Smooth Struttin’

How to play walking bass lines and chords in a blues progression


Do you admire how great bassists can effortlessly “walk” their way through any blues progression, but don’t have a clue how they do it? Well, here’s your chance to become enlightened. In addition to developing a greater understanding of the bass’ function within the harmonic structure of a given chord progression, learning how to “walk the blues” will also give you the ability to sound like two players at once. This primer is designed to get you started with a few simple exercises, and then progress to walking through two different 12-bar progressions, adding chordal punctuations, and, ultimately, formulating a complete 12-bar harmonized bass line.

Predominant in jazz, but also essential to blues, a walking bass line basically serves two functions: 1) To anchor the bottom end, while defining root motion and other harmonic information pertinent to a chord progression, and 2) To provide rhythmic propulsion. The preliminary rules are pretty simple: Play uninterrupted quarter notes, and aim for chord tones on the strong downbeats (beats one and three) mixed with non-chord passing tones on the weaker upbeats (beats two and four). 


Before attempting to tackle an entire 12-bar blues progression, let’s begin with something shorter and simpler. Ex. 1a paraphrases the repeating two-bar, D9-C9 bass vamp from Quincy Jones’ classic jazz standard “Killer Joe.” Check out how the notes outline each chord with its root, 5, and root (D-A-D and C-G-C), followed by a common chromatic passing tone (Db/C#) into the next chord. Any bassist would undoubtedly finger this “3-3-3-2-1-1-1-2,” but here we’re using the second finger exclusively to play every note in preparation for accommodating the pending D9 and C9 chordal “stabs”—picked with the middle finger, unless you opt for fingerstyle—that appear on the upbeats of beat one in Examples 1b and 1c. These have been respectively written using both traditional swing notation—a dotted eighth note or rest, followed by a 16th—and blues-shuffle swing eighths. The difference in feel is subtle but crucial to each genre. (Tip: Try moving the chord hits to the upbeats of beats two and three.) 



Ex. 2 fleshes out a basic 12-bar blues progression in the key of G, common to Chicago, Delta, and Texas blues, with an atypical walking bass line, versus a repeating I-chord riff (transposed to cover the IV and V chords) more common to those styles. Here’s the bar-by-bar, play-by-play:
Bar 1: Root-3-5 (G-B-D) of the I chord (G7), plus the b5 (Db) descending chromatic approach to the IV chord (C7) in bar 2.
Bar 2: Quick-change progression to the IV chord (C7) with a C root, followed by a drop to open E (the 3 of C), and ascending double-chromatic approach (F-F#) back to G in bar 3.
Bars 3 and 4: G target, followed by B (the 3 of G) and a 4-#4 (C-C#) chromatic climb to target D (the 5 of the tonic, G7) in bar 4, plus the octave G root, b7 (F) and 5 (D).
Bars 5 and 6: IV-chord root (C) target, plus E (the 3 of C7) and 4-#4 (F-F#) double-chromatic approach to G (the 5 of C) in bar 6, followed by the same drop to the low E and another ascending double-chromatic approach back to G from bar 2.
Bars 7 and 8: G6 arpeggio (G-B-D-E) in bar 7, followed in bar 8 by the same notes as bar 3, with an octave G.
Bars 9 and 10: V-chord (D7) figure in bar 9 is the same as Ex. 1a, bar 1; IV-chord figure (bar 10) is identical to bar 2.
Bars 11 and 12: A return to the I chord reprises the G6 arpeggio from bar 7; Bar 12 reverses the notes and adds a low F#.


Ex. 3 enhances the previous progression with jazzier chord substitutions:

Bar 1: Same as bar 1 of Ex.2.
Bar 2: Reflects the quick-change IV-#IVdim7 chords (C7-C#dim7) with a C-E-C#-E line.
Bar 3: D target (the 5 of G7), followed by root-b7 (G-F), similar to bar 4 of Ex. 2, with a C# chromatic approach to bar 4.
Bar 4: Substitutes Dm7-G7 chord tones for I chord, a common jazz technique used as a “II-V” approach the IV chord (C7).
Bars 5 and 6: Bar 5 reproduces bars 2 and 10 from Ex. 2, and bar 6 features an ascending C# diminished arpeggio (G-Bb-C#- E) that corresponds to the #IVdim7 chord of the moment.
Bars 7 and 8:
I7-IIm7-IIIm7-VI7 progression (G7-Am7-Bm7-E7) that begins with another D target, leading to a subsequent chromatic descent to C, then A—both Am7 (IIm7) chord tones—followed by the root of Bm7 (IIIm7) and an upper chromatic neighbor (F) approaching the root of E7 (VI7), before dropping a b5 to Bb as a chromatic approach to the pending Am7 chord in bar 9.
Bars 9 and 10: Climbing and descending walks up and down Am7 and D7 (IIm7 and V7) chord tones with chromatic passing tones replace Ex. 2’s V and IV chords.
Bars 11 and 12: Standard jazz-blues turnaround with root-b7-6-b3-2-b6-5-b2 root motion (G-F-E-Bb-A-Eb-D-Ab-G) corresponding to the I7-VI7-II7-V7-I7 progression (G7-E7- A7-D7-G7). 


After you get these lines under your fingers, it’s time to add some chordal punctuations, à la Examples 1b and 1c. Ex. 4 will get you started with chord stabs applied to the first four bars of Ex. 2, but the rest is up to you. Continue applying chords to the upbeats of beat one, two or three throughout the remainder of Ex. 2, and then go back and do the same with Ex. 3. (Tip: You can borrow chord voicings from Ex. 6.) 



Ex. 5 takes a different approach to a G blues, by placing almost every note on the sixth string, which facilitates a better understanding of the progression’s intervallic formula, as the basic harmonic structure is liberated even further. Familiarize yourself with it and analyze its structure, as we did in Examples 2 and 3 in preparation for things to come. 



All of this leads to the inspiration behind this lesson. Way back in the mid-’70s, then GP columnist Jerry Hahn presented a 12-bar blues bass line similar to the previous one harmonized in three-note chords played almost entirely on the sixth, fourth, and third strings. I remember spending considerable time memorizing it, and found it extremely useful in the years that followed, but those memories have since morphed into the version notated in Ex. 6. One of the most beautiful things about this elegant sequence of 48 chords (!) is how, except for beat one in bar 7, your third finger never has to break contact with the third string, which makes for smooth sailing, once you memorize the chord shapes. Here’s a bar-by-bar harmonic analysis of each chord’s relationship to the key center.
Bar 1: G7-Am7-A# dim7-G/B (I7-IIm7- bIIIdim7-I/III)
Bar 2: C7-B7-C7-C#dim7 (IV7-III7-IV7- #IVdim7)
Bar 3: G7/D-Am7/E-F7-F#7 (I7/V-IIm7/VI-bVII7-VII7)
Bar 4: G7-F7-Eb7-Db7 (I7-bVII7-bVI7-bV7)
Bar 5: C7-B7-C7-C#dim7 (Same as bar 2.)
Bar 6: Dm7-D#dim7-C/E-Cm/Eb (Vm7- #Vdim7-IV-IVm)
Bar 7: G/D-Db7-C7-Bbdim7 (I/V-bV7-IV7- bIIIdim7)
Bar 8: Bm7-F7-E7-Bb7 (IIIm7-bVI7-VI7-bIII7)
Bar 9: Am7-Bm7-C7-C#dim7 (IIm7-IIIm7- IV7-#IVdim7)
Bar 10: D7-C7-Bb7-Ab7 (V7-IV7-bIII7-bII7)
Bars 11 & 12 (turnaround): G7-F7-E7-Bb7- A7-Eb7-D7-Ab7-G7 (I7-bVII7-VI7-bIII7-II7- bVI7-V7-bII-I7)  


Variations of this progression can be created by excluding select chords or by applying the upbeat rhythmic punctuations suggested in Examples, 1b, 1c, and 4 while maintaining Ex. 5’s bass line. Overly analytical? Perhaps, but now you know how and why it all works. Bassists beware!