Comping with Bass Lines Guide
So far in the 30 Days to Better Jazz Guitar Comping series we’ve looked at a variety of chords you can use and how to apply them, but one topic we haven’t looked at until now is something that every guitarist will need to do sooner or later in their jazz guitar journeys; comping with bass lines.
An essential comping technique that every guitarist learns at some point is comping with bass lines. The two most important ingredients to this comping style are the feel and the bass line. As Joe Pass says “A good bass line must be able to stand by itself”, meaning that you add the chords where you can.
Like many other subjects in this book, bass lines could fill up an entire book of their own, but this section will teach you the fundamental principals such as how to construct a bass line and apply it over the ii-V-I progression.
Comping with Bass Lines Video Lesson
What Chords Should I Use?
As with bossa nova comping, it’s best to use simple voicings that are easy to grab to keep the bass line flowing as smoothly as possible.
The chord diagram below shows the chords that are going to be used, notice that these are all simple inversions with no extensions, but they give the ear enough information to recognize the chord type and have roots on the bottom two strings.
Before chords are added it is important to feel completely comfortable with the scale and arpeggio notes for every chord in a II-V-I in C on the two bottom strings.
In this II-V-Is this is fairly easy because each chord has all the same notes, but different notes from each chord type must ‘light up’ as the chord changes.
Practice each scale and arpeggio on the two bottom strings individually going down to the lowest possible note for each chord.
Check out the example below for all the scalic notes available to us when we’re creating a walking bass line in the key of C.
Bass lines can be based of scales, arpeggios, and are usually a mix of both. The example below shows a diatonic II-V-I bass line in C which uses notes from each parent scale of the chord, but notice that the root of each chord is on the first beat of each bar.
Although this bass line works perfectly well the next step would be to add some passing tones to make it sound a little more hip by adding chromatic tones that approach the root from a half or whole step above or below.
Check out the below example and notice the F# (a half step below the G in the next bar) on the last beat of the first bar and hear the added crunch it provides.
When creating walking bass lines you must always be thinking of approaching the next chord well in advance, notice how in bar two I was already thinking of approaching C in the last bar with a chromatic enclosure of a half step above (C#) and a scale step below (B).
To get started with this technique, construct a bass line over the ii-V-I in C but for the first three beats of the bar only think of notes belonging to the chord in context and on the last beat of the bar use a chromatic enclose of the next chord.
Besides thinking a half step below you can also think a half step above a root which sounds very effective because the approach note for each new chord is also the b5 of the previous one giving a strong feeling of tension and resolution.
For example in the exercise below Ab is the last note of the first bar which is the b5 of D-7.
Once the above concepts have been practiced, the next step is to add some chords. I’ve used our first example with passing tones and added chords on the upbeat of the first beat of the first two bars.
The syncopated feel of the chords mixing with the sold quarter note rhythm of the bass line provides solid and effective comping.
Start to experiment with different chromatic enclosures as shown earlier and keep the chords of the same beat of the bar as shown in the last example. You’d be surprised at how much mileage you can get from just changing one or two notes in each example rather than thinking of new bass lines every bar.
You must also feel comfortable walking the same changes around other parts of the neck. Check out the next example which use the 2nd set of chord inversions from the earlier example and use the same walking techniques.
These positions can be mixed too; our final examples shows how you can start a bass line in one area of the neck and move it up to connect it with chords in a different position.
Right Hand Technique
The smoothest right hand techniques for the walking bass line technique are hybrid picking and finger style because with these techniques you can have more control of chords and bass lines.
If you prefer the hybrid picking technique I recommend playing the bass line with your plectrum and using the 2nd and 3rd fingers to hit chords.
If you prefer to use fingers for this style play all the bass line parts with your thumb and use your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers to grab the chord.
Using the fingers to grab the chords on the off beats makes it easy to grab the chords on an upbeat because are fingers can only really do upbeats which gives our walking lines a good syncopated jazz feel.
A Few Final Points to Remember
- When creating bass lines try and stick to the 6th and 5th strings as much as you can get to avoid getting in the range of other instruments.
- The goal is not to create the hippest bass line you can, but to concentrate on keeping a strong consistent groove.
- Rhythmically most swing bass lines sound best with quarter notes but are no means limited to that one rhythm.
Adding walking bass lines to chords is great fun and will make you a good accompanist.
Practice applying these walking bass comping techniques to jazz standards that you know. You will find that tunes with more changes in them such as ‘All The Things You Are’ will be easier to do because they already contain so much motion.
Check back tomorrow and we’ll be looking at how you can apply these techniques over a full progression by looking at a walking bass comping etude over a jazz/blues.
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Do you prefer playing chords and bass lines or four to a bar style comping when accompanying other musicians in a duo?
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