Walking-Bass Blues

Building a fingerstyle arrangement may seem like a daunting prospect, until you realize you can tackle it like you would any song you’d work out with a band: Start with a basic groove, bass line, or riff; assign some chords to fill it out; and then jam or write melodies until you come up with a tune that heals the sick, raises the dead, and makes the girls go out of their heads. The blues is always fertile ground for ideas, so let’s try this approach on a common blues-based turnaround, which provides us plenty of harmonic and melodic potential.

The slow-moving bass line in Ex. 1 acts as the skeleton of our arrangement. The chord symbols show the implied the harmony, which so far is unrealized, but is easily “heard,” once you know the sound. This ascending bass line has its roots in walking bass and left-hand piano-boogie patterns, but here it’s given a half-time setting with the notes coming half as fast as a normal quarter-note walking-bass pattern. Pluck these bass notes with your picking-hand thumb. (See “Picking Pointers” on p. 64 for more technique tips.)

You can really hear the essence of this progression once we add the descending melody, as shown in Ex. 2. This melodic sequence is commonly used as the basis for blues tags and turnarounds, and it’s in counterpoint to the ascending bass line. The contrary motion of the melody and bass is clearly heard in this exposed, two-octave-wide setting.

Now that we have nice “bookends” in the bass line and melody, let’s fill in the middle with chord tones. Ex. 3’s first two bars repeat the exact bass line and melody as presented in Ex. 2, but flesh out the harmony indicated in the chord symbols by adding the inner voices. Then a melodic variation is introduced in bar 3, and the harmonic rhythm is augmented, or extended, so that the resolution back to the tonic (E) is delayed for two bars, until the downbeat of bar 5. The small, three-note chords here are borrowed from a common jazz-comping substitution technique called tritone substitution—using dominant-7th chords that share a common tritone (e.g., C#7 and G7).

Remember the melody we talked about that would change the world? Well, Ex. 4 shows my attempt, and you’re welcome to improve on it or come up with your own. This melody plays nice with the bass line and observes the harmony as indicated by the chord symbols, but still manages to have a little fun. The standard “Sentimental Journey” is based on this progression, and Chet Atkins plies two versions of his own in “Jiffy Jam” and “Blue Finger.” Experimenting with these melodies will illustrate the progression’s versatility, but for the most satisfying results, come up with your own creations.