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The Beginner’s Guide to Bass Lines [8 Summertime Studies]

One of the coolest aspects about playing guitar is that you can comp chords, create single-note lines, and walk bass lines, all on the same instrument.

Being able to play multiple parts on the fretboard will not only open new doors in your playing, it’ll create new gigging opportunities as well.

If you can walk a bassline, and comp chords on top of that bass line, you’ll be able to play duos with singers, saxophonists, and other soloists.

Besides the jobbing prospects, it’s just a cool feeling to be able to comp and walk bass lines at the same time.

While you may want to walk bass lines, or need to for an upcoming gig, it’s tough to know where to start.

Bass lines can sound highly chromatic, or they’re hard to make sense of when first studying them in the woodshed.

This lesson will break learning bass lines down into easy to follow steps.

These steps will get you from day one all the way to walking and comping over jazz standards.

As well, there’s a backing track, drums and piano only, included to practice with each exercise.

Though rules were made to be broken, and you’ll break rules over time, these steps will organize your bass line practice routine.

Breaking down the mystery behind bass lines in the process.


Free Jazz Guitar eBook: Download a free jazz guitar PDF that’ll teach you how to play jazz chord progressions, solo over Jazz chords, and walk basslines.




The First Rule of Bass Line Club


Before you dig into the lesson below, there’s one rule you need to know when learning bass lines.


“The first rule of bass lines is that you play the bass notes only on the 6th and 5th strings.”


Doing so will not only keep a full, thick tone with any bass note, it’ll free up the rest of your strings to add chords and melody notes later on.

You might not be ready to add anything on top of bass lines quite yet, which is cool.

But, when you do reach that point, you don’t want to have to relearn your whole bass line system.

Keeping the bass notes on the lower two strings will give you foundation you need for playing half time and walking bass lines over any jazz standard.

Now for the second rule:


“The second rule of bass lines is that you play the bass notes only on the 6th and 5th strings.”


Pretty straight forward.

The third rule goes a bit deeper.


“The third rule of bass lines is that open strings are always available to use.”


Though you tend to avoid open strings when comping and soloing in jazz, when playing bass lines they’re your best friend.

Open strings bring a solid low end to your tone.

As well, they allow you to shift positions by buying you time to jump between fretted notes.

So, with these rules down, it’s time to take these bass lines into the woodshed.



Half-Time Feel Bass Lines


To begin your studies of bass lines, you’ll start by working with a half-time feel.

Half-time bass lines keep a focus on the half notes in each bar, first and third beats, but don’t strictly stick to these notes.

These types of bass lines are often played over jazz ballads, or as the opening chorus or two of any faster tune before kicking into a walking bass line.

As you’ll see, it’s more a matter of implying the half-note rhythm than sticking to only playing half notes.

When you work through these steps, you’ll begin with whole notes and work your way up to chromatic notes, rhythmic variations, and adding chords on top of bass lines.

Sounds tough, but take your time, go step-by-step, and you’ll be jamming a half-time bass line before you know it.



Step 1 – Root Notes


The first step to take when learning bass lines is to put the root note on beat one of each bar.

Or, on the first beat of a new chord when there’s more than one chord per bar.

When doing so, you’re stating the chord that you’re on.

This may seem simple, but it’s an important part of building up to more complex bass lines.

To begin, take any jazz standard and play the root notes on beat one of each bar or new chord.

Following the first rule of bass lines, play these notes only on the 6th or 5th strings of the guitar.

Here’s how that approach looks and sounds over Summertime to help you get started.


Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing


Click to hear bass lines 1


bass lines guitar 1




Step 2 – Half Notes


After you can play the root notes on the first beat of each new chord, you can expand your bass lines.

The next step is to add a note on beat 3 of each bar.

For now, this note will be the 5th of each chord.

If you’re new to intervals on the guitar, just think of a power chord.

The root is the lowest note of any power chord, and the 5th is the next note in a power chord.

If the 5th isn’t on the 6th or 5th strings, lower it an octave once you’ve found it to get it the bass line range.

Go back to the standard you’re working on and play the root on beat 1 of each bar, followed by the 5th on beat 3 of each bar.

When you have two chords in a bar, you’ll stick to playing those rootes on beats 1 and 3 for now.

Here’s how that would look over Summertime.


Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing


Click to hear bass lines 2



summertime basslines 2.1





Step 3 – Adding Chromatic Notes 1


In the next step, you’re not adding any more notes in each bar, just spicing things up with approach notes.

Approach notes are essential in bass lines as they tell the listener where you’re going with your line.

Root notes state, “We’re here,” and chromatic notes state, “We’re going there,” when applied to bass lines.

As well, you’re creating tension with the chromatic note that’s resolved into the next root note.

This type of chromatic tension is essential in jazz soloing, and jazz bass lines, to get that cool, jazz sound into your playing.

The first chromatic note you’ll add to your bass lines will approach the next root note by a half step.

When approaching the next root note, you have two chromatic options to choose from.


  • One Fret Above
  • One Fret Below


As well, the best place to put approach notes at first is on beat 4 of each bar.

So, go back to your standard, play the root on beat one, and a chromatic approach note on beat 4 of that bar leading to the next root note.

One thing you’ll notice, is when you have two chords per bar, you’re now walking a bass line.

Pretty cool right?

You’ll dig into this concept further in the second half of this lesson.

