This month we will cover how to throw down a walking bass line…
The Walking Bass Line… With all of the mania for chops, chops, and more chops in bass playing there is always a lurking danger of a loss of subtlety in the practice room. While we are hammering away at two-octave 16th-note runs with that machine gun triplet slap figure on the end it becomes more and more possible that musical gestures of varied or unusual dynamics/phrasing or space fall by the wayside.
But if we’re talking about subtlety and sophistication in music it’s hard to beat walking bass lines. The satisfaction and sheer joy of artistic creation that walking lines bring to the bassist as well as to the listener add up to a powerful musical message.
The purpose of the video lesson today is to throw down a walking bass line for you as an example, to give you an overlooked and much needed bit of advice for the feel of your walking lines, and to provide several easy bass exercises that you can do to start learning how to play walking bass lines on any standard.
Before getting on with things I would like to say that there are two concepts that I find helpful in communicating to students how to think of their game plan for learning walking bass. They are mainly helpful for beginners and intermediate players and I call them Insistence and Flexibility.
Insistence is for beginning walkers and refers to how you shouldn’t be spending time trying to think out your hand positioning or anything else that steals your attention while you are walking bass. You must instead make everything that you do conform to the insistence of the quarter note feel. Trust me, Grasshopper, you can kill a quarter note with a blade of grass!
A simple Jedi mind trick for your quarter notes is to banish any thoughts of your fingerboard hand and simply concentrate on making your quarter note pop with the sound of the drummer’s stick hitting the cymbal.
You need to think of your plucking hand or even just your finger itself striking the note exactly as that stick hits the cymbal.
To boost your awareness of this “insistence” principle, simply listen to your favorite walking bass player and actually tap your thigh for each note in the entire tune. Try it! It’s amazing when you try to concentrate on every single note in the tune and suddenly find your mind wandering. A walking bass line is a constant act of creation and it requires massive abilities of concentration.
Flexibility refers to a time when you are already a journeyman bass walker but now need to have more refined interactions with the rhythm section or the soloist.
For example, if the drummer is accenting the soloist or creating certain bits of musical mayhem (as drummers are known to do!) that puts the bassist in a position to make decisions about how to react.
I want to return to these concepts for walking bass lines in future articles, so please stay tuned.
Here are some very helpful activities that I outline in the video lesson for those of you who are just now getting into your walking bass lines. If you are not used to singing the roots of the tune in time then you will want to start there first. Do it without your instrument at first and add your bass later on. That is exactly the type of thing to get you going on building the ear-bass-mind connection that you need to play bass lines freely and naturally.
When you can get through a practice tune by singing the roots then you can start in with roots and fifths. The thing about roots and fifths is that you can play a bouncy two-feel with them using only a slight, occasional rhythmic push or dead note and it’s fun as heck! That high-spirited bounce in a two-feel bass line is a highly elusive treasure to possess and when you get into it you’ll never want to be without it.
As you get going with quarter notes remember that one of the best plans of action is to make them pop when that stick hits the cymbal.
And when you work to add that characteristic percussive “click” with a deft finger mute, just make sure that you don’t play it with any slop! It’s better to not define it as an eighth or a triplet or a sixteenth note. Just play it sharp and short and when you use it to introduce fat quarters it will do great things for your time-feel and your drummer might even buy you blueberry pancakes after the gig.
Playing walking bass lines is a highly sophisticated type of bass accompaniment and even the best bass players have called it a lifelong learning experience. The best thing about it is that even a simple line played well can make all the difference in the rhythm section and your band members will truly appreciate your efforts.
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