Elements of Melodic Walking Bass
As a jazz bassist, finding that perfect walking line is a lifetime endeavor―a quest for an ideal sequence of notes that supports the band, inspires soloists, and makes a personal statement.
Melody is what will make your walking style killer.
Sure, you must have impeccable rhythm. And of course, you drive the harmony of the tune. But integrating a melodic approach will help you go beyond just getting from chord to chord.
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Melody is a sequence of notes that forms a musically coherent line. To help you understand melody in the context of walking jazz bass, we’ve identified five key elements to focus on: shape, idea, phrase, motion, and harmonic implication.
1. SHAPE //
Shape refers to a pattern of intervals using three or more notes. The sequence is numbered going up from the tonal center.
For instance, a common shape in walking bass outlines the chord tones: 1, 3, 5, 7. Many approaches to walking bass use this pattern and permutations of it.
Shapes that are more melodic tend to include scale tones. For instance, below is a simple four-note melodic sequence starting on C.
2. IDEA //
A musical idea is a motif or figure that has a specific order of notes. An idea gives a particular contour to a shape. To find different ideas, try permutations of a given shape.
For instance, below are three possible ideas for the same melodic shape (1, 2, 3, 5).
Find ideas that have melodic orientation. For instance, broken arpeggios have more interest than just playing chord tones up or down in one direction. Often, a line that sounds good in a solo will also work as a walking bass line.
3. PHRASE //
A phrase is a complete musical statement comprised of a series of ideas. In the following example, the notes in each measure have the same shape, but with different ideas.
Notice the balance and melodic symmetry in this simple line.
The first measure goes up by a 5th and then falls with smaller intervals. The second measure does the opposite: it goes down by 5th and then rises stepwise. The tension of these opposing ideas is then resolved―harmonically and melodically―in the third measure.
4. MOTION //
Motion refers to the direction and trajectory of a line. Motion can be conjunct (stepwise) or disjunct (skips).
Walking bass lines tend to balance steps and skips: large intervals in one direction are countered with smaller intervals in the opposite direction. This can be called undulating motion.
Compare the motion of the following three lines. Each could be a viable option during a live performance. Yet, they differ greatly in feel and energy.
5. HARMONIC IMPLICATION //
Your awareness of the harmonic progression is critical to creating walking lines. But you don’t have play the root of a chord to establish the tonal center.
Instead, harmony can be implied through voice leading and highlighting other chord tones (e.g., 3, 5, or 7).
For instance, you can resolve a dominant 7th in one chord to the 3rd of the next. In the next example, a strong root on the first beat doesn’t come until the last bar.
Resolving the 7th to the 3rd yields more fluid lines with melodic interest. But, at the same time, the tonal center of the chord is preserved.
As a bassist, you can also insert harmonies that aren’t written, often reflecting a dominant harmony. For instance, you can add a ii-v-i progression where there isn’t one or use substitute harmonies.