Hey Jazz Guy,
I love the sound of solo jazz guitar, but playing it is totally foreign to me. How do I play a walking bass and chords together? –Crawl- ing in Cleveland
Ah, the walking bass! This is a wonderful sound that works really great in solo, duet, or small group settings. Mastering this technique will give you an excellent foundation on which to build your solo playing, as well as enhance your “situational awareness” in all musical settings. The key to playing great walking bass and chords together is to start with a solid bass line. Studying the bass and becoming a great bass player takes years, perhaps decades of practice, but there are a few guidelines that you can follow to get started. First we place the root note of each chord on the downbeats in Ex. 1. Next, in Ex. 2, we use chord tones to fill in the empty beats. A IIm-V is a good sequence to develop this idea on because it is easy to hear the harmony. A two-bar sequence like Ex. 2 does not leave much room for passing tones. However, lengthening the chord duration in Ex. 3 allows you to be more creative. Notice two things about this exam- ple: First, we’re still placing chord tones on the strong beats of the bar, and second, we’re using a chromatic passing tone on beat four to get the next root note. Rules are meant to be broken, and plenty of great bass lines certainly did not place the chord tones on the strong beats. This is just a guide to get your ear moving in the right direction. Even- tually, you will hear more possibilities and leave these guidelines in the dust!
Next, we choose chords to go with our bass notes. The ideal chord here is a two- or three-note voicing that includes the guide tones. Looking at a Cmaj7 in Ex. 4 we find a few good choices, placing the 3 and 7 higher or lower, and two different inversions, with the 3 or 5 on the bottom. The inversions are very important because you need many ways to play the same chord with different bass notes. If we “walk” a Cmaj7 up the C major scale [Ex. 5], we get a sequence of chord, bass note, chord. Bring- ing these ideas together in a IIm-V exam- ple in Ex. 6 gives us a harmonically correct sequence with a strong bass line. The last step is to vary the rhythm between the bass notes and the chords, which we do in Ex. 7. Chords can be held over bass notes, or attacked while the bass note is hold- ing over. The trick is to practice enough rhythmic variation that your sequence does not sound repetitive. Once you’ve got the IIm-Vs happening, it’s time to move on to applying these concepts over the blues, rhythm changes, and your favorite tunes. Our final example [ Ex. 8] shows the first half of a C blues, utilizing different com- binations of lines, voicings, and rhythms. In the first two bars we let the chords ring out over the walking line. The turnaround in bar 4 breaks the pattern and the bass goes without a chord for two beats before bringing a strong voicing back on the F7. In the final two bars we slide right up and down the scale, bringing in the diminished chord. C7/G would be the first chord in bar 7, hence the Ab passing tone. Keep in mind, this is only the beginning, so study different bass lines and focus on voice lead- ing. Remember, the more rhythms you can play, the better it will sound. It takes time to develop this, but it is time well spent, so walk on and jazz hard!
Jake Hertzog is the jazz ambassador to the non-jazz world. Send your questions to guit- firstname.lastname@example.org. Jake’s latest release is Evolution [Buckyball].