Walking bass line myths
Walking bass line myths exposed[edit | edit source]
Jazz is an incredibly difficult music to play in many ways. It is technically demanding, harmonically advanced, and extremely interactive. For a young musician just beginning to dive into the art form, it can seem a daunting task. As a young bass player, I can remember having many ideas of what jazz was and was not, especially when it came to walking bass line construction. Many of my misconceptions about walking bass stemmed from a simple lack of harmonic and melodic understanding, as well as what I call an “aural” deficiency, which simply means I had not yet assimilated enough jazz history in the form of recordings. I believe that lots of young bass players share these same misconceptions and that they serve only to stifle musical progress. This article will address some of these myths in an attempt to provide some clarity and direction in constructing walking bass lines.
Myth #1: The more harmonically complicated a bass line is, the better it is.[edit | edit source]
This is a myth that I believe many players fall prey to. As a young bassist, you see chord charts with symbols like A7(#9), Fm11, E13, and assume that you must incorporate these extensions (the 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths) into your bass line for it to sound hip. It becomes even more convoluted when these extensions become target notes used on the downbeat of the measure. The problem with a bass line like this is that the foundation can be easily lost amongst all the “hipper” notes. Since you are providing the foundation, it is important that the foundation is easily identified (especially when playing with less experienced musicians). The simplest way to do this is by incorporating the stronger chord tones into your bass line, i.e., the root, thirds, and fifths. Another reason why this straightforward way of playing works so well is because the piano or guitar player is already playing the extensions of the chords. Also, the soloist will appreciate that you are not stepping on their toes with your bass line, but instead providing a sure and solid foundation for him or her to blow over. Take a look at Example 1 , Paul Chambers' bass line over the bridge of “Stablemates.” On the Fm7 chord, Paul walks up the F minor scale to the fourth. Then he plays a Gb Major triad over the Gb13 chord. In the fourth bar, he will use a descending C Major arpeggio on the C7 chord, without even adding the seventh.
Myth #2: Never repeat the same note twice.[edit | edit source]
This particular myth is one that really bothers me, partly because many teachers perpetuate it. Although it is true that too many repeated notes can stifle a walking line, making it feel stagnant, sometimes repeated notes form the strongest bass lines and create drive and forward motion. Check out Example 2 , Ray Brown's bass line over the tune “Cool Walks,” a rhythm changes. Here he repeats each note twice throughout a four bar phrase.
In Ray's bass line on “The Days of Wine and Roses,” he often repeats the same note twice in measures with two chords lasting two beats each, as in Example 3 . This is an extremely effective tool for establishing a strong sense of harmony.
In Example 4 , Milt Hinton also repeats the same note twice on a measure with two chords lasting two beats each. As I said, the reason that lines like these work so well is because the harmony is presented in an extremely clear manner. In other words, there is no ambiguity to what chords are being played.
This is also true when playing at fast tempos. Sometimes the simplest line can work best. Repeated notes also work well to create tension in the harmony. In Example 5 , Ray plays the note Bb five times in a row over the IV chord of the F blues “Au Privave,” a big no-no! In this example, repeating the Bb creates a tremendous amount of tension, which Ray releases in the next measure. This is a very effective harmonic tool, but it should be used sparingly. In this particular recording, Ray only uses it once throughout the entire tune.
Myth #3: Never repeat the same pattern twice.[edit | edit source]
It is easy to become lazy as a bass player when you are walking endless choruses on a 32 bar tune or a blues and begin to play the same patterns over and over. I am not condoning this type of playing by any means because using the same bass line chorus after chorus creates boring music for the entire band. What I am saying is that repeating similar or the same ideas or patterns can be done in an interesting and musical way. Example 6 is another Ray Brown bass line from “Au Priviave.” This example shows bar 9 of the blues progression. Ray uses these same four notes in the same place (bar 9 of the 12 bar form) three choruses in a row. As with Myth #2 , repeating this bass line doesn't make the tune feel stagnant, but instead solidifies the form of the tune.
