If you’re anything like what I was, whenever I tried to make a walking bass line, the number one problem I encountered was that I would “run out of notes” or not have any idea really where to go or what to do. As the chords continued to wiz past me, I would fall farther and farther behind and my urge to give up would grow and grow.
For years I avoided walking bass lines until I determined it was high time to learn them. Walking bass is something so special to bass that not learning the craft really is like not knowing half the world.
After studying and studying and practicing and practicing, perhaps the loudest “Ah Ha” moment of my study came from learning about inversions.
Inversions are simply rearrangements of chord tones in such a way that the original chord is still being played. For example, a C7 chord, C E G Bb, is still a C7 chord when you play it like this:
E G Bb C
G Bb C E or even
Bb C E G
Taking the root note and making it the top note or the highest note in your chord puts the chord in First Inversion. To then put the 3rd note (E) on top of that makes a Second Inversion. Chords with 3 tones in them are only able to go up to Second Inversion. But if your chord has 4 tones in it, you can go up to Third Inversion where
Different voicing, or placements of chord tones, open up entirely new qualities of chord sounds while still maintaining the chord itself. That same chord could then be made to sound more “open” or “more top heavy” or “more bottom” heavy just on how you arrange the chord tones and at what octaves you do it at.
Take those ideas and lower and raise the octaves of those notes and suddenly you have many more options than you might have had before than if you were only to play C E G Bb in that order.
Another benefit of learning the inversions was that inversions helped me to make my lines less angular from chord to chord and instead made them much smoother. Before, I was playing the essential chord tones of the presented chordal harmony, using diatonic and chromatic passing tones when appropriate but my lines were still very “deliberate” feeling. Learning the chord tone inversions and their octaves acted as useful tools in removing big leaps and awkward jumps from chord to chord in a song.
I recommend that all bassists looking to begin a study in walking bass do the following:
Focus on learning what the chord types are (major, minor, dominant, etc.)
At the same time, become aware of the patterns of chord tones that are associated with each of the types of chords.
Finally, understand that there are many different ways to play a chord (or in this case, an arrangement of chord tones). Experiment by finding where each of these chord tones are on the fret board and how they relate to other chord tones nearby and far away.
Trust me – It’ll be the best thing you ever could play on bass.
Check out this great video of Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Billy Cobham performing, “Walkin'”. Be on the look out for Ron’s solo!