What Is “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.

For instance, the following example is measure 10 of our line for the “Rhythm Changes” (page 35). By itself, the harmonic choices are not obvious.

But if we zoom out, we can see that it’s part of a broader melodic concept. Measure 10 ties together and balances two different ideas. It creates harmonic tension by exiting IDEA 1 to a chromatic lower neighboring tone (9 of the Cm7 chord). Then, the 7th and 6 on the F7 chord serve as upper and lower neighbor tones to the target note of a D at the start of IDEA 2.

It’s only in a broader melodic context that measure 10 in the previous example makes sense. It’s the musical answer to the previous three bars and introduces a new musical idea.

Focusing on melody will expand your possibilities to create that type of context in your lines. Our hope is that you’ll be able to connect the dots across the changes of a tune and make a deeper musical expression.

So, what makes a walking bass line melodic? We believe there are four key characteristics. Melodic walking lines are:

  • Interesting — A melodic line is compelling and pleasing to listen to.
  • Memorable — You can sing the line and remember it.
  • Unified — The line forms a complete musical statement, often with call-and -answer phrasing and symmetry.
  • Balanced — “Killer” doesn’t just mean playing “out” or moving quickly up and down the neck. A melodic bass line makes musical sense, balancing high and low, in and out, and tension and release.

Together, these aspects let you create a counterpoint to what others in the band are playing.