Constructing Bass Lines

© 2001 James Walker

While the traditional three-octave range of the vibraphone doesn't always lend itself well to it, walking bass lines can be a very effective texture for unaccompanied and ensemble vibraphone performance alike; vibraphonists who double on marimba or mallet synthesizer have an even greater opportunity to use walking bass lines in their work. In the practice room, bass lines are a valuable tool in the learning and mastering of new tunes, forcing the player to really get "inside" the changes. This month's lesson addresses some basic building blocks in the construction of walking bass lines.

Starting Points: Quarter Notes, Chord Tones

While accomplished bassists will play bass lines using a variety of rhythms and a broad range of approaches to the harmony, elementary bass lines present the harmony of the song, and "walking bass lines" usually involve quarter-note motion. This first example demonstrates a very simple walking bass line, using chord tones (1-3-5-7) over a Cmin7 chord.

Filling In The Gaps

A bass line constructed purely of chord tones can be quite effective, but in order to achieve variety, non-chord tones should be incorporated as well. This next example uses diatonic passing tones to create a simple bass line comprised of stepwise motion:

Target Notes: Root and Fifth

When playing songs with a slower harmonic rhythm, where chords may last for several measures, one can help to maintain the forward momentum of the bass line by targeting not only the root of the chord, but the fifth as well; the following example sets the root as the target tone on beat one of each measure, and the fifth as the target on beat three:

(This example provides the base for the next four examples.)

Approach Tones: Diatonic and Chromatic

One can approach a targeted note either diatonically (using a note appropriate to the chord) or chromatically (using a note not commonly associated with the chord). Here, diatonic approaches from below are used:

Similarly, approach tones from above can be used:

Chromatic approach tones offer an even stronger resolution into the targeted pitch, further establishing the sense of forward momentum which one strives for in constructing walking bass lines In this example, the chromatic motion follows the general shape of the line: as the line ascends, the chromatic tones resolve up to the next chord tone; as the line descends, the chromatic tones resolve down by half-step. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it can be a good starting point in using these sorts of chromatic tones.

Neighbor Groups

A neighbor group consists of a two notes preceding a targeted note; one above the targeted note, the other below. In this example, the pitch on first beat of the second measure (C) is preceded by a diatonic pitch above (D), and a chromatic approach tone below (B):

Chord Progressions

These same passing tones and approach tones are utilized when constructing walking bass lines over a series of chords. The goal is to create a line with good melodic motion, which also presents the basic harmony of the song. This first example uses only chord tones (1-3-5-7) of each respective chord:

Here, chromatic passing tones are used to move by half-step from one chord to the next:

Here is another example using chromatic tones, including a chromatic approach tone resolving to the root of the Bbmaj7 chord:

Varying From the Quarter-Note Pulse

Walking bass lines are by no means limited to quarter-note motion. Variations in the rhythm, as with any melodic line, help to maintain the forward motion of the line, as well as maintaining the interest of the listener. Here, not only is the rhythm different (using an eighth-note division in the first measure, and triplet divisions in the second measure), but notice how in each of the first two measures, the root falls on the second beat.


Walking bass lines are a great study device when learning new songs, and they can also be a valuable part of a jazz mallet performer's repertoire. The examples on this web page are only a starting point. Transcribe the works of great bassists (Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Eddie Gomez, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Jaco Pastorius, Gary Peacock, among many others), players who demonstrate how such a basic element of the jazz rhythm section can be immensely artistic and melodic.

(This page and all the materials within copyright ©2001 James Walker, All Rights Reserved.  No portion of this page may be duplicated or distributed without the author's written consent.)

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