Walking Bass

Walking Bass

Pianists, Anchor Your Walking Bass Lines with This Terrific Tool

How many times have you listened to recordings of jazz piano trios (e.g. Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, etc.) and wanted to swing in the same way?

If you’re like most piano students, you spend most of your time playing alone. How can you get your keyboard style to swing?

One way to jazz up your solo work is to use walking bass lines. In other words, you treat your left hand as if it were playing the string bass parts like Ray Brown did with Oscar Peterson or Eddie Gomez did with Bill Evans.

One of the best examples of a pianist who uses his left hand to function like a jazz bassist is Dave McKenna. Dave found a way to incorporate walking bass lines into his solo piano style in a unique way. He really swings! Listen to his CD called Giant Strides and you’ll see what I mean.

The best way to introduce walking bass lines into your playing is to start with one short common chord progression: C major – A minor – D minor – G7 – C major. The Roman numeral sequence that musicians use to identify the location (and function) of these chords for all major keys is: I – vi- ii – V – I.

The most familiar example of a song that uses this I – vi- ii – V – I progression is the infamous Heart and Soul. (You may have played the bottom part or the melody of this catchy tune on the piano when you were growing up).


Example No. 1 – Demonstrates the I – vi- ii – V – I chord pattern in the key of C Major.
You can use this common chord pattern to start on the road to creating walking bass lines. In order to make these bass notes into a walking bass line, you will need to use quarter notes.


When you want to make the chords flow from one to another while still having musical color, you can insert the dominant (V) of each chord before it. E is V of A; A is V of D; D is V of G and G is V of C. Example No. 2 begins to look and sound like a bass line. (Note: the right hand part is the same as in Example 1). While this bass line has some motion and character, it has a lot of repeated notes. You can really energize this line by replacing each dominant (V) with the tritone substitute (bII) of each of the four chords (I – vi- ii – V – I).


Example No. 3 – Demonstrates what the bass line looks and sounds like now. It has much or color and energy! Once you get used to playing this walking bass line, you’ll start feeling a sense of swing.


When and where can you use this chord pattern with the left hand? The answer to this question reveals the terrific tool that I call the anchor bass line. You can use this anchor bass line at first endings as well as at the ends of songs when you want to repeat them. In both cases, musicians refer to this as a turn-around because this pattern helps you to finish what came before and turn the music around for a repeat of the particular passage or the entire song.

Not only does the anchor bass line improve the quality of your turn-arounds, but it also provides you with a place for your bass lines to go.

When you have the anchor bass line as your musical destination, you’ll have the confidence to create walking bass line for the remaining measures of the song.


Example No. 4 adds the right hand part (something you might use for a first ending of a song after playing verse one) to the left hand?s anchor bass line.


Here are three things you can do immediately to put these ideas into action.

First, play through the examples above and then practice Example 4 until you know it cold. You can then transpose this example to other keys. For help forming the scales of other keys, look at Building Block No. 2: Scaling the Summit is as Simple as Do- Re- Mi: Major Scale.

Second, look for songs that have I – vi- ii – V progressions in their first endings (note: the anchor bass line needs two measures for it to work.) There are even some standard tunes that can use the anchor bass line for part of the verse. Blue Moon and Let’s Fall in Love are great examples of this.

Third, listen, listen, listen to jazz bass players. This is the best way to develop the ability to get your bass lines to swing as well as to energize your playing of the anchor bass line.

Learning to create and play walking bass lines with your left hand can seem like a daunting task. Keep at it! By starting with the anchor bass line, you will be able to unlock the door to creating your own swinging walking bass lines.

Download the sheet music for the arrangement of Let’s Fall in Love that is featured in our Walking Bass for Piano YouTube video.

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