Learn Bass Guitar How to Play a Walking Bass Line

Learn Bass Guitar: How to Play a Walking Bass Line in 3 Steps

Learn Bass Guitar How to Play a Walking Bass LineLooking for a way to make your bass lines move? Bass guitar teacher Miller W. shares his three step plan to creating walking bass lines…

The walking bass line is one of the most fundamental parts of American music. It is found most commonly in blues and jazz, but as you learn bass guitar, you will hear its influence in almost any style of music. A walking bass line provides a strong rhythmic and harmonic foundation by smoothly moving from each chord to the next using four quarter notes per bar, or three quarter notes per bar in 3/4 time.

Many bass players have based their entire careers on their creative and innovative walking lines. Upright bass players like Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, and Paul Chambers were some of the first musicians to make the walking bass line an art form all its own, and that tradition is so widespread that some of the best electric bass players like Victor Wooten, Jaco Pastorius, Christian McBride, and John Pattituci cite those walking lines as major influences in their musical development.

Playing a walking bass line is fun and easy if you follow these three simple steps:

1. Learn the Chord Changes

Familiarize yourself with the chord changes and when they occur in a song. Play through the changes a few times using only the root note of each chord (e.g. a Bb for a Bb7 chord).

2. Add Arpeggios

Now that you’re familiar with the chord changes, play through them again, but this time arpeggiate each chord (e.g. play Bb – D – F – Ab for a Bb7 chord). The most enjoyable and creative part of playing walking bass lines is finding new and interesting ways to outline each chord, so make sure you practice as many variations of arpeggiating the chord as possible.

3. Add Passing Tones

One of the most important and essential features of a walking bass line is that every chord, or at least the vast majority, is approached by a half-step above or below. This means that if the chord changes move from Bb to F, on the last quarter note before the F, you would play either an E or an F#. This is particularly important in jazz due to the very chromatic nature of the music. In more advanced walking lines, you can employ a similar technique within the chord by putting one or two “chromatic passing tones” between the notes of the chord (e.g. Bb – D – Ab – A – Bb for a Bb7 chord).

One of the most common places to find walking bass lines is in blues music. Walking bass is so instrinsic to the blues that you would be hard pressed to find a better example. Here is a sample bass tab over a Bb 12-Bar Blues:

Walking Bass Line Tab and Music

Notice that in Bar 2 the line moves Ab – A – Bb instead of fully outlining the Eb7. This is a common substitution used to make the line flow more smoothly. Similarly, notice that in Bar 6, the note immediately preceding the Bb in bar 7 is a G, which does not follow the rule of approaching the new chord by half-step. This is done so often that it would almost sound wrong if the line did follow the half-step rule. The beauty of walking bass lines is that there are exceptions to every rule, and those exceptions are what allow you to be creative and make the lines your own.

Now you have all the tools you need for creating your own walking bass lines. Good luck and have fun!

Learn more guitar and bass guitar techniques by taking lessons with a private instructor. Search for a guitar teacher today! 

NuerMiller W. teaches acoustic guitar, bass guitar, music theory and upright bass in Orange, CA. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Music at Santa Barbara and has been teaching students since 2008. Learn more about Miller W. here!




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Photo by Mark Blevis

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2 replies
  1. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Hi, I’m a new student. Just a question. In the first measure you play a E netural and then at the second measure you play Eb (according to the tab). The bar line should cancel all accidentals including the natural sign, so in this case you were supposed to play an Ebb in the second measure which is equal to D. What’s the flat sign for in this case?


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