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

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

Playing multiple parts on the fretboard opens new doors in your playing and creates new gig opportunities as well.

If you can walk a bassline and comp chords, you are able to play duos with singers, saxophonists, and other soloists.

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

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

Bass lines can sound highly chromatic, or they’re hard to make sense of at first.

This lesson breaks bass lines down into easy to follow steps.

These steps get you from day one to walking and comping over jazz standards.

As well, there are backing tracks, drums and piano only, included with each exercise.

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

Breaking down the mystery behind bass lines in the process.

 

 

 

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The First Rule of Bass Line Club

 

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

 

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

 

Doing so keeps a full, thick tone with any bass note and frees up the other strings to add chords and melody notes.

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

But, when you 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 gives you the foundation or 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 bass notes on the 6th and 5th strings only.”

 

Pretty straight forward.

The third rule goes a bit deeper.

 

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

 

Though you tend to avoid open strings when comping and soloing in jazz, with 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 work with a half-time feel.

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

These bass lines are often played over jazz ballads, or as the opening chorus or two of a 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 half notes.

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

Sounds tough, so 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 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 state the chord you’re on.

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

To begin, take a jazz standard and play the root note 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.

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

 

Summertime Backing Track Summertime Bass Lines Backing

 

Click to hear bass lines 1

 

bass lines guitar 1

 

 

 

Step 2 – Half Notes

 

After you play the root note 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 is 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 find it to get it in the bass line range.

Go back to the standard and play the root on beat 1 and the 5th on beat 3 of each bar.

When you have two chords in a bar, stick to playing those roots on beat 1 and 3 for now.

Here’s how that looks 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 don’t add more notes, but you spice 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 create tension with the chromatic note that resolves into the next root.

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 add approaches 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.

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

Pretty cool right?

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

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 this Summertime example to see that 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 can now add the last note in your half-time bass lines.

Here, you use 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 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 ready, 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 can add rhythmic variation to your lines.

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

When adding in rhythmic variations, 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 do a full walking bass line, and the first half of the bar is a half note when there’s one chord in that bar, you maintain the half time feel.

Give it a try over a standard you know.

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 cover the bass and piano roles in any jazz jam situation.

Making it easier to play duets with singers, saxophonists, etc.

As well, it brings 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, branch out.

Try this over any standard you’re working on.

Or, 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 now enter 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 to 4 notes per bar is challenging.

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

So, it takes you as long to add this last note as it did to go 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 alternate root 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 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 use beats 1 and 2 of each bar to tell the listener:

 

“Hey, we’re here.”

 

Then, you use 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 handcuffs even experienced players.

So, go slow with it in the practice room.

Take your time, and write out bass lines over standards if it’s helpful.

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

To get you 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 to do 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 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 masters like Joe Pass or Martin Taylor.

But, with the right breakdown, a bit of time, and a positive attitude, you can walk bass lines like a pro in no time.



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