Walking Bass (and Getting Away from Tab)
Q: I’d like to learn to create walking bass lines. I don’t read music so tabs would be preferred.
A: Learning to walk is immensely helpful in so many ways. It helps you see the inter-connectivity between chords, helps develop a good time-feel and helps you explore how the arc of a line can affect the feel of the music.
The first thing I would implore you to do is to get AWAY from tab and work on reading a little everyday. If you really want to get to a comfortable place with music, you’ll need to be able to read it. It’s like relying on the images on signs out in the world to get around the world and not being able to read the text. At the VERY LEAST, get comfortable playing a tune based solely on the lead sheet or chord chart.
In order to walk on the bass, you’ll need to know what notes are available to you in any given chord. This means having a solid grasp on:
- SCALES (SOLID grasp. if you have to think about it, it’s not a solid grasp. And not only in one position and always starting on the root. you need to work them in every possible way and starting on every note of the scale (modes). If you only learn to do something one way, you’ll only ever be able to apply it one way, which leaves out the other hundred ways you could use that knowledge)
- ARPEGGIOS in all inversions and for every chord type
- CHORD shapes. at least a rudimentary understanding but, ideally, also in all inversions, etc.
I’ve found that having these things under your fingers help immensely with walking. When walking, you need to be able to assess where you are and know what notes are available to you in regard to where you are going.
In essence, all you are doing when walking is providing a nice rhythmic pulse and playing a primarily linear and musical line that weaves through the chord changes. Because of this, it’s essential to understand what notes are available to you when you see a G-7b5 chord for example.
There are many resources online or in millions of books to help you discover these things. I have a book available at CDbaby.com which gives quick overviews of many of these things. I’m including one page (PDF download) from the section on walking here for you to take a look at. There is some information on approach tones here, and there are other books which go much more in depth. It really just takes the work to understand this stuff. Rufus Reid’s The Evolving Bassist is a wonderful book definitely worth having!
Now, there are also a TON of great bassists who learn by ear and didn’t connect what they knew how to do with the actual technical theory behind it until much later. This is also a perfectly fine way to do it. Your ears are your best friend and if you learn to rely on them early on, it’s never a bad thing. A word of warning though…
These folks learn by ear by PLAYING ALL OF THE TIME and with other players who help them push their understanding of the instrument. You simply can NOT sit in your room saying “I’ll just get it together by ear, I don’t need the theory stuff” and noodle for hours thinking that you’ll magically “get it”. You need to be out playing with other people, listening HARD, making mistakes and correcting them on the spot and constantly striving and pushing.
I once had a student who said, “Well, Jaco didn’t learn to read until he was in Weather Report!”
This is true, he was an ear player, ad it wasn’t until Joe Zawinul forced him to read that he really got it together in that arena.
My reply was, “That’s true! the only difference is, Jaco was out playing music seven nights a week and practicing into the wee hours of the morning. He lived and breathed music and learned to play what he heard. If you do that, then yeah, you might be able to get along. I still guarantee that you’ll wish you had put in the time now, though. How many hours did you spend with the bass in your hands last week?”
The best route, in my opinion, is to marry the two practices. Learn about chords and scales, but also practice playing with recordings or with other people with the real book closed and train your ears to help guide you.
Not to get on a tangent, but… I’m amazed at how many young players think they can NOT learn the tedious stuff and still be Jaco or Victor when they grow up. In truth, you CAN!! But you can only achieve musical greatness through a LOVE of the instrument and music. The most important thing is that you play all of the time! You can’t help but learn if you have a hard time putting the instrument down. And, in fact, you will learn this stuff anyway because you’ll want to learn everything you can to make you a better player.
While it’s true that learning to read isn’t absolutely necessary to become a wonderful musician, putting in the work IS necessary. There is no ONE way to do anything, but there is one absolute. If you don’t work hard, it will not come. Outside of that, everyone’s path is different. I still maintain that knowledge is never a bad thing… the more you know, the better off you are and if you avoid ANY work because it’s not as much fun, you hurt your playing. You can’t download talent!! Genius is really just another word for hard and obsessive work.