In Example 7 , Israel Crosby's bass line on “Angel Eyes,” Israel repeats this pattern or a variation many times throughout the tune, using it in the A sections.
Also see Example 8 , Ron Carter's bass line from “Yardbird Suite.” Ron repeats this exact pattern twice, and also uses variations on this same basic pattern for many other A sections.
In all of these examples, using the same idea more than once or similar ideas does not make the line seem inactive or sluggish, but on the contrary, creates cohesion throughout the form of the tune. Just remember one thing. Sometimes it's the variation of a simple pattern that really makes a great bass line, and keeps it from sounding repetitive. Great bass players can take a simple line and create a seemingly endless amount of variation from it. Again, I'm not saying you should repeat the same pattern over and over in the same place – that would just be plain boring!
Myth #4: The more rhythmic variation, the better.[edit | edit source]
Although rhythmic variation can add tension and forward motion to a bass line, it is important to know how and when to use this device. Many times inexperienced players will use a lot of triplets, broken walking lines, and rhythmic drops as a way to mask poor note choice in their bass lines. This not only creates a poor walking line, but it also detracts from the entire band, and the whole musical experience. In Red Mitchell's bass line over “Billy Boy,” Red will walk an entire 32 bars using only quarter notes, except for one beat where he uses two eighth notes. In Milt Hinton's bass line on “Three Little Words,” he also will walk a 32 bar chorus with only one rhythmic variation, again using just two eighth notes. The reason why these bass lines are so effective is because the note choice is so good that Milt and Red don't need to use a lot of rhythmic variation. In other words, the harmony is presented in such a clear manner that the bass lines are enjoyable because of the notes they use, not because of constant changes in the rhythm. A great example of how to use rhythmic variation effectively is Ron Carter's bass line on “No Greater Love,” from the Miles Davis album, The Complete Concert 1964: My Funny Valentine & Four & More. Here, Ron uses rhythmic devices including triplets, eighth notes, and anticipations, but the pulse remains constant and swinging. This is also a great example because Ron walks one chorus alone while Miles solos. It is a true lesson on how to accompany a band as well as how to interact with a soloist. So get it and listen to it!
Myth #5: The most important aspect of a walking bass line is note choice.[edit | edit source]
Yes, this is a myth! There are many aspects to walking bass lines, and all of them are important. One of the major hurdles in walking is developing a solid rhythmic/time feel. You might pick all great notes to walk through, but if your time isn't solid as a rock, and if it doesn't feel good to the rest of the band, it really doesn't matter. No one will hire a bass player that they cannot depend on for a solid foundation. Developing a good rhythmic feel is always something young or inexperienced bass players struggle with. In my opinion, there is no cut and dry way to make your bass playing feel good to the rest of the band, and the audience, but I believe there are some ways you can practice that will help. One way is to play along with great jazz records. Take any of the classics, and just play along with the band as if you were the bass player. Another way—perhaps the best way—to practice feel is to play with as many varied bands as possible. Play with big bands, sextets, trios, duos, etc. Make sure you play in some combos that don't include a drummer, because this will force you to keep the pulse steady. As far as developing time feel, the best way is to practice slowly , with a metronome . Play scales and walking bass lines with your metronome set as slow as possible, and concentrate on keeping the time solid. If you are able to play a solid walking line at extremely slow tempos, you will definitely have less problems playing at medium and medium-up tempos.
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
Constructing a good walking bass line is much more difficult than most non-bass players probably realize. There are so many factors to consider, and one can spend a lifetime learning how to walk. This article only presents a few elements of good walking bass lines. In my opinion, the best way to learn how to walk is by learning from the masters. Check out what Ray Brown played over the blues. Learn Paul Chamber's or Ron Carter's walking lines on a rhythm changes. Assimilate Milt Hinton's bass line on a 32 bar form. Listen to, and transcribe, bassists like Red Mitchell, Israel Crosby, Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones, Slam Stewart, George Duvivier, Percy Heath, and Wilbur Ware, and I'm sure you will learn the elements of a strong walking bass line, as well as debunk any myths you may have!