A Walking-Bass Crash Course
These basic concepts will set you on your way to mastering walking bass lines.
One of the greatest low-end innovations of the 20th century may be the walking bass line. Nevertheless, the act of walking is still something that mystifies more than a few bassists. So, how does it work?
A comprehensive method of walking bass doesn’t fit in just one column. One also couldn’t do it in five chapters. What I can offer is a brief introduction for those who are interested in future exploration.
Walking bass is aptly named, and much like the experience of walking home from the store, we need to consider a few things:
- Where’s the store?
- Where’s home?
- How do I get from one to the other?
Just like any journey, we need to consider the lay of the land—the physical pathways and streets available. After all, we’re probably not walking home in a vacuum and can’t just walk through buildings or across rivers! The better we understand the structure of the neighborhood, the better we will likely be at finding our way home. And, of course, there’s always more than one way to get home.
Likewise, in musical terms, we should know the structure of the song we wish to walk through:
- What’s happening melodically?
- What’s happening rhythmically?
- What’s happening harmonically?
Done well, walking bass lives within the realm of high improvisation.
The sound of moving towards or away from “home”—between the dominant and tonic—is one of the underlying principles behind voice leading and, thus, harmony. Melodically, we want to get this dynamic dominant-to-tonic pendulum motion happening, even if we’re only walking over a single chord, like A minor. Cultivating this pendulum sound in whatever we play is the key to walking in a way that doesn’t just seem like random meandering. But, of course, where we choose to place our pitches rhythmically is also paramount.
In the examples below, V represents the dominant (away) sound, which wants to return home to I (the tonic sound). Our entire macro progression might be made up of many micro progressions, called cadences (V / I, ii / V / I, iii / vi / ii / V / I, etc.).
Understanding diatonic harmony, chord functions, and chord qualities is essential to being able to negotiate “the changes” for a particular song. Functions tell us where things are coming from and where they are going.
Take a look at the Roman numerals and chord functions here. We could write a Bb blues progression like this:
I7 / IV7 / I7 / vm7 I7 /
IV7 / bVII7 / iii7 / VI7 /
iim7 / V7 IV7 / iiim7 VI7 / iim7 V7 //
Or, plainly, like this
Bb7 / Eb7 / Bb7 / Fm7 Bb7 /
Eb7 / Ab7 / Dm / G7 /
Cm7 / F7 Eb7 / Dm7 G7 / Cm7 F7 //
Because the blues is the underlying structure for so many popular songs, it’s also a great vehicle to practice walking on.
A Simple Walking Exercise: One useful walking exercise is to choose a single cadence within a progression—let’s say V / I. This function shorthand tells us where we are (in the key of Bb, V is F7), where we are going (Bb), and how many beats we have to get there (4). Find as many routes as possible going from F7 to Bb in 4 beats, landing on Bb on beat one of bar two.
Expand this exercise with these ideas:
- Choose starting and ending notes (the 3 going to the root, for example).
- Add direction—ascending or descending pitches.
- Play as a loop while trying not to repeat ideas.
- Use dominant-axis substitutions—B7, Ab7, or D7 in place of F7 (more on this in a future column).
- Walk using half-notes.
- Walk using a rhythmic shape instead of straight quarter-notes.
- Choose a different cadence.
- Walk over the whole progression.
- Change time signature.
- Change key.
I spent some time exploring examples of different cadences, with the goal of practicing these micro building blocks that make up larger progressions. My goal was to learn to walk through any cadence combination, and thus almost any progression. The idea is not to play fragments or patterns, but bass melodies that flow across the entire progression, and to also be able to do this sans notation, using our ears.
Done well, walking bass lives within the realm of high improvisation. The best players, who have mastered this art, are rarely repetitive (unless intended), don’t use patterns or riffs (unless they choose to), and don’t even need to stick to the “standard changes.” They’re completely unrestrained. They have mastered melody, harmony, and rhythm to the point where they can spontaneously create bass melodies that perfectly express the nature of the song in question. Far from being simply “walkers,” they are more like expert flyers, and with practice you can become one, too!
- Walking the Blues - Premier Guitar ›
- The Bass Is Not a Guitar - Premier Guitar ›
- Flashy Is Fun, But the Bass Has a Deeper Function - Premier Guitar ›
- Crash Course in Harmony for Bassists - Premier Guitar ›
Holiday Gear Finds 2022
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
Gibson Les Paul Standard 50s Faded
SE Standard 24-08
MONO FlyBy Ultra Backpack
JBL 3 Series Studio Monitors
Guitar Tech Screwdriver Set
Xvive U2, U3 and U4 Wireless Systems
Elixir® Strings Acoustic Phosphor Bronze with NANOWEB® Coating
Elephant Foot Risers and Frames
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
Caparison Horus-WB-FX MF
The Woman Tone
Templo Devices Holiday Specials
Taylors Guitars GS Mini
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Sennheiser MD 421
Orangewood Guitars Oliver Jr.
