Ornette Coleman? Why Charlie Haydn and why specific recordings with Ornette Coleman?

The answer is that Ornette Coleman’s repertoire often omitted chords, as such, thus leaving the bassist free to play walking bass lines as they thought best. And that takes us back to the idea of sound and feel.

Just to summarise, while we’ve been talking abstractly about walking bass lines down at the bottom of the piano, we have some seriously wonderful models:

  • Paul Chambers
  • Ron Carter
  • Ray Brown
  • Dave McKenna
  • Lennie Tristano
  • Charlie Haydn.

We could add more musicians to the list, but those listed so far will suffice. They’ll suffice, that is, as long as you listen to them enough to really absorb the sound and feel they create as they play walking bass lines.

But beware or be aware, lining one or twice (only) isn’t an option. Listen, listen, listen, and listen some more. The sound and feel of what we seek in a walking bass line will emerge. But it’ll only emerge if we know what a walking bass line sounds like.

And how do we know what it sounds like? ….. At the risk of being redundant:

WE LISTEN TO MUSICIANS WHO REALLY PLAY WALKING BASS LINES WELL. WE LISTEN TO MUSICIANS WHO EXEMPLIFY THE WALKING BASS LINE STYLE.

Stay tuned, a primer part two for walking bass lines, it’s coming shortly!

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