Gospel Piano Chords and Walking Bass
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Would you like to learn traditional gospel piano techniques to accompany praise songs in a charismatic style? In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn to play gospel piano chords with a walking bass line. This type of gospel groove occurs in dozens of beloved “old school” congregational songs such as “God is a Good God”, “Have You Tried Jesus?” and “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord”. In fact, in today’s lesson, you’ll learn:
- Gospel Piano Chords
- Gospel Slides
- Walking Bass Lines
- Right Hand Gospel Riffs
Not only do these gospel piano chords and walking bass lines sound great— they’re also super fun to play!
Let’s dig in.
Example of Traditional Gospel Piano Groove
To begin with, let’s get an overview of what a this gospel piano groove will sound like.
Awesome! In today’s lesson, you’ll learn to construct gospel piano bass lines just like this simply by analyzing a song’s chords. You’ll also learn how to add some variations to keep it interesting.
Gospel Piano Chords for Walking Bass Groove
First, we’ll look at the chords that supply the syncopation over the walking bass for this gospel piano groove. Today’s lesson is in C. However, if you are newer to this style, you should note that we are not specifically in C Major or C minor. Instead, traditional gospel music draws its harmonic structure from the Mixolydian mode, similar to traditional blues. While Mixolydian mode features a major 3rd, gospel music also tends to include “blue notes” drawn from the minor blues scale. Therefore, we simply say we are “in C.”
What is Mixolydian mode?
The Mixolydian mode is most easily understood as a Major scale modified by a ♭7. Therefore, it is constructed as follows: 1-2-3-4-5-6-♭7. Using this formula, we would construct a C Mixolydian scale like this:
One unique trait of styles that employ the Mixolydian mode is that they have a dominant 7th chord for the tonic chord (the 1-chord). This sound is so closely associated with the blues that almost any song using the Mixolydian mode is frequently characterized as “bluesy.”
You can take a deep dive on the Mixolydian mode in our courses on How to Improvise a Solo with the Mixolydian Scale (Level 2, Level 3). On the other hand, if you’d like an overview of all the modes, check out our Quick Tip on How to Practice Scales for Jazz Piano.
Right Hand Gospel Piano Chords
The walking bass groove for today’s lesson uses just two gospel piano chords…C7 and F7. However, you may notice that each chord is stylized in specific ways to give it a soulful flavor.
Did you notice that the C7 in the example above contains both an E and an E♭? While it may seem paradoxical to have a ♮3 and a♭3 at the same time, this is precisely the essence of the blues sound. This chord is called an altered dominant. As the name implies, it is a type of dominant chord that features an alteration. The specific symbol for this chord is C7(♯9). The ♯9 alteration is the E♭ (technically a D♯, but frequently notated as an E♭, as in our example).
The F7 chord in the example above features a common convention of gospel piano technique called a slide (G♯ to A). Slides appear in music notation just like grace notes in classical music. However, most gospel pianists will play both notes with the same finger whenever possible.
What if you want to play these chords in another key? No problem! In fact, our Smart Sheet Music allows you to transpose this lesson to any key with just one click. You can also download the lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
Gospel Piano Walking Bass Line
Now that you’ve learned some cool gospel piano chords, let’s take a closer look at that walking bass line. You might also hear some gospel musicians call this a bass run or running bass. That’s because it tends to move pretty quickly!
Pretty cool, huh? Now, let’s help you understand how to construct this type of bass line. It actually follows a formula that is pretty straight forward.
Target Tones for Gospel Piano Bass Lines
A general rule of thumb for building good bass lines is to place strong chord tones on the strong beats. For example, strong chord tones are the root and 5th of any given chord, and strong beats are beats 1 and 3. These notes become target tones of your bass line. The excerpt below shows our gospel piano chords and bass line with a circle around each target tone. In this case, we are using the root of each chord for the target tone. This works well when you have two chords per measure. However, when you have a chord that lasts an entire measure, it is common to target the root on beat 1 and the 5th on beat 3.
Approach Tones for Gospel Piano Bass Lines
Once you have identified your target tones, the next step is to fill in your approach tones. Specifically, these are the notes that you will play on the weak beats. One of the most common ways to approach a target tone in the traditional gospel piano style is ascend chromatically to the target, as in our example.
Gospel Piano Bass Line Variations
In most styles of music, exact repetition is avoided. Instead, musical ideas that repeat often feature some sort of development or variation. This is especially true of gospel music due to its improvisatory nature. Therefore, once you master the bass line in the previous example, you may also want to learn some alternate bass lines. The following example demonstrates how to navigate to the same target tones using different approach tones. You’ll also notice octave displacement on one of the target tones which adds a nice touch.
Great job! Now let’s look at some other right hand gospel piano chords and riffs that you can play over your walking bass.
Traditional Gospel Piano Improv Licks and Riffs
You’ve learned to play a basic gospel praise groove. Now, let’s also look at some other options for your right hand to keep it interesting.
Gospel Piano Improv with Punch Chords
The following gospel piano riffs use a technique called punch chords. These are syncopated chordal improv gestures played in the upper register that sound punchy. In fact, longer punch chords will frequently include tremolo (see example) to add sustain. These sustained tremolos mimic the sound of long tones frequently played in the upper register of a Hammond organ.
Punch Chord Riff #1
A staple arranging technique of gospel music frequently involves using 2nd inversion triads in parallel motion. The next two punch chord riffs make use of this arranging technique. Riff #2 places E♭ major and D minor triads over our C7 and F7 harmony. You needn’t be too concerned about the exact chord symbol here (ie: Cm7, F6). If the melody note is drawn from the chord symbol, the triads will sound just fine as passing chords. The flat notes (B♭ and E♭) draw on the C Minor Blues Scale.
Punch Chord Riff #2
Riff #3 below demonstrates another example of punch chords with a different pair of parallel 2nd inversion triads. This example uses G minor and F major.
Punch Chord Riff #3
Thanks for learning with us. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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