Walking Bass With Harmonic Clarity

in Bass Groove/Bass Lessons/Bass Technique/Musical Vocabulary/Musical Voice

Establish harmonic clarity with your walking bass lines by choosing the most effective note choices.

Learn the effects/behaviors of each note in the chromatic scale (over a chord progression) and create effective walking bass lines.

The Most Effective Way To Practice Your Walking Bass Lines

The concepts below are intended to be practiced with chord progressions. Therefore, you need to have access to chord progressions.

Practicing these concepts with actual chord progressions is the fastest way to getting a grasp on creating walking bass lines.

If you don’t have any books at home with various chord progressions for you to practice walking bass lines, the following online resources may be of help:

Walking Bass With Harmonic Clarity

The note choices of effective walking bass lines have a strong sense of tension and release, making them lead your ear from one chord to the next. Therefore:

Never sacrifice or detract from establishing harmonic clarity. Be clear on the harmonic chord progression that you want to express… Unless, of course, harmonic ambiguity is your musical intent.

When aiming to achieve harmonic clarity, understand the effectiveness for each of the following note options. Choose wisely, depending on the duration of the chord. If the chord duration is short, then prioritize the most important note that establishes the chord progression and/or clarifies the harmony. If other musicians are already clarifying certain aspects of the harmony, (you can, but don’t have to) re-emphasize what they are already playing.

Choose The Best Notes/Combinations For Your Walking Bass Lines

One of the most effective ways to establish harmonic clarity is to emphasize the notes that are changing.

Take a look at this simple chord progression: | Cmaj7 | A7 |

The chord tones in a Cmaj7 chord are: C, E, G, B

The chord tones in an A7 chord are: A, C#, E, G

The chord tones of a Cmaj7 chord that change are C to C# and B to A. The sound of C to C# will imply a chord change. The sound of B to A will also imply a chord change.

Emphasizing the chord tone change is just one walking bass technique for creating harmonic clarity.

Another walking bass technique is to combine the most effective notes (below):

Playing Roots

Root notes most effectively satisfies the core motion of the chord progression. This is an excellent note choice for chords with a very short duration. There is nothing wrong or boring with playing root notes, even with chords of a longer duration. Providing root notes allows melodic flexibility for other musicians to explore their note options on top of the chord progression that you are establishing.

Playing Thirds

Quickly provides the quality of the chord (major or minor). This note choice is a stable note and begins the foundation of harmonic clarity. This note choice can still be explored in bass lines, but is very often explored in solos and with chords. Thirds will make your walking bass lines sound more melodic.

Playing Sevenths

This is an unstable note. However, unstable can be very good. Being unstable, sevenths create a strong directional pull. Sevenths want to resolve, therefore making them great for creating harmonic tension. Harmonic tension directs the ear where the chord progression wants to go. This note choice can still be explored in bass lines, but is very often explored in solos and with chords.

Playing Fifths

Fifths are often not needed to clarify harmony, unless the fifth is altered (b5 or #5). Fifths can feel heavy and can also give your walking bass lines more weight. Rock bass lines often focus on the root and fifths. Walking bass lines can also focus on roots and fifths, and there is nothing wrong or boring with that. A lot of musical freedom can be experienced by you and other musicians, by focusing on roots and fifths on the strong beats of your walking bass lines. Fifths can drastically simplify your thought process for walking bass lines because most of the time the fifth of the chord will be a perfect fifth (5). Sometimes the fifth is a diminished fifth (b5). Seldom the fifth is an augmented fifth (#5). Basically, the odds will be in your favor if your ear is not sure which type of fifth is needed. Also, focusing your bass line on roots and fifths allows you to hear the chord qualities that the soloist is deciding to outline. Fifths can provide freedom for other musicians because the chord is not yet defined, allowing them to explore other note options.

Playing Ninths and Sixths

Natural ninths and sixths (9 and 6) are good embellishment tone options. Altered ninths and sixths (b9, #9, and b6) and good leading tone options. Natural ninths and sixths do not create much harmonic tension, therefore they are good note options for simply adding color to your walking bass lines. Altered ninths and sixths are similar to sevenths in that they also create harmonic tension that want resolution. Ninths and sixths (both natural and altered) are good for making your walking bass lines feel more dense, because of their close proximity to the chord tones (root, third, and fifth). Although ninths and sixths (natural and altered) can be explored on the strong beats (1 and 3), they feel really good being explored on the weak beats (2 and 4).

Playing Fourths

Perfect fourths are often considered “avoid” notes, however I prefer to use this note choice often to suspend/delay a resolution to a target chord in a chord progression. If you think of a note as an “avoid note”, well, then you will most likely learn to avoid that note. Instead, think of perfect fourths as having a particular behavior (ie: over major chords) that needs to be handled with care. This behavior (ie: over major chords) wants to resolve the perfect fourth downward by a step. A sharp fourth can create a feeling of weightlessness. A sharp fourth has an ambiguous sound.

Practice Walking Bass

Get a hold of some chord progressions.

At first, I recommend writing out each chord tone for each chord. Then, mark the chord tones that are changing. These chord tones will be the most effective note options for implying a chord change.

For the chords of short duration (or chords that you wish to only play one note), I recommend choosing the root note. For chords of long duration (or chords you wish to play more than one note on), I recommend exploring a combination of the notes described above, but keeping a strong focus on the root, third, and seventh on your strong beats. The root, third, and seventh are your key notes in creating harmonic clarity.

Want to learn more advanced walking bass concepts? You might be interested in this:

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