Walking bass: It’s not just for jazz

This technique works in all kinds of musical scenarios

By Jon Liebman
January 26, 2024

Like most people of my vintage, I grew up listening to classic rock. 

I took up bass at 15, mostly because there were already more than enough guitar players! (Sound familiar?). I loved playing rock songs by Grand Funk, Humble Pie, Jethro Tull…

In high school, I started getting into jazz. Right away, I discovered the walking bass line and thought it was just about the coolest thing ever.

At the time, though, it hadn’t occurred to me that the bass parts in a lot of classic rock songs were actually walking bass lines, borrowed from jazz.

The subject came up the other day during a conversation I was having with Jason Raso, an outstanding Canadian bass player, published as this week’s FBPO interview.

Jason is a prolific composer and bandleader who’s released ten well-received records of his own. He’s also a passionate educator who, like me, loves teaching bass.

You don’t have to play jazz… but hear me out

Most every time Jason broaches the subject of walking bass with his rock students, he’s met with resistance. “When we start to get into walking,” Jason says, “you can see they’re like, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to play jazz.’”

Undeterred, Jason demonstrates how the walking bass line is not limited to jazz. In fact, you’ll find an awful lot of it in others styles too, including rock and pop.

It’s so true. Off the top of my head, I started rattling off names of a few Beatles songs that came to mind where I’d focused specifically on Paul McCartney’s bass lines. “All My Lovin’,” “Tell Me Why,” “A Day in the Life…”

Jason chimed right in. “Eight days a week,” he said. “You can really hear a lot of cool movement in his bass lines.” 

Breaking it down till it suddenly makes sense

Then he mentioned one I hadn’t really thought of. “Even when you listen to his busier lines, like ‘Lovely Rita,’ Jason says, “it’s walking bass. He’s walking through the scale from chord to chord.”

Then he takes it a step further, showing how a lot of the more intricate bass lines follow the same kind of patterns.

“With lines that are a little busier,” Jason says, “I’ll get the students to try to strip that line down to what is actually making the line. Quite often it’s real simple. If it’s a big run of sixteenths, you can pull out a few 8th notes and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Well, actually, that sounds (just) as good!’” 

Non-jazz walking

Classic rock isn’t the only style to borrow the walking bass line approach from jazz.

“Shuffle’s really big on walking,” Jason says, “because that’s how you’re gonna build movement from chord to chord.”

Even funk and R&B make use of the walking bass line. Motown’s James Jamerson, in fact, had a jazz background.

“A lot of what Jamerson did, I think, is based on walking,” says Jason. “When you look at his lines, he changes the rhythm, but if you straighten out his line, you usually can see, ‘Oh, he meant root, 5th, 3rd. You can see a walk even though he changes the rhythm.”

Walk, Run, Dance!

Jason wants to make sure his students really get it, so he’s developed a system to show them how so many kinds of bass lines actually have their roots in walking.

“I do an exercise with students that I call, Walk, Run, Dance,” he says. It starts with a “walking line, straight up quarter notes. And then we’ll displace one of the quarter notes by an eighth note and it turns into almost like an R&B groove. Then we’ll double some of those up and turn them into like more of a syncopated 16th note kind of thing. And all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I can see how that walk turned into this!’”

How about you?

What kinds of non-jazz music have you played that use a walking bass line? Maybe it’s one of the styles mentioned here, or maybe something else, like folk or country. Whatever it is, leave a comment below and share your story. And be sure to watch my interview with Jason here.

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