by Gjermund Sivertsen
How to play Walking Bass Lines (Jazz Piano).

Many people have requested to learn from me how to play walking bass lines (Jazz Piano).
As a jazz pianist, I find it very useful to know how to play walking bass lines for several reasons. The main reason is that you actually need to understand how the bass works in a band setting in order to play good walking bass lines yourself. 

This is my video from YouTube on how to play walking bass lines (jazz piano):

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How to play Walking Bass Lines (Jazz Piano). 

The usage of playing walking bass lines for jazz pianists are many.
For example: You are playing with a singer without a bass player, you’re playing solo jazz piano and want to play accompaniment for yourself while you play your melodies/solos, or you’re playing in a jazz band and the bass player is not showing up! Trust me, this happens all the time

How the bass works

– Normally the bass player plays the root of each chord. That is his job! However, more experimental bass players doesn’t always do this, and we as piano players should never get in the bass players way.

– In swing tunes, the bass players are mixing between playing on 1 and 3, walking bass (on 1,2,3 and 4), as well as playing fills and being a rhythmical support.

– The range of the 4 string double-bass is usually E1 to G4. A good supportive bass player usually plays at the lower part of his instrument.

Bass examples

1. The bass player plays on 1 and 3:

(The bass is sounding an octave lower than it is written)

Also: If you’d draw a line between the notes, you’ll see the typical pattern: A little up, a little down, or the other way around.

2. The bass player walks:

Now you can see that the bass player walks on 1,2,3 and 4.
At the start he plays quite bright (1). This sounds great, but it would probably not sound that good unless he creates a contrast by playing some deeper notes (2).

So we as piano players should keep this in mind! If we just play the same lines over and over, there won’t be any contrast and then you’ll have less friction. If you vary too much when you play the bass lines, you won’t establish a good foundation that you can use to create the important contrast.

How to play Walking Bass Lines (Jazz Piano)
TIP 1: Connect the chords.

Your job when you’ll play your bass lines is to connect the chords.
A key of thumb is to play the root of the chord at the first beat in a bar

Then play notes on each beat, where your goal is to aim for the root of the next chord.

When you play over a I chord, use the diatonic scale starting from the root. (In the example above, you can play notes from the Eb scale).

TIP 2: Add extra notes when it is not adding up.

In this example, there is a II-V-I progression. Bbmi7 – Eb7 – Abmaj7. (The I chord is not included in the image)

At the Bbmi7, you can then start at the root of the chord (Bb). To connect with the next chord (the Eb), the notes won’t add up if you just follow the related scale (the Ab scale in this case).

We can fill this space by adding an extra note. There are several ways to do this. In this example, we added a D before the Eb (1) and in the next example (2) we added Gb before the G (again, the next/last chord would be an Ab).

TIP 3: Use the optimised way of thinking:  3 types of chords = 3 major (diatonic) scales.

I’m a big believer in simplifying the complexity of music theory.

For many years I used to work on the modes (Ioinian, dorian, phrygian etc). Then I found out that there is a much simpler way to think: Major scales! That’s what they all are. This principle is also something I use for improvising as well as playing chords.
(This is material for another future lesson, but I cover it all in the Jazz Piano Step-by-Step Course).

The scales:

a) When you play a major 7 chord, use the major scale starting from the root.

b) When you play a minor 7 chord, use the major scale starting down a whole-step. For example: The chord is a Cmi7, you can play the Bb major scale.

c) When you play a dominant 7 chord, use the major scale starting from a 4th above the root of the chord. For example: If the chord is a C7: Play the F major scale.

Occasionally there are chords where this rule won’t apply. For example, when there is a minor 7 with a flat 5 chord. The solution in this case is to play the major scale starting a half step above the root.

I believe this is a lot easier to remember than to try to remember dorian scales and mixolydian scales in all 12 keys. (You just saved yourself of learning 24 additional scales to the diatonic scale you probably already know)

Here is an example:

As you can see in this example, we play the C scale through the whole II-V-I progression. I also teach about this in the lesson titled ”longer lines” (Youtube)
Example 2: (From the tune: Autumn Leaves)

Check list:

  1. Did we play the major scale from a whole step under all of the minor 7 chords?
  2. Did we play the major scale from a 4th above all of the dominant 7 chords?
  3. Did we play the major scale starting at the root of the maj7-chords?
  4. (And we also played the major scale starting from a half-step above the root when we got a minor 7(b5) chord?)
  5. Did we fill in extra notes to make it add up? (One note per beat, and still reaching/playing the root of the next chord at the first beat)

TIP 4: Adding the 4 ”tricks”

When we’re playing bass lines on more than one chord in a bar, you don’t have the time to walk all the way from one chord to the next.

The solution is to add 4 tricks.

You can do this by adding:

  • 1/4:  A half step above the next chord
  • 2/4: A half step under the next chord
  • 3/4: A whole step under the next chord (Not to be used on a V-chord to I-chord)
  • 4/4: A whole step above the next chord

Here is an example where we use two of the four types:

TIP 5: Play syncopated chords with your right hand

This one is easy to explain, but hard to do. When I play syncopated chords while I’m also playing walking bass lines, I simply don’t think. In stead, I try to make it swing. So the question you should ask yourself is not how you should play the syncopations, but how you can make it swing. Then try to play the chords off- beat.

Here is an example from the demo I did on the YouTube video:

(If you’re a student of mine, you can play through the syncope-exercise that you can find in the bonus section)
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TIP 6: Ghost notes

Did you notice anything weird about this image? It’s from the video on YouTube where I said ”I like to be a ghost sometimes”. In itself, this has got nothing to do with playing ghost-notes directly

, but I thought that this idea was funny, and it will probably become easier for you to remember to add some ghost notes for your future bass lines.

At the image to the right you’ll see that I play a little grace note before the G. This is also called ghost-notes and is meant for rhythmical purposes.

By using the ghost notes a lot, you have yet another great tool to make your walking bass lines stand out even more!

TIP 7 and 8: Additional effects: Arpeggios and octaves

In this image you can see an example of an arpeggio- fill effect together with a fill effect played in octaves.

TIP 9: Vary the range

I’ve already mentioned the importance of creating contrast! One good way to do this is to vary the range of where you’re playing your bass lines.
I like to keep a ”default” range where I’m playing my bass lines. This is where I’m coming back to after creating some excursions and detours.

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How to practice?

In order to play bass lines well, you’ll have to both study this in detail and practice a lot. You can start with the exercises that comes with this lesson.
Have a great day!

The good thing about the walking bass lines is that you can practice this while you do something else (as I’ve shown you in the video).

So literally, you can practice the bass lines while you for example watch TV. Just do what you can to get the bass lines on auto-pilot. Practice in multiple keys (but not all at first), then try to use the bass lines as much as you possibly can for a long time.

I wish you all the best!

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to [email protected]
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Whatever you do, take care of your music!

Have a great day!