We’ve encountered many walking bass lines in our various song lessons, from simple scale-based ones, such as in Friend of the Devil or House of the Rising Sun to simple chromatic bass lines in Eleanor Rigby and (Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay. They can definitely make a song arrangement more interesting than just strumming out the basic chords.
Today we’ll look a little further at walking bass lines, not only how to put them together, but also at how they often define how a song sounds. We’ll use some examples from songs you know and also look at putting them into arrangements for songs that are usually played without them. So, without further ado…
These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.
Descending bass lines, such as the one in Friend of the Devil have long been a staple in music of all styles. They play prominent roles in songs like Mr. Bojangles and Piano Man, where it’s hard not to notice them. But they also pop up in things like Green Day’s Wake Me Up When September Ends:
Even though we’re working with what is essentially a “power chord” (here a G5 – a chord just containing the G and D notes), the descending bass line in the guitar creates new chords along the way.
As mentioned in our previous Connecting the Dots lessons, many guitarists feel more comfortable labeling each of these chord changes as slash chords. They’d be a lot happier if this snippet of Green Day were tabbed out as G5, G5/F#, G5/E and G5/D.
And, also as mentioned before, it may well be this need to have everything spelled out that keeps some guitarists from making the connection between chord changes. If you think about it, it’s certainly possible to create a bass line on the guitar for each chord change you make in a song. For some songs, and especially if you’re a single guitarist performing on your lonesome, this can be a good thing. But it’s also very easy to overdo it.
For right now, though, overdoing it may be just the trick to help you understand where and when you can work with walking bass lines. Let’s take a look at Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere (many of you might be more familiar with the Byrds’ classic cover of this song). It’s a very easy piece and will fit our purposes for this lesson very nicely.
The song consists of a four chord pattern – G, Am, C and G – each chord getting four beats. Using a typical strumming pattern like this:
to get you familiar with the chord changes. When you’re ready, give this arrangement a try:
This isn’t all that much different than what we did on You Are My Sunshine. The main task is still to get from the root of one chord to another, within a certain time frame. Here we’re strumming the first two beats of any given measure (actually using a “bass / strum” approach, meaning that we’ll play the root on the first beat and strum the chord (up and down) on the second beat) and using the last two beats to walk to our next root.
In the first measure, going from G to Am, we end up overshooting the target and then backtracking. Going from Am to C, we hit the A note (open A string) on the third beat and the B (second fret of the A string) in order to reach the C note at the start of the measure. Because we’re going back down to G in that measure, and because simply for the sake of this exercise I want to keep the rhythm pattern the same, we don’t hit the C to start our descent, but go from B to A and then to G. In the fourth measure, we’re going from this G chord to another G chord when we reach measure one again. So I simply pick a place to start (the open low E (sixth) string) so that I can maintain the same pattern I’ve been using.
Again, and as you’ve heard over and over again by now, this is certainly not the only way of doing this. There are so many others that it’s mind boggling. All we want to do with these particular lessons is to get you in the habit of looking for places where you can place a walking base line yourself. And one of the best ways to develop this skill is to “do it to death” with songs with which you’re already familiar. When you know you can do it anywhere and anytime, then you can pick and choose when you want to use this technique.
As you saw in this last example, it’s possible to create a walking bass line even when you’re staying on the same chord. This is actually an essential skill to have as a bass player. Guitarists, too, may find many places where this “walking while staying in place” might be just the trick to make an arrangement slightly cooler.
Let’s go back to the Green Day catalog once more, using Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) as an example. Here’s a “before and after” snapshot of the main rhythm pattern during the first four measures of the verse:
Essentially, what we’re going here is changing the second chord from G to G/B, by walking up our bass note from G (first beat of the first measure) to A (fourth beat of the first measure). Just for fun, we’ve added other notes in the bass line, again at the fourth beat in each measure, to create more of a “walking” feel. You can certainly sense the movement. I can almost guarantee that you won’t find any tabbed transcriptions of this song containing these bass notes, but a little touch like this can make your own arrangement stand out from all the carbon copies.
You can also emphasize walking bass lines that are already signature parts of songs by manipulating the bass notes rhythmically to stress the movement. Let’s look at John Denver’s Sunshine on My Shoulders for an example of this:
In the original, the guitar hits the root note of the chord only on the beat of the chord change (beats one and three). By repeating the root note once more before the change (on the second half of the second and fourth beats), you stress the “walking” part of a walking bass line, which can be very helpful when playing songs that use slow tempos. This is another trick borrowed from the seasoned bass player and yet another small thing that a guitarist can do to give a single-guitar performance more depth and character. Notice that we throw in a small (and quick) descending walk going from C back to G, just to keep the listener on his or her toes!
One final thing to put on your plate with this lesson – you can also add harmonies to your bass lines. Let’s revisit You Are My Sunshine for a moment:
Here we’re doing a pick of fingerstyle work, playing the walking bass line of G, A, B and C on our low E (sixth) and A strings, while adding the harmony notes of B, C, D and E on the B and high E (first) strings. This is something we’ve touched upon for different reasons in our Easy Songs for Beginners Lesson on Bookends, as well as in Blackbird, Scarborough Fair, Fields of Gold and other of our Songs for Intermediates lessons.
In our past example, the harmony runs parallel to the bass line. You can also run harmony in contrary motion to the bass line, as seen here:
The bass line in this example is the same as in Example 6, moving from G to A to B and coming to rest at C. The harmony to the bass line starts with the G at the third fret of the high E (first) string and then descends chromatically, pairing F# with A, F with B and E with C. These pairings, even though they are only two notes, create full harmonies in our ears. We hear a D chord with the F# and A, while the F and B pairing call a G7 to our minds. Not a bad bit of work!
I hope these brief introductions to walking bass lines have helped you to start looking through your song repertoire for places where you can use this technique to spice up your own arrangements. We’ll be seeing some more song lessons (both Beginner and Intermediate) that will be highlighting the use of bass lines in the arrangements. And, of course, don’t forget that we’ve already got a lot of lessons already here at Guitar Noise that certainly may inspire you as well. If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, take a look at REM.’s Driver Eight over on the Songs for Intermediates page.
As always, please feel free to write me with any questions. Either leave me a message at the forum page (you can “Instant Message” me if you’re a member) or mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time…