By Ron Jackson
While studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-1980s, I had the honor of seeing jazz guitarist Joe Pass give a clinic. It was just him, his trusty Gibson ES-175 hollowbody, and a nylon-string acoustic. Pass made those guitars sound like a full band. He demonstrated chord melody, percussive tapping, virtuoso melodic solos, and—what really got me going—walking bass lines with chord accompaniment, or “comping.”
One of the best ways to learn how to play walking bass lines with chord accompaniment is to listen to jazz bassists. Another way is to understand how bass lines with chords developed. For that, you’ll need to start from where it all began—that is, with Django Reinhardt and Freddie Green of the Count Basie Orchestra. Reinhardt and Green paved the way to playing walking bass lines on acoustic guitar with the chord shapes they used while comping in band settings. You can begin by listening to their music. After that, you’ll be ready for this Weekly Workout.
In all of the examples, I have used the same chord shape and fingering, while progressively adding a walking bass line and comping pattern for subsequent weeks. Pay strict attention to the fingerings.
Use a metronome and set the tempo at about 50 bpm. Practice so that the click is on beats two and four. This imitates the hi-hat in a jazz drum kit, and will give the music a swing feel. I suggest counting the 1 and 3 between the clicks so you will be able to catch the 2 and 4. If that’s too difficult, just play on the quarter note starting at 100 bpm. I recommend using a medium standard pick.
To perform walking bass lines with chords, first learn the three-note chord voicing commonly used on guitar in big bands and mainstream swing: the root, third, and seventh of the chord. For a G7 chord, the notes will be G, B, and F, omitting the fifth, or D. One G7 voicing is the G root on the sixth string, third fret; the F (which is the flat seventh note of the chord, written b7) on the fourth string, third fret; and the B (the third note of the chord) on the third string, fourth fret.
That chord form and its accompaniment (or, comping) is known as the “Freddie Green” style. To begin understanding this style, first familiarize yourself with these three chord voicings.
The dominant seventh chord, which has the chord intervals 1, 3, 5, b7. For example, in a G7 chord, the notes are G, B, D, and F.
The minor seventh chord, which has the chord intervals 1, b3, 5, b7. For example, in an Amin7 chord, the notes are A, C, E, and G.
The diminished seventh chord, which has the chord intervals 1, b3, b5, b7. For example, in a C#dim7 chord, the notes are C#, E, G, Bb.
Use this week to learn the jazz-blues chord progression in the key of G. It’s crucial that you commit to memory these chord shapes on the fingerboard, as well as the chord progression. These shapes will be used throughout the workout.
Below is the formula for a jazz-blues in roman numerals. Roman numerals are used so you can transpose this chord progression to any key, but memorize this chord progression in the key of G.
| I7 | Iv7 | I7 | II–7–V7of IV|
| Iv7 | #IVdim7 | I7 | II–7–V7of II |
| II–7 | V7 | I7 V7of II | IIm7–V7of I |
Use all downstrokes on this exercise. Practice muting the unused strings and accent the two and four of each measure. Use the exact fingerings. Once you master and memorize the shapes, you will come up with your own fingerings. When strumming, make sure that you do not strum too hard. Your strums should be smooth. Practice until you can smoothly change between chords.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Practice your bass lines with a swing feel by setting the click of your metronome as beats two and four. This imitates the hi-hat on the drum set so you can get into the groove. A walking bass line fills in the time so well that you don’t even need a drummer!
It’s time to add the most basic bass line: the quarter note on every four beats on the root of each chord. The easiest bass line is to play the root on every beat. Walking bass lines are almost always played as quarter notes—something known as four to the floor—and this is how you begin to create them. You also almost always play the bass notes on the fifth and sixth strings. If you try to play the bass note on the fourth string, you will be out of the bass register. Finally, you also will usually play the third and seventh of the chord on the third or fourth strings.
In Week One, you played the bass note with the third and seventh as one chord. Now, separate the bass note root from the third and seventh and create two parts. Your right hand will become very important now, because you will be using the right hand to play the two parts. This is in the realm of fingerpicking, but on a very basic level.
For this exercise, I recommend you use hybrid picking, holding the pick with your first finger and thumb to play the bass notes, and using second and third fingers to pluck the two-note third-and-seventh chord voicing. Make sure that you accent the two and four. Practice the bass line so that it sounds smoothly connected (legato) and hold the chords for their full time value.
Your ultimate goal is to sound like you are playing two separate parts.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Play the bass note on every quarter note, or beat, to create a sense of “walking.”
Now, you will add a real walking bass line in quarter notes with the third and seventh chord voicing playing a half note on the first and second beats, again creating two different parts. You will begin to work on the independence of both your fretting and picking hands. Practice these two parts separately—first, the bass line, then the chords—and then put them together.
Get stories like this in your inbox
Learn this walking bass line using the fingerings on the music. These specific fingerings were written to work with the chords. Notice how the walking bass line connects each chord. Also notice how I throw in an occasional open A string. Jazz bass players play open strings all the time when they walk their bass lines. It gives them a break from pressing the frets or fingerboard. Remember: always accent the bass notes on the two and four to keep that swing feel happening.
Next, practice the two-note third-and-seventh voicing. Remember the fingerings of these notes and how they fit in the chord progression. If you were to play these two-note chords in a band jamming on the blues in G, they would fit perfectly.
Now, put it all together, paying strict attention to the fingerings.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Bass players use open strings all the time when walking their bass lines. Do the same on your acoustic guitar.
This week, with the same walking bass line, play the third and seventh on top, syncopated. This requires even more independence of the fretting and picking hands. The syncopated rhythm for the third and seventh in this example is called the Charleston rhythm (listen to Django Reinhardt’s version of the song “Charleston”). The Charleston rhythm is a very common comping pattern in jazz.
Once you master this rhythm, put it together with the bass line. The tricky part is to mix the syncopated chords with the walking bass line. Pay special attention to where the bass notes and chord rhythms fall into place. When you’ve practiced it to perfection, you’ll sound like a full swing band on guitar.
Beginners’ Tip #4
The goal of playing walking bass lines is to accompany yourself or others. Avoid playing a walking bass line when you’re playing with a bassist, unless he or she takes a solo and you ask permission.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.
Please note that this piece contains affiliate links, meaning Acoustic Guitar will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!