Making Walking Bass Lines Come Naturally

Accompanying bassist - photo by Dean Zobec

Photo by Dean Zobec

Q: I would like to ask you about improvising bass lines. Could it be unconscious? I recognized that when I play walking bass, I’m always think about how to reach the next chord. I sometimes have great ideas that I hear in my mind’s ear, but most of the time it’s a really conscious procedure. It’s really interesting because during the solo I play what I hear inside, although there’s no harmony instrument. I started to think like a trumpet player when I play a solo, and I don’t think about the chords I just play what comes naturally. With the walking, its a bit complicated, because I always have to play… yeah I play some rests, but I’m not allowed to leave out two measures. So the question is: how to reach that ability during playing the walking bass lines? I’m sorry for my English (I’m from Hungary) but I think you will know what I mean.

A: I do know what you mean and I have a lot of students who have learned to play by ear. I think that you need to work on finding a middle ground that consists both of understanding harmony while also listening to the music you hear in your head and fostering that.

It’s especially important to understand chord symbols and connect the chords in a meaningful way when walking bass lines or playing any kind of bass lines, really. It’s our job as bassists to support the harmony!

This isn’t to say that you can’t be a good bass player without learning jazz theory or staring holes through your sheet music, but we need to be very aware of the harmony of the song we are playing in order to do our jobs well.

When I’m playing bass, I’m very much aware of what chords I am playing over and how the notes I am playing will outline or contrast the harmony happening in the moment. But I am also listening to my lines objectively and paying attention to shape, flow, dynamics, phrasing and interacting with the musicians on stage with me.

The problem I come across most often with students who say they have a good ear and just play by feel is that they often allow themselves too much room for error. I’ve had countless students who love the “there are no bad notes” concept but take it too far because they don’t listen to the music, objectively and as a whole. It’s true that any note can work, but only if you resolve it well. An unresolved, non-diatonic note will just sound wrong if left to hang. Don’t let yourself play poorly. If you want to be a solid bassist (and one who works a lot), the band needs to be able to rely on you. The bass is the foundation and the anchor. If the foundation is soft, the house won’t stand (i.e.: the band won’t sound good).

I would work both sides of your brain with intention and separately, while you practice. Focus on the goal of that work paying off while you play with the band, leaving you to play without having to overthink anything when you play. Don’t ignore your ear or sensibilities, but also be careful not to avoid doing the real work because you can “usually find my way” by ear.

In addition to any work you may do with reading, rhythm or technique, try this: separate your walking or melodic practice into two parts. Ear training and very intentional chord scale and arpeggio exercises.

Ear training:

  1. Pick melodies, bass lines, licks or solos that you would like to emulate and practice learning them by ear. Work with a phrase, one at a time, if necessary and practice finding the lines on your instrument and playing them note for note. Pay attention to not just the notes but also to phrasing, tone and dynamics.
  2. Interval training: practice playing two notes, one after the other, singing the interval and then playing it on your instrument. Start with the major scale intervals (2nds, major 3rd, 4ths, 5ths, etc..). Then practice minor scale intervals. Then work on the chromatic scale! Practice playing and singing minor 2nds, minor 3rds, 5ths, flatted 6ths, etc. Work every interval until you can eventually hear any two notes played side by side and play it on your instrument.
  3. Connect what you hear to your instrument. If you are hearing lines in your head, foster that but also work very hard to translate them to your instrument. Feel free to set up a loop or play along with an app but practice first singing the line you want to play and then finding it on your instrument.

Scales and chord tones:

  1. Learn all of your chord types and arpeggios. Practice them slowly over chord changes against a backing track of some kind and don’t allow yourself to make mistakes! Slow down, take your time and really pay attention to every note you play. Know what you are playing and how it relates to the chord. It can be helpful to announce the chord or scale tone out loud as you play – actually speak “root”, “5th”, “flat 7th”, “2nd”, etc. (Here are a couple of columns I’ve done here at NT on arpeggios and chord scales: Playing Through Changes with Arpeggios: Exercises for Bassists and Memorizing Chords and Scales.
  2. Practice resolving lines and phrases with one chord tone or another. I’ll practice trying to begin lines on a specific scale degree and then resolve to another scale degree on whatever chord is current when I feel like I should end my line. In other words, I’ll decide to start on the 3rd, play over the changes for 2-3 bars and then resolve it to the 5th of the current chord. Switch it up, but learn to hear how the different intervals sound and react to the chords.
  3. Compose solos and bass lines (preferably writing them down along with the chord changes). Explore your creativity and try new ideas. Record yourself playing the lines or solos and critique them fairly. Make note of what worked and what didn’t, and think about why. Edit, rewrite, record again… rinse, repeat.
  4. Practice playing walking lines and naming every scale degree out loud. Don’t just name the notes but name the scale degree (i.e.: how the note relates to the current chord).

These type of exercises help to hone in our focus to what we are playing and why. We must always be aware of why we are playing what we are playing when we practice.

My goal is to over think everything in the shed so that I can think less on the gig. The more I focus when I practice, the more a natural part of my playing those ideas become when I actually play. The more I build into your muscle memory, the less you have to think about and the more energy you can expend simply listening and reacting!

I hope I’ve interpreted your question properly and I hope that this gives you some new ideas in the shed!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Michael

    What a great response and very valuable information in this post. Thank you Damian and No Treble

  2. Steve

    I agree with Michael. This is such a clear and comprehensive response. I’m very excited for my next few practice sessions.
    Thank you Damien.


  3. Danillo

    Agree with my fellow bass players above, excelent response.

  4. Such a valuable article! This is really helpful. Extraodinary bass player and excellent teacher… Damian, you are gold :) Thank you!
    And thanks to No Treble!