Principles of Melodic Walking Bass


Repeat ideas for familiarity, but add variation for interest

Repeating musical ideas is a key part of melodicism. When you state a motif and reiterate it, the second instance will sound familiar in retrospect.

But repetition doesn’t have to be literal: melodic shapes that are similar, but not exactly the same, will be perceived as familiar. Some variation is good: if a line becomes too predictable, it will sound boring.

For example, play through our line from measures 49–56 of “Yellowtail Way” , below.

There are four two-bar phrases in this excerpt. The first phrase on the Cmaj7 chord is repeated with a similar shape in measures 51–52 on Cm7, but with slight variation to fit the local harmony.

The third phrase begins with the now-familiar figure found in measures 49 and 51. But the pattern breaks in measure 54 with an appropriate response to the first two phrases. Had this third phrase mimicked the first two exactly, the line would have been too predictable.

What’s more, the upward intervals of a 4th in measures 54 and 55 provide balance to the downward skips in figures from the previous measures. Overall, the melodic content of these eight measures, reflects the type of symmetry found in good melodies.

Consider another example, below — the turnaround at the end of an A section of “Rhythm Changes” (see measures 135–136 on page 39). The basic two-note idea centers on an interval of a fourth.

Notice, however, that the second instance on the G7 chord inverts the direction of the interval — a mirror image of the first two notes. The overall pattern of the 4ths for these two bars is: up-down-up-up.

Try playing through the above two measures with different variations of the same idea―an interval of a 4th―going in different directions for each (e.g., up-up-down-up, up-down-down-up, etc.). Notice how symmetry and asymmetry make a difference to the overall profile and melodic interest in the line.


Use call-and-response to form coherent phrases

Call-and-response also goes a long way in creating a cohesive melodic walking line. For instance, the excerpt below is from our opening to “You Are the Angel Glow” (see measures 1–4 on page 7). There are two phrases of two bars each in this example.

The first phrase states the basic motif, ending with an ascending chromatic figure (D to D). The second phrase repeats the first, but a whole step down. It ends with an answer to the previous ending: a descending chromatic figure (E to D). In retrospect the two phrases are perceived as related to one another, giving the line melodic unity.

Try creating a call-and-answer line based on any four-bar progression, e.g., ii — V — I — VI. Consciously make the second and fourth bars have a similar shape, but move in opposite directions.


Create harmonic tension, then resolve it

As a bassist, it’s often rewarding to push the band in a new harmonic direction. Simply playing one alternative note in the bass can take a piece to a whole new place.

But don’t forget your role in supporting the soloist. Use harmonic digressions in a dialogue with the other players, and know when to just play simple lines.

The excerpt below is the second A in our third chorus of “Rhythm Changes” (see measures 105–112 on page 38). Take a minute to play through it.

The line begins “in,” squarely hitting the harmonies in measures 105–106. But it then goes “out” in measure 107 until measure 109.

After this exploration of alternative harmonies, the line come back “in.” In fact, in measure 110 there is a full measure of simple, repeated roots―Eto E respectively. This grounds the line and justifies the harmonic digression in the previous measures.

Play through all of our lines for “Rhythm Changes” and notice how we balance going “out” with playing “in.” As you read through the line, keep in mind that “killer” walking bass does not mean playing alternative notes the whole time.


Aim for target notes, then walk to get there

Think ahead. Plan to hit notes in advance, and then create a logical line to get there. This will give your walking lines a sense of gravity and melodic pull.

Consider the line below from our F Blues tune “The Bottom Phell Out” (see measures 93–104 on page 16). Measure 95 starts a one-bar motif that gets reiterated over the next five bars. The target of the resulting line is the F in measure 101―quite far ahead. By the time we get to measures 99 and 100, the harmonic implication is fairly drastic: we’re far from the original changes.

Note that when improvising lines live, target notes may emerge. They may not be planned out strategically in advance. An advanced bassist can go down an uncertain path initially, but will be able to resolve it logically on the fly.

Take the changes of any tune and plot out beginning notes and target notes, moving them further and further apart (i.e, start two measures apart, then three measures, then four, etc.). Then play a line to fill them in melodically. Notice how a clear beginning and ending point allow you freedom in between.


Swing with quarter notes, but add rhythmic embellishments to groove

Walking bass centers quarter notes. But rhythmic variations bring your lines to life. Add eighth notes and devices like dead-note triples where appropriate for a better feel.

To demonstrate, we’ve included some rhythmic embellishments throughout the lines in this book. These are our recommendations, but you may add or subtract as needed. At faster tempos you may play fewer embellishment, and at slower tempos you can play more.

Strive to make rhythmic embellishments meaningful. They should contribute to overall feel and not serve as mere spectacle or acrobatics.

For instance, the line below from our F Blues is completely diatonic (see measures 109–112 on page 16). It’s simple and sweet―almost too sweet, actually. To add some “cool” back to the line, we end it with a syncopation on beat 4+ in measure 112. This rhythmic addition is more than mere decoration: it helps groove on an otherwise “cute” line and makes the whole phrase killer.

Rhythmic embellishment can also help keep track of the form. For instance, if you play on the 4+ of a measure in the same place, it can help keep the band together. To illustrate, we’ve done this consistently at the end each B section of “Rhythm Changes.”

Try it out yourself. Walk on any tune and play the same rhythmic embellishment in exactly the same spot each time. See how that helps articulate the form.


Keep lines balanced, like good melodies do

We hope the notion of “balance” comes through in our recommendations and in our lines so far. Good walking bass carefully mixes high with low, up with down, out with in, and repetition with novelty.

In other words, the basic principles of a what makes a good melody for the last few millennia apply to you, too. This, we believe, is what also makes a walking line killer. It’s not about cool note choices or showmanship, but about melodicism and musicianship.

For this reason, something you might play as a solo may also work as a bass line. For instance, the following example comes from the B section of our line for the “Rhythm Changes” (see measures 145–152 on page 39). The shape of the line in the first three measures was inspired by a line a soloist might play over these changes. The line comes back “in” by measure 148, so the digression is temporary.

See for yourself: take a solo figure you like to play over the Blues or some other tune. Slow it down to quarter notes and re-cast is as a walking line. You’ll be surprised at how much borrowing melodic material from your solo lines will extend your walking vocabulary.


If it sounds good, play it

There are no hard-fast rules for melodic walking bass. We’ve tried to distill our approach down to the elements and principles outlined on the previous pages. We hope that helps.

Keep in mind that there are exceptions to the all of the above guidelines. You won’t always be able to explain what works and why. After all, walking bass is improvised, and the context will dictate what’s appropriate or not.

Sometimes repeating a line without melodic variation over and over makes sense. Sometimes simply repeating the root and fifth can swing massively. Sometimes disjunct lines with large skips add just the right interest. Sometimes you can go “out” and stay out for a while without an immediate resolution.

In the end, your ear provides the ultimate judgment: if it sounds good and works in the moment, go with it. The important thing is that your lines make musical sense, support the band, and swing.