The Perpetual Beginner: how to play bass walks on guitar

July 31, 2017
The Perpetual Beginner: how to play bass walks on guitar

A “walk” is a single note line on the low strings that connects one chord to another. Essentially, it allows the guitar to take on the role of the bass player for a moment and lead the music forward into the next chord.

Bass players refer to “walking” lines, which use notes from the chord and connecting scale tones to play a moving part instead of simply playing the root note. (The “root” is the note that names the chord, and provides its harmonic foundation). Walking bass lines can be simple repetitive patterns or complex melodies of their own. Bass patterns can also stand on their own as recognizable riffs or even hooks. (War’s “Low Rider” and Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast As You” are great examples of this). But since the guitar’s role is usually to play chords most of the time, we use “walks” to break up repetitive strum patterns and add a little melodic flavor.

Guitar walks generally connect one root note to another:

Bass walk connecting G and C chords


Learning some scales is very helpful here. If you know the scale, you can simply plug in the notes in between the chords. In this case, the first 5 notes of a G major scale give us a smooth way to connect G, C, and D.

Knowing the scale also tells you the chromatic notes (notes outside the scale) that are available to you if you have more beats to fill in. Check out example 2:

Bass string walks connecting A, D, and E
The second measure is a chromatic walk leading from A to D. The A major scale only uses the B and C#, the notes on the 2nd and 4th fret. But since we have 4 beats to fill in measure 2, adding the 3rd fret C makes for a nice connector. The opposite walk down from D to A in measure 4 stays within the A scale because we’re only using 3 beats and don’t need the additional note. Notice the difference between the walk down from A to E in measure 5 and the chromatic walk up back to A in measure 7.

These kind of walks are very common in blues, bluegrass, and older country and rock & roll. Here’s a classic example from Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”. Notice the lead-in walk to A to start, followed by a walk up to D. We then walk back down to A and continue back down to E. The change-up comes at the beginning of the 4th line, when we get into B7 with a neat little back-and-forth move before walking back down to E.

intro tab to Johnny Cash' "I Walk The Line"

Note how the chords are played as partial chords, just two or three notes. Accomplish this by limiting your pick hand movement…on the original recording the part is muted, so resting your palm on the bridge will help you get the right sound and give you more control.

This concept can be extended lots of different ways, which we’ll explore in future posts. The additional pick control you’ve develop from practicing these will lead to many more melodic options in the future! For one example check out this lesson on the classic “Wildwood Flower”, which turns the bass walk concept inside out. Here, the walks are on the upper strings and the chords are the embellishment. Have fun!


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