Many years ago when I was starting out on bass, one of the areas that I routinely shied away from was jazz studies and jazz improvisation. The topic to me seemed so massive and so daunting and so musically rigorous that I did as much as I could to back away from it.
Eventually, after getting a pretty good handle on as many other aspects of bass as I could get my hands on, I felt that now was the time to stone up and delve into jazz studies, particularly walking bass lines. After enough time behind book sleeves and in front of as many tutorial screens as possible stacked on top of hours of experimenting, I began to love what I once feared. But what particularly intrigued me about improvised walking lines was that the amount of versatility that could come from just four notes.
One of those aspects that I want to cover today is the idea of smoothness versus angularity
Is Angularity a Bad Thing?
Absolutely not. The “rules” – if they can be called such – of walking lines is that they are to outline the chord and provide harmonic accompaniment. Those are two pretty broad rules and there is no overlord of music who will strike you down if you cannot meet those rules.
Certainly one way to fulfill those two parameters is to simply play the root, third, fifth and seventh note of a chord and move on to the next chord. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. This method serves the purpose in it’s own way.
But if you’re like me, you notice that there’s something…interesting, more sonically complex about lines that still fit those two parameters, but really stretch them to their limits and push musical boundaries one chord at a time.
Ok – Then How Do You Make Smoothness?
Smoothness can be generated in a number of different ways from a technical perspective. Here are a few to consider:
1. Some ways include using inversions of chord tones to create the same chord outline but only in a different voicing. This method might help you to bridge gaps from beat four to beat one of another bar.
2. Another way to consider is using the non-chord tones and create more of a scalar movement through chord progressions. The scalar motion, by design creates a feeling of logical continuity in our heads; we expect to hear a certain tone or set of tones one after another. When you apply this logic through a chord progression, the result is a kind of “deliberate” smoothness, one that already exists from another aspect of music theory.
3. Consider using using chromatic tones in your lines as well. Like the scalar movement mentioned above, applying chromatic notes creates another kind of upward or downward movement that our brains hear some kind of resolve to. By using the doubling up method or lead in method, like scalar motion, you can create a “sonic line” that is very obvious for the listener to follow when you’re creating walking bass lines.
So the next time you’re looking into practicing your walking line improvisation, try and see how smooth you can make your lines. Notice the difference in feel and quality that it can create.
Also, I’ve long since been a fan of Scott Devine’s bass lessons on YouTube – and I’m sure you are as well! Here’s one of his lessons about walking bass lines: