Bass Lesson – How to Play a Walking Bassline, Part II


I’m glad my video has been helpful to those of you trying to learn walking basslines! Walking basslines took me a while to learn and I didn’t really get it until a professor at Musicians Institute Hollywood taught me a method based on a kind of cookie-cutter approach.

Unfortunately I don’t plan on making more videos (I’m super busy!), but maybe I can explain it here simply.

Learn how to “walk” over one chord at a time

The easiest way to learn how to play walking basslines is to go chord by chord and learn a few patterns that work with each chord. Just memorizing a few different patterns for each chord type and playing them at random is a great place to start and will help build confidence which will eventually allow you to get a little crazy with your walking lines. Not TOO crazy, though! You don’t want to get fired from the gig ūüėÄ

OK, let’s talk a little about chord types… In jazz you have a lot of ii-V-I progressions, which means a minor chord built off the second scale degree, followed by a dominant chord built off of the fifth scale degree and finally followed by a major chord built off of the first scale degree. This would be D minor, G Dominant and C major in the key of C.

This gives us three basic chord types -- minor chords, dominant chords, and major chords.

Anyway, instead of trying to play over an entire chord progression, think about it one chord at a time and just piece it together. You’ll have to go slow at first, but eventually you’ll be able to do it in real time.¬†Let’s take that D minor chord to start…

Assuming we’re in a 4 feel (four notes to the measure) and each chord is being played for one full measure, you have to play 4 notes that fit into a D minor chord (and if you play notes that “lead” to the G Dominant chord you get bonus points).

One possibility is what I showed in that video: just play roots and fifths in varying patterns. This is perfectly fine and it’s a great way to move from the low register to the high register, or visa versa. Of course it gets old pretty fast if that’s all you do, so let’s look at a few other options.

Chord Tone Patterns

Your first option is to play chord tones. In this case, the chord tones are D, F, A.

You really can just play chord tones in any order and that would be OK.

  • D -- higher D -- A -- F -- G(new chord)
  • D -- A -- F -A -- G
  • D -- F -- A -- hi D -- G

If you’re familiar with 7ths you can also add in that chord tone:

  • D -- down to¬†C -- down to A -- down to F -- up to G

The important thing to realize here is that you’re just playing chord tones. Nothing too fancy.

Once you have a few of those patterns down, we can move onto passing tones

Passing Tone Patterns

The goal here is to smoothly get from D to G. Here are some patterns that work well.

D minor walking UP to G:

  • D -- E -- F -- F# ¬†(F# is in D Major, not D minor… but who cares. It’s just a passing tone!)
  • D -- F -- A -- down to Ab ¬†(chord tones, then a passing tone)
  • D -- D -- E -- F ¬†(maybe try switching octaves on the 2nd D, but you don’t have to)

D minor walking DOWN to G:

  • D -- C -- B -- A
  • D -- C -- A -- Ab

OK, that’s the basic idea. You learn the patterns that “work” over a particular chord, then you kind of just “cut and paste” your ideas as you play. The hard part is learning the different patterns and making them weave into one another seamlessly… all in real time!

Here are some other chord types…

Dominant leading to a Major Chord

Let’s get back to our ii-V-I in C. We already went over the minor ii chord, so let’s check out the V chord.

In the key of C, G is the dominant chord.

Chord tones

G -- B -- D

If you’re familiar with 7ths, try playing G -- B -- D --¬†F

Some patterns:

  • G -- down to F -- down to D -- down to B
  • G -- down to F -- down to D -- down to G
  • G -- B -- D -- B

Passing tones

Again, the idea here is to get from G to C smoothly.

Walking Up:

  • G -- A -- A# -- B
  • G -- A -- D -- Db

Walking Down:

  • G -- F- E -- D
  • G -- F -- D -- Db

One Chord, Major

Let’s finish off with the Major I chord, C.

Now, often times this chord doesn’t really “go” anywhere. You just kind of sit there. Your goal isn’t to lead into the next chord, at least not right away.

Some patterns that work:

  • C -- D -- E -- G
  • C -- E -- G -- B
  • C -- B -- A -- G

Sometimes you’ll see a Major I chord for two measures in a row. You can just combine two different patterns, or maybe play the same pattern twice in different octaves if you want to get into a different register.

Something like high C -- B -- A -- G -- down to C -- B -- A -- G or C -- D -- E -- G up to C -- down to B -- A -- G

What we’ve gone over so far

If you take just the patterns that we’ve gone over so far (minor ii, Dominant V going to major, and Major I), you’ll probably be surprised how simple it is to create a walking bassline that sounds convincing. Just memorizing a couple patterns for each chord type is all you really need — one for walking up and one for walking down! Then, add¬†additional¬†patterns as you get comfortable.

Don’t try to learn too many patterns at once. I’d rather have you play through ii-V-Is in real time using two patterns for each chord than stumbling through a ii-V-I because you’re trying to do too much at once.

Some notes on style: use a mix of passing tone lines (which are smooth) and chord tone lines (which have big jumps) to make your walking lines sound more interesting. And don’t forget about simple old 5ths! Playing the root twice in a row and the fifth twice in a row is a¬†legitimate way to play a walking line.

An advanced topic would be paying attention to the “length” of your walking line. That is, if you’re using a pattern that goes up to the next chord, try to keep walking upwards. If the pattern goes down to the next chord, try another pattern that goes down.

Also, you should be landing on the roots of the chords. At least for now.

Ok, we’re almost finished!

Other Chord Types

Earlier I mentioned three chord types: minor, dominant and major. This isn’t the whole picture. In order to be able to play through a typical jazz standard like Autumn Leaves, you need to know a few other chord types. Let me explain them here.

