How to Play Walking Bass Lines at the Piano

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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.

Walking Bass Lines

Step 2: Play Roots and 5ths

Next, practice playing the root for two beats and then the 5th of the chord for two beats.

Walking Bass Lines 1

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.

Walking Bass Lines 2

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.

Walking Bass Lines 3

Practice Tips

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:

Walking Bass Lines 4

More to explore...

Jazzedge Teachers
Willie

Welcome Paul Buono

Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor.  His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit

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Responses

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  1. Greatly appreciate the information you make available. Your brief lessons are exceptionally well organized and presented.

  2. .Thanks for the free lesson.Ihave be3en playing the piano a long time .but im just starting out with a walking bassline.the notation was very clear and the instructions easy to follow.
    thanks.Ray

  3. Thanks Willie,

    I appreciate this article and can work this in as a Walking Bass lines warm up through all 12 keys and even add root half above or below or a combination of mix half below and above changing to root on 2 chords to the bar. I want to deeply express my appreciation to you for your many put forth efforts on all the continuous material of studies you provide for your students and there is plenty you bring to the table for one to learn and take their playing to the next level in the many genres of music. You are a teacher and give more for a person’s buck believe you me. THANKS!

  4. thanks so much for sharing this. i appreciate your generousity..
    Steve Hazan
    Toronto, Canada

  5. Thanks Willie. I’ve been quietly reading your post when I get a chance, both as a music educator who’s developing online materials for my classes and group but also as someone who’s been widening my piano chops to encompass styles I’ve not been schooled in. I appreciate the work you do and want to go further just want to take the plunge when I have the time to dedicate to it. I’m starting a new business and that is eating up all my creative energy.

  6. Thanks Willie for the this lesson, greatly appreciated.
    Question, when I play solo piano I do use the walking bass line however when I play with a bass player, who is doing the walking bass line, what do I play with my Left Hand?
    Your response will be greatly appreciated. A big musical THANKS!!!!

  7. I learned a few things from your Cocktail Piano lessons and I was on your old website before. What I was wondering is I like the Piano style of Nat King Cole to me her was on of the greatest! I also like George Shearing “block chords” styling. I can play “Satin Doll” on block chords(had a friend show me how). My question do you show students how to play piano in various styles in addition to your regular lessons? I did see a video of Oscar Peterson and he demonstrated a little of this and I thought is was just great. Is this something you would consider doing?

    1. To see the Master of walking bass,listen and watch Dave McKenna on Youtube..

  8. Dear Willie
    I only would like to thank you for your useful and beautiful lessons and tips. You are a friend for us all musicians and pianists.
    Go on like this.
    Good by.
    Renato

  9. Thanks Willie
    I only would like to thank you for your meanfull and parctical lessons and tips. I am learning much with your teaching.

    Tano (from Spain)

  10. Hi Willy, I am very enthused with your lessons. I have work for the next 3 weeks. In the mean time I will use your free lessons to keep me in touch with the keyboard. Many thanks for your wonderful easy teaching style.

  11. I’ve been remiss in reading these emails. This lesson looks great. My background’s in classical. So I play off notation, mostly. It’s a whole different world playing by ear. I will read and practice the whole set. You’ve got my attention.

    Thanks,
    David

  12. Thank you, I’ve kissed a lot of frogs on the internet looking for clean well informed well written, well presented instruction. Brilliant.

  13. Loved it! So precise and short… and valuable! Something I can use right away! Thanks!

  14. I love the stepwise simplicity of this – so whatever happens we’re playing something… and over time the fingers will master the next step towards the full thing.

  15. THis all works well if the 5th is two have steps from the root of the next chord, not always this case. Is there a general rule for a fifth more than two half steps from the root of the next chord?
    Also, wha is the general rule for multiple chords in a single measure?

    Thanks, love the practice tips above