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Fingerstyle - Walking Basslines
Published March 30th, 2005. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

What to do when you can't find a bassist (or don't want to pay one)? You can pretty much do the job yourself and it is not as difficult as you might think. It is a great technique to know if you are playing in a duo or if you just want to practice some standards with one of your guitar buddies. It will also impress your friends and family. But you are going to have to lose the pick, that's right, put it away and start enjoying the polyphony of the guitar.


Walking Basslines for two Chord per Measure Progressions

Before we go on to the actual walking basslines, you are going to have to get used to playing chords with your fingers rather than a pick. Use your thumb on your right hand for the bass notes on the sixth and fifth strings and let your index, middle and ring fingers take care of the other three chord tones. Let's start by plying a blues turnaround in Bb:
 

Approaching the Root Chromatically
Above and Below - Now lets get you playing a bassline with the same changes. The approach to walking basslines on the guitar is a little different than how a bass player would approach it. It is more about feel than playing arpeggiated chord tones. We are simply going to approach the root of each chord by a note directly above or below.
 
First from below:
 
Now from above:
 
Mixing it up - Any combination is fine. Although not a necessity, I generally approach the chord by the closest note. In the example below we approach the G7 chord from the Bb7 chord below, so our closest note would be the F# note directly below the root of the G7 chord. The closest path to the Cmin7 chord would be from above. Either way works fine for the F9 chord since it is directly next to the Cmin7. As the Bb7 chord is below the F9 chord on the neck, the closest note is a B natural directly above it:
 

Rhythmic Variations
So far we have been playing the bass note and chord together on the strong beat but we can play the chord on the up-beat also:
 
I would suggest that you mix up playing the chord on the beat and on the up-beat in various combinations.

Voicing your Chords
When I play with a bassist present I tend to play intricate voicings but when I am in the situation where I need to take care of the bassline myself, simple is much better. The basic rule to remember is: 3rd, 7th and highest extension indicated by your chord symbol. Here is the same Jazz blues turnaround using chords with the upper extensions added:
 

One Chord per Measure Chord Progressions
Okay, I can hear you asking; "that's fine and dandy but what happens when you have to play one chord per measure rather than two?" It is a similar approach, you play:
  • The root and chord (together or with the chord played on the up-beat) on the first beat of the measure.
  • On the next beat, you play the note directly below or above the root.
  • Root and chord again on the third beat (or with the chord on the up-beat).
  • And finally, you should play the note directly below or above the root of the next chord.
Let's try it with the same chord progression, this time, one chord per measure rather than two. Notice that I mix up playing the chords on and off the beat. Experiment placing the chords on different beats yourself, it's best to not stick to any one pattern:
 
 

Try making walking basslines using some Jazz standards. You'll find that the simple techniques I've described in this lesson will work with most any of them. Good luck and keep practicing. 'Till next time....
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