There are few styles of playing the bass that are as iconic as the walking bass line.
Walking lines have been a part of music for more than 400 years, and are still used in various genres today. Thus, after 15 years of playing the bass, I thought it was time to write an article on what walking bass lines are, and what makes them so great.
In general, walking bass lines consist of a quarter-note rhythm, with an ascending and descending melody. They can also be played with an 8th-note feel, and often incorporate chromatic melodies to create a sense of movement.
The best way to understand what this means in practice, is to listen to some walking bass grooves.
Therefore, I`ve made some tabbed and notated examples with sound below. These will showcase various ways walking bass lines can be played and give you a broader understanding of the technique. I`ll also showcase how you will find this style of playing in different genres.
The role of walking bass lines
Walking bass lines first saw use already in the 1600s. They were thus played a part in shaping Baroque music, as well as the classical traditions that followed it.
Nowadays, walking bass lines are often associated with jazz and rockabilly. Here, they are a staple that give these genres their signature sound.
However, walking bass lines have also seen use in rock, especially at its early stages. Thus, while they are less common in modern rock, bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin made great use of them.
Furthermore, the technique has seen at least some use in most genres. For example, you will find lines of this kind in genres like Punk-Rock, Metal, and Pop, as well as in electronic music. It should come as no surprise then that my list of the best walking bass lines ever ended up being diverse.
The technique gets its name from walking bass lines having a walk-like rhythm. In other words, these grooves mimic the one-two, one-two pulse we associate with the way we walk.
Thus, it is easy to move to a walking bass line, as we all have an intuitive understanding of its rhythm. In turn, this makes the music easier for us to feel and understand. With that, it makes sense why this way of playing the bass is so common.
Examples of walking bass lines
The most straightforward form of a walking consists of 4 quarter notes in each bar. If nothing else has been specified, people oftentimes refer to this type of groove when walking about a walking bass line.
Bassists often combine jazz bass scales with non-diatonic notes to give these lines a sense of movement. In this example, the first bar consists of a B, C, and C# after one another.
While far from a requirement, these types of chromatic movements are a common trait for walking bass lines. As in the example below, it is also common for walking lines to spend 1 to 2 bars moving up and then down melodically.
However, walking can also be much simpler than that.
In fact, it is possible to play a walking line with just two notes. As this type of bass groove still retains the quarter note feeling and moves between notes, it is still a walking line. Simple, but effective in the right musical contexts.
While the 2 above examples stick to straight quarter notes, walking bass lines can also be played with a triplet feel.
This means that two 8th notes are instead played as a quarter and an 8th note at a faster tempo. As a result, the bass line sounds like it uses the second note to jump to the next beat.
This leads to a groovy and lively type of line that can breathe life into songs while retaining the feeling of a walking line. Among other genres, you will find these types of walking lines in jazz, blues and boogie-woogie.
There are also bass lines that only partially walk. To me, the most noteworthy example of this is Miles Davis` So What. Yet, the walking feel of it is such a core part of the main theme that it couldn`t be called anything but a walking bass line.
How much a bass line has to walk to be considered a walking line is a question for the ages. However, when a groove feels like a walking line and uses other rhythms for added effect, the bass part is generally considered a walking lines. Here`s an example:
Lastly, it`s common for bass players to incorporate fills into walking grooves.
Similar to example #4 above, this can break with the walking feel of the line. However, when done in clever ways, it can instead enhance it.
One way to do this is to use the 8th note triplet feel to your advantage. This can be done by changing up the rhythm without breaking with the overall feel of the line. Here`s an example of how this can work:
For more examples like these, check out my article on easy walking bass line exercises.
Walking bass lines in different genres
Many of the best jazz bass lines throughout history have been walking lines. While there are many jazz songs without them, they are a staple of the genre and a big part of what has made jazz what it is.
For some legendary walking bass grooves in jazz, check out any of these examples:
- John Coltrane – Giant Steps
- Duke Ellington – Take The “A” Train
- Mingus Big Band – Haitian Fight Song
- Frank Sinatra – Fly Me The Moon
- Miles Davis – Solar
However, you will also find walking bass lines in other genres. Among others, the style lends itself well to rock. Here are some songs of well-known rock bands that have a walking line:
- Queen – Crazy Little Thing Called Love
- The Beatles – Eight Days A Week
- Jethro Tull – Bourée
- Led Zeppelin – The Ocean
- Lynard Skynyrd – I Know A Little
You will also find countless forms of walking bass lines in classical music. However, as musical pieces are oftentimes very dynamic, walking bass lines are often played intermittently.
In some cases, they do make up the core of a movement or a shorter piece and thus play a key role. Here is a list of classical pieces where walking lines are used in vastly different contexts:
- Johan Sebastian Bach – Orchestral Suite No. 2
- George Frideric Handel – Music for the Royal Fireworks
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Waltz of the Flowers
- Johannes Brahms – Waltz in A-Flat Major (op.39 n°15)
Similar to Jazz, Rockabilly is a genre where the walking bass line is a staple.
Generally played on double basses and at fast tempos, this genre is a gold mine if you are looking for upbeat walking bass lines. Here are some noteworthy examples:
- Elvis Presley – That`s Alright
- Imelda May – Tained Love
- Bill Haley and his Comets – Rock a beat boogie
Walking bass lines have seen wide use in the 4 abovementioned genres. However, they have also seen some use in genres where they are everything but a staple.
In these contexts, the bass can sound extremely potent. This is because it breaks our expectations of the genre, and leads to bands sounding fresh and innovative.
On my list of the best metal bass lines I mention Death`s Spirit Crusher, which has a unique 6/8 time walking line. You will also find examples of this in punk-rock such as on Rancid`s Time Bomb and Anti-Flag`s The Press Corpse:
In conclusion, walking bass lines have a rich history and have seen use in various genres and ephocs of music. The influence of this playstyle is also so massive that walking has seen at least partial use in most every genre of music.
Thus, as a bass player it is an essential skill to be able to play walking bass lines to some extent.
This is because regardless of what type of genre of music you are into, I guarantee that you will be faced with playing a walking line sooner or later.
I have also found that developing my understanding of walking has improved other aspects of my playing. For example, developing this style has improved my sense of groove, my articulation and my ability to write melodies.
So if you are an aspering bass player, you have made a good decision in reading this article. Hopefully, you can apply what you have learned into your own playstyle, and use the examples listed above for both inspiration and for motivation.