But, for now, know that when you have two chords per bar, the walking bass line formula is:


  • Root
  • Chromatic
  • Root
  • Chromatic


That’s it.

Check out bars 4, 12, 14, and 16 in the Summertime example below to see that walking bass line approach in action.


Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing


Click to hear bass lines 3


bass lines guitar 3




Step 3 – Adding Chromatic Notes 2


You’re now ready to add the last note in your half-time bass lines.

Here, you’ll be using another chromatic note to approach the next root note.

Now, a bit of a heads up, some of these notes will be diatonic to the chord you’re on.

But, don’t think of them as being diatonic.

Instead, always think about these two notes as being chromatic, leading from the chord you’re on to the next chord in the progression.

When doing so, you’ll play the second chromatic note on beat 3 of each bar.

You now have the root on beat 1, and two chromatic notes on beats 3 and 4 of each bar.

With two notes leading into your next root, you now have four chromatic options to choose from.


  • Two Notes Above
  • Two Notes Below
  • One Above and One Below
  • One Below and One Above


Whichever chromatic notes you choose is cool, so give them each a try and see what you think.

When first learning this approach, pick one and focus on it in your studies, such as two below each root in a tune.

Then when you’re ready, you can mix them together from there.

Here’s an example over the Summertime chord progression to get you started.


Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing


Click to hear bass lines 4


bass lines guitar 4




Step 4 – Rhythmic Alterations


Once you can play the half-time feel bass line, you’re ready to add some rhythm variation to your lines.

Changing up the rhythms will bring a stronger sense of interest to the line, without losing the half-time feel.

When adding in rhythmic variations, you can explore the following options over half-time feel bass lines.


  • Whole Notes
  • Half Notes
  • Quarter Notes
  • 8th Notes
  • Triplets
  • 16th Notes


As long as you don’t go into a full walking bass line, and keep the first half of the bar a half note when there’s one chord in that bar, you’ll maintain the half time feel.

Give it a try over a standard you’re working on.

Or, check out the following Summertime study that mixes a number of these rhythms together in a bass line.


Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing


Click to hear bass lines 5


bass lines guitar 5




Step 5 – Adding Chords


The final step to building a half time feel bass line is to add jazz guitar chords on top of your bass notes.

When doing so, you’ll be covering the bass and piano roles in any jazz jam situation.

Which will make it easier to play duos with singers, saxophonists, etc.

As well, it’ll bring a new texture that fills out your jazz bass line playing.

There are two easy places to place any chord on top of a bass line.


  • Downbeat of new chord
  • & of downbeat of new chord


There are other places to add chords, but these are the best places to start.

After you can comfortably put chords on top of bass lines on the first and & of first beat of any new chord, you can branch out.

Try this over any standard you’re working on.

Or, you can start with the Summertime bass line and chord study below.


Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing


Click to hear bass lines 6


bass lines guitar 6




Walking Bass Lines


You’re now getting into the second half of this lesson, but the bulk of the work is behind you.

At this point you’re probably thinking:


“I’m just adding one more note per bar, how hard could that be?”


Well, turns out, pretty darn hard.

For most guitarists, going from playing 3 notes per bar in a bass line, as you did so far, to 4 note per bar is challenging.

Playing four bass notes per bar will challenge your guitar technique and mental focus.

So, it’ll probably take you as long to add this one last note as it did to get from scratch to this point in your bass lines.

Just a heads up so you can organize your practice routine and don’t become frustrated.

Before you add the final note, a review.

If you’ve got two chords in a bar, then you simply alternate roots and approach notes to form a walking bass line.

This you’ve done, so all good.

When adding the last note to chords that appear once per bar, you’re going to play a diatonic note on beat two of each bar.

Here’s the formula for playing walking bass lines in 4/4 time, one chord per bar.


  • Root
  • Diatonic
  • Chromatic
  • Chromatic


That diatonic note can be a scale or chord tone; as long as it’s from the chord you’re on.

When doing so, you’re now using beats 1 and 2 of each bar to tell the listener:


“Hey, we’re here.”


Then, you’re using the second half of each bar, beats 3 and 4, to say:


“We’re going there now.”


Though it may seem simple, adding that last note in handcuffs even experienced players.

So, go slow with it in the practice room.

Take you time, and write out bass lines of standards if it’s helpful.

Then, when you’re ready, play it slowly in real time with tempo.

To help you get started, here’s a full walking bass line over Summertime to check out in your jazz guitar practice routine.


Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing


Click to hear bass lines 7


bass lines guitar 7



Adding Chords to Walking Bass Lines


The last thing you need to do in order to complete your jazz bass lines introduction is add chords on top of a walking bass line.

Again, the best place to do this is right when a chord changes.

Or, on the & of any beat when a new chord appears.

You can also combine those two rhythms by playing chords on the 1 then & of 1 on a new chord.

This approach is demonstrated in the example below.

Again, since you’ve already worked on this with half time bass lines, give it a try with a walking line over a standard.

Or, check out the Summertime example below to get started.


Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing


Click to hear bass lines 8


bass lines guitar 8




Learning how to walk bass lines on guitar can seem challenging, especially when listening to a master like Joe Pass or Martin Taylor playing them.

But, with the right breakdown, a bit of time, and a positive attitude, you’ll be walking bass lines like a pro in no time.

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