The two basic chord progressions are:

minor ii -- Dominant V -- Major I (which we went over)


half-diminished ii -- Dominant V -- minor i

We already looked at¬†ii-V-I, so let’s check out¬†ii half-diminished¬†-- Dominant V- minor i in the key of A minor.

ii half diminished

If you’r not familiar with a half¬†diminished¬†chord, it’s basically a minor chord, but with a lowered 5th.

In the key of A minor, a ii half-dim would be B half-dim.

Chord tones

  • B -- D -- F -- D
  • B -- D -- F --¬†A (the 7th of B half-dim)
  • B -- down to A -- F -- D
  • B -- D -- F -- down to/up to B

Passing tones

I wouldn’t worry too much about passing tones for this chord. It’s weird enough. But, here are a couple things that might work

  • B -- C -- D -- D#
  • B -- A -- G -- F

Dominant V going to Minor i

Similar to a dominant V going to a major I, but a little different. The chord tones are the same, so I won’t go over those again, but let’s check out the passing tones.

In A minor, the V chord would be E.

Passing Tones

  • E -- F -- G -- G# ¬†(we use an F instead of an F# because we are in a minor key)
  • E -- D -- C -- B

Minor i

This chord is like the Major I, in that you kind of just hang out without really trying to lead the harmony anywhere

Now, we’re on the chord of A minor

Chord Tones

  • A -- C -- E --¬†G (7th of A minor)
  • A -- G -- E -- C

Passing Tones

  • A -- B -- C -- D
  • A -- B -- C -- G
  • A -- G -- F -- E

Autumn Leaves

OK, that’s a good place to start for patterns. Remember to mix it up with passing lines and chord tone lines, and don’t be afraid to try stuff!

Now, let’s go through Autumn Leaves and see how we can use these patterns. My version is in the key of G, so I’ll go through it in that key… OK, here we go!

The first four chords make a¬†ii -- V -- I -- IV in the key of G major. What’s that IV doing in there? Who knows, but you can play it like it’s another Major I chord and you’ll live. ūüôā

Then the next four chords make a ii half-dim -- V -- i in the key of E minor

…then it repeats!

OK, so let’s check that out again in slow motion.

  • First chord:¬†A min 7 (play a pattern from the ii minor section… maybe A (on the E string) -- B -- C -- E)
  • Second chord:¬†D7 (play a pattern from the dominant leading to a major chord section… maybe D -- C -- B -- A)
  • Third:¬†G Maj 7 (this is an interesting case because it leads into a C maj 7, but you can just pick a pattern from the One Chord, Major and it’ll sound fine…. how about G -- A -- B -- D)
  • Fourth:¬†C Maj 7 (just play as a Major One chord… something like C -- B -- A -- G)
  • Fifth:¬†F#min7b5 (this is a ii half-dim chord. it’s ready¬†“F sharp minor seven, flat five”… pick an appropriate pattern, like F# -- A -- B -- F#)
  • Next:¬†B7 (another dominant chord, but it leads to a minor one this time… B -- A -- G -- F)
  • Finally:¬†E min (E -- G -- B -- D -- up to E -- F# -- G -- B)

..then repeat!

Notice how we kind of went back and forth a lot, keeping the line in the low register most of the time. This is fine, but don’t be afraid to play longer, flowing lines. On the repeat, try coming up with lines that climb higher and fall farther.

The bridge (next 8 bars) is just a¬†ii half-dim -- V -- i in E minor¬†and a¬†ii -- V -- I in G major. We’ve already seen these two-five-ones earlier, so feel free to¬†experiment¬†more.

The last 8 bars is just two of the same¬†ii half-dim -- V -- i in E minor that we’ve already seen, but with a slight twist. In the version of Autumn Leaves that I have, there is a series of quick chord changes after the first two-five-one that go Emin7, A7, Dmin7 and G7.

Don’t get scared--you can use the same things you learned earlier on these chords. The only¬†difference¬†is that you have two beats on each chord instead of four. You could just play chord tones and it would sound¬†OK.

For example : E -- G -- A -- C# -- D -- A -- G -- F (F is the 7th of G)

Two Feel

This brings me to an important point which I neglected to mention. Often times in swing tunes you’re playing in a two feel during the melody and you don’t switch to a four feel until the solos. Well, if you can walk a bass in four, walking in two should be easy! It’s best to keep it simple and just use mostly chord tones.

If I were to play the first 8 bars of Autumn Leaves in a two feel, I might play like this:

A -- E -- D -- F# -- G -- B -- C -- G -- F# -- C -- B -- D -- E -- F# -- G -- B

Ok I hope this helps. There is a lot of information here that will take a lot of practice to digest. This information made up the bulk of a 10 week course on walking basslines at my old music school.

I made a few assumptions about your knowledge. If you don’t know how to¬†construct¬†major and minor chords, or if you just want to get a solid grasp of music theory, I would highly recommend this site: I used this site a lot before I began any kind of formal training and it gave me a big head start.

I tried to organize this post the best I could, but if anything is confusing (I jumped between chord notation quite a bit, I think), please don’t¬†hesitate¬†to ask!

Good luck practicing ūüôā





Posted in: Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks Michael for the lessons and instructional video I now have a better feel and have improved technique. Hopefully soon you will be able to do more videos. Am a newbie so slow is the key.

  2. Great post! Love how you explain the “nerdy stuff”/theory. No more videos? Bummer. If you were in NY, I’d totally film you in exchange for a lesson. ūüôā Thanks for the lessons!

  3. I have spent hours searching the internet for information on walking bass runs between chord changes. Your great you are the only one that made it understandable. All the other sites try teaching a full course on music theory and never showed me what a walking bass run up and down was. I will be using your lessons/
    Thanks Again

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