Improvise Jazz Piano with Walking Bass Line
Do you want to improvise jazz piano while walking a jazz bass line? In today’s jazz piano lesson, I’m going to teach you how to improvise jazz piano over a simple walking bass line. You’ll learn 3 exercises that are guaranteed to help you play more interesting improvisations.
Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Choose a Simple Chord Progression
If you’re getting started with improvising jazz over a walking bass line, the first step is to play a chord progression that is simple and that repeats itself. There are many chord progressions that you could use, but one of the most common is called the “Turnaround Progression.” It is a chord progression that contains only 4 chords and repeats back to the starting chord.
Here is the Turnaround Progression in the key of C:
For a deep dive on the Turnaround Progression, click here. Now that you know the turnaround progression, it’s time to construct a bass line.
Step 2: Construct a Walking Bass Line
We can start by playing the roots of each chord. For this progression, the chords change every 2 beats. Therefore, we can start with this:
These notes are half notes, and most jazz bass lines consist primarily of quarter notes, so we need to add a note in between these notes. We can do this with Upper Neighboring Tones, or “upper neighbors”. An upper neighbor is the note one half step above the target note. Therefore, if you want to add a note between C and A, you can use the upper neighbor to A, or the Bb.
Using this idea, we can construct a really cool bass line using upper neighbors. Check it out!
For more on how to construct bass lines, see Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Level 2 & Level 3). Now that you have a great bass line, you need to learn a scale that will work over all 4 of these chords.
Step 3: The Blues Scale
One of the common misconceptions I see with students who are learning jazz improvisation is that they think a different scale is needed for each chord in the progression. The fact is that you can use one scale to improvise over an entire chord progression, and one of the best scales that works for this is the Blues Scale.
Here is the C Blues Scale with fingering:
Another fingering option for the blues scale alternates fingers 1 and 3. I recommend selecting the fingering you like best, and then practicing this scale up and down the piano. The blues scale will be the “raw material” that we use to create some really cool lines. I also encourage you to practice this scale in multiple octaves up and down the piano. For more exercises to master your blues scale, check out the 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2 & Level 3)
Now that we have a scale to use, it’s time to work on some exercises so that we can practice improvising.
Step 4: Exercise 1 – 8th Notes
If you listen to jazz musicians improvise, the most common note value they use is 8th notes. Therefore, this is the first and most important note value to master as you practice improvisation. Here is an 8th note exercise to practice over the Turnaround Progression:
As you can see, we have 2 notes in the right hand for every 1 note in the left hand. Practice this scale up and down, and work to get this to 130BPM. Once you have this, it’s time to work on creating lines!
How to Create Lines
A jazz line is a musical “phrase” or “sentence”. Simply put, it has a start and an end point… that’s it! Applied to the scale I just taught you, you can play any notes from your C Blues scale, and as long as you leave a few gaps in between the notes, generally it will sound more musical.
How do you create interesting lines? There are 3 jazz line building tips I recommend:
- Start each line on a different note
- Start each line on a different beat
- Start your line in a different direction
With these tips, you will start creating more interesting lines. For more on how to implement these ideas, checkout the Lesson 3 of the 10-Lesson Blues Challenge. As you work on playing lines over the walking bass line, start with simple lines that use only the first 4 notes of the blues scale. Then try expanding it and playing all 6 notes of the blues scale. Eventually, you will be able to move into other octaves. But remember, keep it simple at first!
Step 5: Exercise 2 – Triplets
The second most common note value for jazz improvisers is the triplet note value. Triplets create a lot of energy and excitement and help you move up and down the keyboard quickly. For the triplets, you will divide each beat into 3 notes. Here is a triplet exercise using the C Blues Scale:
As you can see, we play 3 notes in the right hand for every 1 note in the left hand. If you want to take this exercise to the next level, try practicing triplets up 3 octaves and down 3 octaves. Once you can do this with the left hand, it’s time to start creating lines! As we did with 8th notes, start with just 4 notes and play primarily triplets. Then play all 6 notes from the scale. Once you can do this, then try multiple octaves.
Step 6: Exercise 3 – Turns
Turns are a very exciting sound if you are improvising the blues. They have an energetic quality and are very fun to play. What is a jazz or blues turn? A turn in jazz or blues is when you start on a note from the scale, such as Bb, and then turn off of it by going up to C and then back down to Bb. This quick rhythm uses 16th note triplets, and we can resolve the turn to another note of the scale.
When using turns on the Blues scale, it is best to use a turn on the b7 (the Bb), the 4 (the F), and the b3 (the Eb). Here is a turn exercise that practices turning on all these notes:
As you can see, turning is a lot of fun. Make sure you get the rhythm correct on the turn (this is what students struggle the most with). You can learn more about mastering turns here.
Step 7: Putting It All Together
The final step is to put it all together. A good solo is one that uses 8th notes, triplets, and turns. The key is to have variety, and to not the play the same lines over and over again.
One of the tools we teach for creating variety is to master different riffs and licks. Two courses we have on this topic include the Bible of Blues Riffs – 120 Riffs for Blues Piano (Level 2 and Level 3).
And for a fun performance to see how I created a blues solo, check out this jazzy blues solo on St. Louis Blues.
Thanks for reading, and see you in the next Quick Tip!
Get free weekly lessons to your inbox!
More Free Lessons
Learn how to play stride piano in the style of Fats Waller. Building from a lead sheet, you'll learn the stride left hand and right hand embellishments.
Learn how to play jazz piano if you are a complete beginner. In this lesson, you'll learn 4 essential jazz chords, 1 scale, and 3 improvisation exercises.
Learn 2 essential blues scales for blues piano improv: Major Blues Scale and Minor Blues Scale. Learn an exercise and how to improvise a blues solo.
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
The Piano With Jonny Membership
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Try us out completely free for 14 days!