In this article we’re going to focus on a few specific things that you can practice to help you play walking bass lines at the piano. Walking bass lines are a very specific and classic jazz piano sound and generally considered an advanced concept. But the truth is that walking bass lines are fairly easy to practice and, like everything in music and life, the more you practice the more comfortable you will become when playing in this style.
What Are Walking Bass Lines?
Walking bass lines are a style of playing in which the bass player plays quarter notes which clearly outline the chords and chord tones, seamlessly outlining one chord and resolving to the next. When piano players copy this idea of walking bass lines, they generally do so by using their left hand to play the same role as that of the bass player. This is not something the piano player does WITH a bass player. Instead, this is something the piano player would play when there is no bass player. The pianist’s right hand would be free to comp, solo, or play a melody.
Step 1: Play Quarter Note Roots
Let’s take the first four bars of the jazz standard “Fly Me to The Moon” as our example tune. In step 1, we will simply practice playing the root in repetitive quarter notes in the left hand while the right hand plays the rootless voicing chords. Remember to use your metronome and focus on rhythmic precision and developing a strong sense of time.
Step 2: Play Roots and 5ths
Next, practice playing the root for two beats and then the 5th of the chord for two beats.
Step 3: Adding a Chromatic Tone
At this point we have a couple general “rules” that are starting to take shape (of course, these are only “rules” for the purposes of practicing). “Rule #1” is that we always want to play the root of the chord at the start of each new chord (i.e., beat 1). “Rule #2” is that we want to try to approach the next chord by half-step. Often this will require that we use a chromatic tone – a tone that falls outside of the key signature. Here in step 3, practice approaching the next chord by a half-step from above.
Step 4: Create Motion By Using Chord Tones or Scale Tones
In this step we’ll create more motion in the bass line, helping to make the bass line sound as though it’s “walking” through the chords. We’re going to add a chord tone on beat 2 of each measure.
A great tip for practicing walking bass lines is to open your real book (or fake book) and practice reading tunes – just the chord changes, not the melody. With your left hand practice walking bass lines through the chord changes and with your right hand practice comping.
Another helpful tip is to practice playing rhythmic comping figures with your right hand in order to create that syncopated jazz sound that locks in with the quarter note bass line. For example: