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Building a
Jazz Vocabulary






Guitar Coach (A software program to help you learn guitar.)











Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It



Other books on improvising music













Keyboard Magazine







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To learn more about music see also

How To Improvise
Part 4: Walking Basslines


This is one is a series of free music theory lessons. To subscribe, please click here. (NOTE: In the left column, you will see various related music education resources that I think are helpful. . Please feel free to explore these links, but be sure to come back and finish your music lesson!)

In a previous lessons, we established a basic chord progression used by Jazz musicans for improvisation. I refer to this progression as Down a Fifth. Others refer to it as the Major Cycle. If you haven't gone through the previous lesson yet, please do. You can find the first lesson improvisation here and the second improvisation lesson here.

Here, again, is the down a fifth progression we are focusing on the key of C (note: the treble clef is deliberately left blank here.):

NOTE: You can get excellent practice by working with MIDI files. Even if you don't have a MIDI instrument, you can record your playing on an acoustical instrument and syncronize the recording exactly with a MIDI file. Excellent MIDI software called PowerTracks Pro Audio is available for only $50 (plus shipping). This is great for practicing and evaluating your own playing or for work on your own album. A more detailed version of this lesson, complete with annotated MIDI files is available free for purchasers of PowerTracks Pro Audio. Click here foir more information.

This lesson is primarily designed for keyboard players. But if you are a guitarist you can still benefit. Try working with a friend who plays the chords while you improvise the bassline. Or play along with the midi file provided in the previous lessons. If you play a melody instrument like the violin, flute, sax, etc., you can do the same; that is, focus on improvising a melody that could also work as a bassline following the guidelines in this lesson. If you are a beginning guitar player, you may want to play simple chords rather than 7th chords. The progression will will work with simple triads (3 note chords). For example, instead of playing Fmaj7, just play an F chord. NOTE: all players can benefit from the special foot tapping practice described in Exercise #3.

The strategy I am recommending in building your improvisation skills is to first learn a chord progression. Then (assuming 4/4 time) practice improving melodies with half-notes, then quarter notes, then eighth notes. Previous lessons have discussed this and give examples and exercises. You may want to review these lessons:

Improvising with Half-notes

Improvising with Quarter Notes

Improving with Eight Notes

In a future lesson, we'll continue this idea, by improving with 16th notes. But here, I'll introduce you to some ideas for improving a bassline. You can also use these ideas in composing. The main difference is that in improvising, you compose "on the fly" with no time to study and evaluate the notes you are putting forth.

In this lesson we'll compose some basslines segments that go well with the down a fifth progression. Each line segment (or figure) will occupy one measure of music. We'll give each line segment a name and memorize it. Then by stringing together various precomposed lines segments in different ways (and altering certain tones by a half-step) we will be improvising different bassline to the same Giving the figure a name is important because when you give something a name, it helps you remember it and use it. For consistence, let's give each figure a two word name.

If you are playing the keyboard, your left hand will play the bass part and your right hand will play a "shell" of the chord. A shell is a stripped down version of the chord, containing just the root, third, and seventh of the chord. For example, the shell of the subdominant chord in the key of C would be:

F A E ( where F is the root, A, the third, and E the seventh of the chord)

Step Down

Let's start with something very simple and walk the bassline down with scale steps. We'll call this segment "step down." Start on the root of the subdominant chord, in the key of C. Play a quarter note on each beat. Our first chord is the subdominant on IV and the second chord is VII7 with root on b. When playing the chord in the right hand, we'll put the note a (the third of the chord) in the melody. As we progress to the VII7 chord, we'll keep the this same melody note. So the notation is easier to read, I'll play the shell an octave higher than I normally do.

The bass will start on f and step down to e, then down to d, and so on.

If we step down on each beat, what tone will the bass land on when we change to the VII chord? (Please click one of the answers below and I'll tell you if you are correct.)
The third of the VII chord
so (as in do-re-me-fa-so)
The root of the VII chord.
The root of the IV chord

Here are the notes for the step down bass figure as applied to the IV chord moving to the VII chord.

Notice that when a chord progresses down a fifth and the chord is held for a full measure, the bassline can simply step down on every beat. When we hit the first beat of the next measure, the bass will land exactly where we want it -- on the root of the chord of destination.

(Rule of thumb: A bass note usually first hits the root or the third of the destination chord.)

Step Up

Another simple bassline figure is the step up figure. In the second measure we are on a B chord and our goal is an E chord (down a fifth).

NOTE: to see a movie on the Step Up pattern,
click here then click on "free sample lesson."

If we step up on each beat, will we hit the root of the E chord on the first beat of measure 3?


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If we step up on each beat, we'll have B, C, D, E in measure 2 and land on F in measure 3. So the answer is no, we won't hit the root of our destination chord. There are many ways to handle this challenge.

One nice approach is to play B, step up twice and then skip up a third when playing the fourth bass note of measure 2. After skipping up a third, we step down and land on E (the root of our chord of destination. Exactly which notes would we play using this method?
None of these

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here's what notation would look like:

The main idea, here, is that when improvising, you don't have time to analyze the chords and possible basslines. If you have some "pre-composed" figures that work for various chord progressions, you can call upon them instantly and even modify them slightly to make them unique. You can string the figures together in different wants. For example as you progress to our next chord, which will a minor, we can choose to either step down or step up. Let's work out one way of creating a bassline for the res of the chords progressions. Please note that we are naming the figure used to approach the next chord.

When progressing to...
Bass Figure to use:
Ami7 (VI7)
Step Down
Dmi7 (II7)
Step Up
G7 ( V7)
Step Up
Step Down

Compare these notes to the plan described above:

Do the notes shown above correctly fit the plan of stepping down to get to Ami7,
stepping up to get to Dmi7, stepping up to get to G7, and stepping down to get to C?


Notice in the treble clef, how I have left out the 5th of each chord. This is the sparse "shell" voicing sometimes used in jazz arrangements.

About the bassline-- keep in mind this is just one possible way to use the two figures I've presented. For example, you could start by stepping up instead of stepping down. You could keep repeating the stepping up figure until you reached the upper range for the instrument and the start stepping down.

I'll now introduce two additional bass figures and show how they might be used along with the ones you've already learned. I call these figures:

  • Broken minor (down and up)
  • Minor up

The work "broken" here comes from the concept of a broken chord, often called an arpeggio by classical musicians. When playing a broken chord, you just play the notes of the chord one at a time instead of playing them simultaneously. Broken chords are pretty easy to play on a guitar; you just finger the chord you want and pluck or strum the strings one at a time.

To create a broken minor bass figure (going down) , just play the root of the chord, skip down to the fifth, then down to the third. Next step up a half-step. Finish up by stepping up another half-step to reach the root of the chord of destination. Got that?

If we start with the note "a," what would the notes be for a broken minor bass figure (down) that goes with the progression Ami7 -- Dmi7.

a e c c# d
a g f# e d
a e c# e d
a c e e-flat d

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

To make a broken minor bass figure (going up), play the root, third, and fifth of the minor chord, then step down a half-step. Finish by stepping down yet another half-step to reach the root of the destination chord.

In the input box below, please enter the notes for a broken minor (up) for the progression Ami7 -- Dmi7. After entering the notes, click the <Submit> button to check your answer.


Minor Up

To create a minor up, figure step up scalewise to the third of the minor chord. Then for the 4th note of the figure, step up a half step. Finish by continuing up another half-step to the root of the destination chord.
If you were to do this on an Emi7 chord, you would have:

e f g g# a

Note that the notes e, f, g are the result of stepping up to the third of the minor chord. The g# is the result of stepping up a half-step.


Please enter the notes for the progression Dmi7 -- G7 using a minor up figure. When ready, click <Submit> to check your answer.

Now let's put these figures together. Below is one way to do it.

Progress Check

In the music below, see if you can label each figure with a two word name given earlier in this discussion.

What is the name of the figure is used in Measure 1?


What is the name of the figure in Measure 2?


Name of figure in Measure 3 (Em7 chord)?

I'll repeat the notes, here, for convenience.

Name of figure for Measure 4? (Am7 chord)


What if the figure in measure 4 called?

Broken Minor.
Stepping up
Stepping Down
None of these.

Measures 5 is a Step Up and Measure 6 a Step down.

I hope you've enjoyed this lesson. Memorize these figures and transpose them to different keys. Try improving basslines with them. Also, compose your own figures, give them names and memorize them. Then you can improvise freely with them in "real time."

An expanded version of this lesson using PowerTracks is available for purchase. Click here for more details.