Boogie-Woogie Bass

Before we dig into this section, check out the following videos.

T-Bone Walker – “T-Bone Shuffle”

John Lee Hooker – “Shake It Baby”

The first is T-Bone Walker performing “T-Bone Shuffle,” and you’ll want to listen closely to the piano. The second video is John Lee Hooker playing “Shake It Baby.” Are you ready to boogie?

Let’s close this lesson by taking a look at a few bass lines commonly found in the boogie-woogie blues style of guitarists and pianists. These bass lines are primarily constructed from chord tones. Fig. 6 and Fig. 7 present two possible bass lines you can play over A or A7. Fig. 6 is constructed from the root, 3rd, 5th, and 6th (A, C, E, and F# respectively). The bass line in Fig. 7 sounds a bit bluesier due to the inclusion of the chord’s b7 (G).

Practice playing these two examples using only your thumb—you’re going to need the other fingers very soon. Once you’re comfortable playing Fig. 6 and Fig. 7, it’s time to create variations. First, let’s change the rhythm from quarter-notes to eighth-notes as in Fig. 8. Play it with a swing feel. As you listen to the recording, notice how the eighth-notes are not equal. By placing a chord tone above the bass line (in this case the root), you’re starting to imitate the sound of a pianist playing a boogie line. Continue to play the bass line with your thumb (indicated by the p). For the top note, you can choose to use either the index (i) or middle (m) finger.

We can thicken the sound of our boogie line by adding another chord tone above the bass line. In Fig. 9, barre the A and C# (the 3rd of the chord) with your first finger. The other fingers are now free to play the bass line. With the thumb playing the bass notes, use your index and middle fingers to play the accompanying chord tones.

Fig. 10 puts everything we’ve discussed into practice with a 12-bar blues in the key of A. In measure 5, I’ve adapted the bass line so that it does not “run into” the notes in D7. However, the bass line is still composed of chord tones. As you apply boogie bass lines to your own songs and arrangements you may run into a similar issue. If so, strive to create a line that not only grooves, but is also melodic. Notice in measure 10, beat 3, the bass line “runs into” the chord tones above. I decided to keep it this way because I wanted to retain the melody created in the bass line. There are no exact formulas that you must adhere to. Instead, trust your ear. Strive to create boogie lines that meet the following criteria: They are melodic and they groove!

You’ll notice that on the last eighth-note of measures 6, 8, 9, and 10, you play open strings instead of the expected chord tones. By playing these open strings, you buy extra time for your fretting hand = to set up the next chord, and this allows for a clean transition from one chord to the next. If you play this example with a steady beat, even at a medium tempo the ear hears the “appropriate” notes because the sound of the chord has already been established earlier in the measure.