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How To Improvise
Part 4: Walking Basslines
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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:
with Quarter Notes
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
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.
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.)
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.)
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).
see a movie on the Step Up pattern,
click here then click on "free sample lesson."
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.
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?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
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:
G7 ( V7)
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.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
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.
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.
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.
In the music below, see if you can label each figure with a two word
name given earlier in this discussion.
is the name of the figure is used in Measure 1?
is the name of the figure in Measure 2?
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
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.