3 Essential Techniques for Jazz Piano Walking Bass

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
9:16

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Basslines
  • Groove
  • Improvisation
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing

Are you tired of playing jazz piano walking bass lines that lack authenticity? Then this Quick Tip is for you! In today’s lesson I’m going to show you three simple methods to construct jazz piano walking bass lines that imitate a real jazz bassist.  We’ll cover:

  • The most common chord progression in jazz
  • 3 rootless voicings for the right hand
  • 3 methods to construct bass lines in the left hand
  • Adding swing to your bass lines
  • A classic comp pattern for the right hand

This lesson uses just three chords so that beginners can jump right in. On the other hand, it is packed with additional groove-enhancing features for intermediate and advanced pianists.

Are you ready to get started? Here we go!

The Most Common Chord Progression in Jazz

The 2-5-1 is an essential chord progression for jazz students to learn early on because it occurs so frequently in jazz repertoire. That makes it a great place to begin learning jazz piano walking bass lines. The figure below shows a 2-5-1 in the key of C Major. The voicings shown are called rootless voicings because the root is not contained within the voicing itself. In this lesson, we’ll play the rootless voicings in the right hand. This will sound great with our walking bass line in the left hand. I recommend playing the root in the left hand while you are learning the voicings in the right hand.

Dm7-G7-CMaj7jazz piano rootless voicings
C Major: 2-5-1 using rootless voicings.

That sounds great! For a deep dive on rootless voicings, check out our Smart Sheet Music on Rootless Voicings—Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application.

Now that you have great sounding chords in your right hand, you are ready to start constructing your bass line.

Approach 1—Walking 5ths

The first and simplest way to create a bass line uses just two notes per chord—the root and 5th. Begin by walking up (or down) from the root to the 5th. After the 5th, you will play the root again an octave higher (or lower) than where you began. Here is an example using a 2-5-1 in C Major.

2-5-1 walking bass 1 in C Major
2-5-1 walking 5ths bass line in C Major

You can create additional interest by adding an element of swing to your bass lines. One way to do this is by adding an eighth note between beats three and four. This will require one additional note per measure. In the example below, I complete the groove by returning to the root where I began.

Walking 5ths with Swing Option 1
2-5-1 walking 5ths bass line in C Major with swing—OPTION 1

Here is an alternative option to add an eighth note between beats two and three.

Walking 5ths bass line with Swing Option 2
2-5-1 walking 5ths bass line in C Major with swing—OPTION 2

 

Bass Range

You can play 5ths in any direction you like, but make sure to stay in the “bass range” of the keyboard. The optimal range for a bass line is your low E (E1) up 2 octaves to E (E3).

Optimal range for walking bass lines on piano
Optimal range for walking bass lines on piano

Great! Did you try adding the rootless voicings in your right hand? Let’s look at another option for the bass line.

Approach 2—Triads & Upper Neighbors

The second approach I use is to arpeggiate a triad for the first three beats of each measure. Then, on beat four, I add a note that is a half-step above the root of my next chord. This note is called an upper neighbor. Here is an example of a bass line using triads and upper neighbors in C Major.

2-5-1 walking triads & upper neighbors bass line in C Major
2-5-1 walking triads & upper neighbors bass line in C Major

This approach can also be swung by adding eighth notes as shown below.

Triad & Upper Neighbor bassline with swing
2-5-1 walking triads & upper neighbors bass line in C Major with swing

If you’re enjoying these bass lines, you can learn 9 walking bass techniques in our Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Level 2, Level 3) courses.

Approach 3—Steps

Our final approach uses half steps and whole steps to create a more melodic sounding accompaniment. The bass line is constructed using the following formula: Root, up whole step, up half step, up half step. As a result, I wind up approaching each root from a half step below. After walking upward by steps for a couple chords, I will need to step downward to remain in the same register of the piano. Notice below how I walk down the C Major scale in measure 15.  In measure 16 I begin walking up the C Major scale again, but I am careful to omit the F in the stepwise pattern because it causes an undesirable dissonance.

Walking Steps Bass Line in C Major
2-5-1 walking steps bass line in C Major

This bass line also sounds great with the addition of a little swing.

Walking steps bass line in C Major with swing
2-5-1 walking steps bass line in C Major with swing

Jazz Piano Walking Bass with Right Hand Accompaniment

Now that you’ve learned three different ways to construct a swinging bass line, it’s time to add a stock swing groove to the right hand. I also call this the Charleston Groove. You’ll notice in the example below that I have combined different bass line approaches that we have learned.

2-5-1 walking bass line with Charleston Groove in C Major
2-5-1 walking bass line with Charleston Groove in C Major

That sound’s great. When you find yourself needing to walk a 2-5-1 in another key, be sure to save yourself some time by accessing the Smart Sheet Music for this lesson which is transposable to any key.

If you enjoyed this Quick Tip, you will love our full length courses on walking bass lines—Jazz Walking Bass Lines 1 (Level 2) and Jazz Walking Bass Lines 2 (Level 3). Together these courses provide 18 approaches for building incredible bass lines.

The following courses apply walking bass lines to familiar tunes and chord progressions:

I’ll leave you with a performance of Fly Me to the Moon in which I use each of the approaches taught in this Quick Tip.

Thanks for learning, and I’ll see you in the next Quick Tip!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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