The first time someone showed me how to play a self-accompanied blues by holding down a steady bass with my thumb and adding in licks on top with my fingers, I was pretty sure I had discovered the best possible way to spend my college years—until I noticed how solo jazz and blues pianists could do the same thing, only with walking bass lines.
When I began figuring out a way to hold down a bass line on the low strings while playing those same blues licks on top, I quickly discovered three things: First, it doesn’t take any more fretting-hand coordination to play a walking bass than it does to play a steady-bass drone on a single note. Second, walking the bass while soloing is like swinging two baseball bats in the on-deck circle; after playing some walking moves, steady bass feels a lot easier. And third, walking bass sounds extremely cool, whether you use it for a whole tune, or just as a way to add some transitions to an otherwise steady bass groove.
In this lesson, you’re going to take the classic back-porch sound uptown a little and play a 12-bar walking-bass blues in the key of E major. You’ll learn to do this by playing a one-measure walking-bass line that works over an E7 chord, transposing it to A7 and B7, and coordinating a few simple two-note licks over those bass lines.
Go for a Walk
If you can thump out steady quarter notes on the sixth string, as in Example 1, just keep your thumb going the same way while adding in the three new fretted notes shown in Example 2. Next, take this steady, climbing figure (which we’ll use throughout this lesson) and play a short, two-note blues lick on the first string at the same time. First, try the blues lick shown in Example 3, based on the I chord (E7) in E, on its own. Then, see what it feels like to play the lick with just the first note of the bass line (Example 4). You’re going to pinch (play at the same time) the open sixth string and the third fret, first string, then follow up with the open first string on its own.
Once this feels comfortable, do the same move, but continue on with the next three notes of the bass line, as depicted in Example 5. Changing just the first note of Ex. 3 from the first string to the second string makes for the two-note lick in Example 6. Try playing those notes together with the open sixth string, as in Example 7, then following up with the rest of the bass line (Example 8). In a 12-bar, steady-bass blues, you could use a move like this in the fourth measure to make the transition from E7 to A7.
By moving the line in Ex. 2 over one string, you get a bass line that fits an A7 chord (the IV in E), as shown in Example 9. Taking the first blues lick and playing it over the new A bass line gives you Example 10. Moving on to the B7 (V) chord, things get a little more interesting. There isn’t an open string to start the bass line on, so Example 11 shows how to get the same line over a B7 chord by using a combination of fretted and open notes on strings 5 and 4.
Change things up a little for the lick over the B7 chord, starting on the second fret of the first string and going to the open second string, as shown in Example 12. Playing the B bass line and B lick together means fretting two notes at the beginning of the measure. Practice making the pinch with just the lick and the first bass note, like in Example 13, before adding in the rest of the bass line (Example 14). On a steady-bass blues, you could put Exs. 8 and 14 together to make a two-bar turnaround that fits over measures 11 and 12 of the classic 12-bar form.
Put It All Together
Now you’re ready to assemble all of this into a full 12-bar blues in E. “Walk Me, Baby” (Example 15) plugs one of our one-measure bass-line/blues lick moves into each measure of the progression, until the last two measures.
Measures 11 and 12 include a slightly trickier turnaround, negotiating the move from E7 up to B7, then walking back down to set up the start of the next pass through the progression.
Look at just the bass line first, and play through it a few times on its own, then try just the melody on its own. When both feel somewhat familiar, go through measures 11 and 12 beat by beat, looking for moments when you pinch a bass and a melody note together, and moments in between when you have to play just a melody note.
Once you’ve got this basic coordination under your fingers, you can experiment with placing different licks over this bass line—try using notes from the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D) for starters—or even changing up the bass lines themselves. Listen to the bass-guitar lines on electric blues albums to get some good ideas. Good luck, and keep it funky!
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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