Ok – So, you’re checked out players like Bird and Dexter, Sonny and Bud, and are ready to delve more deeply into learning the bebop language. Granted, there’s a lot of ground to cover in the process of achieving true bebop fluency, but following these five easy practice steps can help you get your chops up and begin sounding more authentic in no time.
STEP 1 – Understanding the Bebop ScaleOne key ingredient of the bebop harmonic language is the use of chromatic passing tones. Click To Tweet
Bebop players often very cleverly inject chromatic non-harmonic tones into their lines to:
- shift primary chord tones to stronger downbeats to better “outline” chord changes
- to add additional tension and color by introducing notes not typically expected in a particular chord scale.
Check out how Charlie Parker uses chromatic passing tones in this line from his solo on Anthropology. Pay special attention to the way he mixes these chromatic notes with notes from the original D mixolydian scale (D E F# G A B C D), and a few altered chord tones toward the end of his phrase. The effect is a very smooth, harmonically sophisticated, and colorful sounding line:
In this example, Bird is actually using a combination of techniques to incorporate chromaticism into his line. It’s safe to say that most of us would need many years of focused study and practice to master all of these techniques:
The good news is the bebop scale is an easy way to incorporate chromaticism in our solos. Click To Tweet
Charlie Parker famously claimed to have spent 11-15 hours a day in the woodshed over the course of 3-4 years!
What Exactly is the Bebop Scale?
There are several forms of the bebop scale, but when we refer to “THE” bebop scale we are typically referring to the scale most often played over dominant 7 chords, because the chord tones contained within this scale outline a 7th chord.
Tip: This scale also sounds great over a 7sus chord!
If you’re familiar with your major scales, playing a bebop scale is as simple as adding a chromatic passing tone between the 6th and 7th scale tones. This gives the scale both a b7 and ♮7.
By adding a chromatic passing tone between the root and the b7 scale degrees, the chord tones within the original chord scale are shifted from weaker sounding upbeats within the measure, to downbeats. This gives us a much stronger outline of the chord being sounded:
Wait a minute – does this scale have nine notes in it?
Well, yes – technically the scale has nine notes, including a b7 and ♮7. But to effectively capture the sound of the bebop scale, there are two basic guidelines to follow:
- The top three notes of the bebop scale b7, ♮7, 8 should be played together as a sequential note grouping. If you were to mix up or re-order these notes, the basic character of the bebop scale would get lost.
- The ♮7 is meant to be only a passing tone when played over a dominant 7 chord. The ♮7 will clash badly against the b7 in the chord if sustained, or played on a stronger beat within the measure. As a general rule, try to keep the b7 and 8 on downbeats when played in an eighth note line.
Check out how Dexter Gordon opens up his solo on Lady Bird using the bebop scale:
The essence of the bebop sound comes from the chromatic three-note root-7-b7 combination at the start of this line.
This lick happens at 0:36, and a similar line is played again at 0:53
STEP 2 – Getting the Bebop Scale Under Your Fingers
To get started with the bebop scale, begin practicing it in a key that is comfortable for you. This scale can be played both with straight eighths or with a swing feel – whichever you start with, work to keep good time, and play each note cleanly with your best tone and articulation.
Here’s one basic pattern you might try when first getting started:
Once you start to develop a feel for this scale, work your way around the Circle of Fourths, eventually playing bebop scales in all twelve keys:
STEP 3 – Playing Bebop Scales Over a Tune
When you feel like you have these basic bebop scales under your fingers, the next step is to practice using them over a tune.
One tune I like to practice bebop scales over is Sweet Georgia Brown (also the same changes as Miles Davis’ tune Dig).
This tune is perfect for getting used to the bebop scale because you have four full measures to play over each chord. This allows a bit of time to work out some ideas before you need to worry about making the next chord change.
The chords also conveniently follow the Circle of Fourths, so if you’ve spent time working bebop scales around the circle, you’re already one step ahead!
Here’s the first 16 bars of Sweet Georgia Brown showing the appropriate bebop scales for each chord:
Some Practice Tips:
- Play this exercise with accompaniment, so you can better appreciate how these scales sound against the harmony. Using the iReal Pro app or Band in a Box will allow you to “loop” the first 4/8/12/16 bars of the tune, and to adjust the tempo and style (swing/latin, etc.).
- Try playing the scales both ascending and descending.
- Practice improvising around these scales, but remember that they will sound best when you keep the chromatic note groupings intact.
- Vary your rhythms, and try starting your phrases on different beats.
- Try transposing this progression to other keys to build your skill using bebop scales in other keys.
- Other good chord progressions for practicing bebop scales are blues, rhythm changes (bridge sections), and other tunes with elongated 7th chord changes.
The Major Bebop Scale
You may have noticed that on the Ab Maj7 chord, I’ve included the major bebop scale for you to check out. The major bebop scale is very similar to the regular bebop scale, but the chromatic passing tone occurs between the 5th and 6th steps of a major scale. We often think of this as a #5 passing tone.
Here is the major bebop scale again in the key of C:
The Minor Bebop Scale
There is also a minor form of the bebop scale worth checking out. In the minor form, the chromatic passing tone also comes between the b7 and the octave of the dorian mode.
STEP 4 – Building Flexibility with Bebop Scales
To build your flexibility with bebop scales, practice starting each scale not only on the root of each chord, but also on the other primary chord tones (3, 5, b7).
Practicing these scales with different starting notes is a great way to open up new possibilities for note choices when starting and ending your lines.
To build additional flexibility, be sure to also shed these scales descending from each chord tone.
STEP 5 – Learning to Apply Bebop Fragments
The next step to working the bebop scales into your solos is to reduce the full scales into smaller fragments that can be more easily applied to chord changes.
These fragments are typically one measure in length which makes them easier to apply to bebop tunes with faster harmonic rhythm.
Here are a few fragments to check out:
Note: The fragment starting on the third is not technically derived from the notes of the C bebop scale, but contains a chromatic passing tone between the 4th and 5th scale degrees, and maintains the characteristic bebop sound.
Each of these fragments can be practiced around the Circle of Fourths, and once you have them under your fingers, they can be plugged into tunes.
Here is an example of how you might practice one of these fragments over a blues progression (C blues):
After you get a few of these fragments in your ear and under your fingers, try improvising a solo mixing several fragments with longer bebop scale patterns. Experiment with changing up your rhythms and varying your starting beats as in this example:
In addition to building skill with these specific scales and patterns, working through these five steps will also sharpen your awareness of the bebop sound. This will help you better recognize what other players are actually playing when you hear bits and pieces of these bebop patterns.
Ultimately, these exercises should be a great jumping-off point to eventually begin transcribing licks and ideas you hear other players using in their solos. Before long, you’ll be well on your way to achieving bebop fluency!