Marshall CODE 50 Digital Combo Amp
Line 6 Catalyst 100
LR Baggs Venue DI
Kali Audio LP-6 V2
Eventide H90 Harmonizer®
Wilkinson R Series Trev Wilkinson Signature Pickups
Hercules Stands Five-Piece Guitar Rack with Two Free Expansion Packs
ISP Hum Extractor Pedal
LAVA ME 3
Gator Cases Transit Guitar Gig Bags
DeLoach Guitars DL-225
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Messiah Guitars Introduces the Flare
Flare is a dual-function pedal with a tube-like booster and a 1970s-style ring modulator effect that can be played separately or together.
Flare’s ring modulator is based on the iconic tone of the original Dan Armstrong Green Ringer. This vintage classic was made famous by Frank Zappa who loved the unusual modulations created by generating a harmonic octave over notes. Messiah’s version offers two control knobs: a “Sparkle” tone attenuator and output Level control. Its taupe-gold body, purple and green knobs and stick-figure rock ’n’ roller holding up a flame convey an appropriately rockin’70s vibe.
In a unique twist, Messiah’s Flare pairs the ringer with a warm tube-style boost instead of a fuzz. Flare feeds the booster into the ringer for an extra punch, while preserving the Green Ringerspirit. The ringer side also turns any fuzz into an octafuzz, and it has the ability to quiet signal background noise fed through it.
The booster side features a single Boost knob to control the MOSFET circuit, making it very tube-amp-friendly with a warm, organic boost and gain of up to 32dB.
The pedal is a distinct improvement over the 1970s pedal that inspired it. “Most ringer pedals don’t track well,” Tom Hejda, owner of Messiah Guitars. “The player can’t rely on repeating the same effect even with the most consistently played notes. We carefully matched the components, so our ringer follows your every move, producing that slightly dirty octave you expect on demand.”
Messiah developed this vintage octave pedal with flexible features so that people who love that messy, dirty Zappa-esque sound can get there with ease but there’s also something for those who have not fallen in love with fuzz or the Green Ringer alone. Flare offers an array of sonic options while retaining simplicity in the controls.
Each Flair Pedal Includes:
- 3 control knobs: Boost, Sparkle, and Level
- Two effects – Ring Modulator and Boost – can be used together or separately
- Space-saving top side jacks
- Durable, cast aluminum alloy 125B enclosure with fun artwork
- Easy to see, illuminated True-bypass foot switch
- Standard 9V pedal power input
Flare Pedal Demo
Messiah Guitars pedals are designed with an explorative player in mind. Like their custom guitars and amplifiers, Messiah’s pedals are hand-crafted in Los Angeles for a long life with guaranteed quality.
Flare retails for $199.00 and can be purchased directly at Messiah Guitars or you can hear it in person at Impulse Music Co. in Canyon Country, CA.
For more information, please visit messiahguitars.com.
MayFly Introduces the Le Canard Envelope Filter
This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal.
If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and QUACKS like a duck, then it must be a duck. That's how we came up with the name for our new envelope filter. This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal. Trevor explains how this is possible in the launch video, as well as gives a demo on Le Canard’s operation.
The attack control determines how quickly the filter responds to the envelope, and the decay sets how quickly the filter releases afterward. The range controls which frequency spectrum the filter does its magic on. Add to this relay-based full-bypass switching with failsafe, and you've got one crazy little quacky beast. It is so expressive that you'll want to give up on your rocker-wah forever.
The MayFly Le Canard envelope filter features:
- Super fast responding envelope follower. Touch it and it jumps!
- Range control to dial in the character of the filter
- Attack control to control how fast the filter moves on that first touch
- Release control to control how slowly the filter slides back to baseline
- Full bypass using relays with Fail SafeTM (automatically switches to bypass if the pedal loses power)
- Cast aluminum enclosure with groovy artwork
- MSRP $149 USD ($199 CAD)
Introducing the MayFly Le Canard Envelope Filter
All MayFly pedals are hand-made in Canada.
For more information, please visit mayflyaudio.com.
Outlaw Effects Launches NOMAD ISO Pedalboards
Outlaw Effects introduces their next generation of NOMAD rechargeable battery-powered pedal boards.
Available in two sizes, NOMAD ISO is a compact, versatile tool that offers the convenience of a fully powered board plus the additional freedom of not having to plug into an outlet. NOMAD ISO is ideal for stages with limited outlet availability, quick changeovers, busking outdoors, temporary rehearsal locations, and more.
NOMAD ISO builds upon the legacy of the ultra-convenient and reliable NOMAD rechargeable pedalboard line originally launched in 2018. The brand new NOMAD ISO editions feature eight isolated outputs (1 x 9V DC, and 1 switchable 9V/12V DC) for even more versatility and clean, quiet power. With an integrated lithium-ion battery pack boasting 12800mAh capacity, NOMAD ISO can fuel a wide array of pedals, and will last over 10 hours* on a single charge.
Each NOMAD ISO pedal board includes adhesive hook & loop pedal-mounting tape, eight (8) standard DC connector cables, and one (1) reverse polarity DC cable, giving you everything you need to build your ultimate "off-the-grid" rig. A rugged, road-ready padded gig bag with shoulder strap is also included, to safely protect your gear while you're on the move.
NOMAD ISO S
NOMAD ISO S: MSRP $309 / MAP: $249
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 5 ¼"
NOMAD ISO M
NOMAD ISO M: MSRP $349 / MAP $279
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 11"
More info: https://www.outlawguitareffects.com.