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Bebop Basics for Guitar

In the early 1940s a new jazz style emerged from the displeasure some jazz musicians had with the commercialism of swing music. People like alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk and other young jazz players reacted against the big dance bands by playing a kind of music characterized by advanced harmonies, frantic tempos, rhythmic intricacies and long improvisations. They were more interested in developing the technical aspects of music and increasing it's aesthetic qualities, rather than enlarging their audience and wallets.

There is much to be learned out of bebop today. Every jazz musician should be familiar with it's language and techniques. In this tutorial we'll have look at some licks and techniques that are typical for bebop.


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Outlining the Harmony

Before bebop improvisations were particularly based on the melody of a tune. A bebop improvisation is based on the chordal harmony of a tune with little or no reference to the original melody. A bebop improviser should be able to outline a tune's harmony in his solos. When you listen to a bebop improvisation and you would take away the accompaniment, you can still hear the chords of the standard in the improvised lines. A way of doing this is by putting emphasis on the chord tones. To be able to do this you should know your chord arpeggios very well in all positions on the neck. Another thing that can help you outline the harmony is voice leading.

Here's a bebop cliche based on a Dm9 arpeggio


Jazz guitar tab: bebop cliche



Chromatism can be defined as melodic or harmonic use of half steps other then those that are in the diatonic scale. A wider definition would be motion in half steps. Chromatic playing is approaching a note a half step up or a half step down from that note. The following transcription is a good example of chromatic playing. It is an excerpt of a Dizzy Gillespie theme called Groovin' High.


Dizzy Gillespie Transcription


Another use of chromatism is transposing a motif chromatically like in the following example. This Charlie Parker lick uses a chromatic descending minor 7 arpeggio.


Charlie Parker Transcription


More Charlie Parker licks

The Bebop Scale

The bebop scale is created by adding either a major 7 to a Mixolydian scale or a major 3 to a Dorian scale.

More about the bebop scale.

Use of the b5

Compared to earlier forms of jazz, bebop uses a lot of dissonant harmonies. The flat 5 interval made it's entry and created great controversy at that time. The b5 doesn't sound particularly strange to our modern ears, but in the 1940s it was a break from tradition.

An example of the use of the b5 is in the intro of Shaw 'Nuff. You can listen to it at the Amazon page here: Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker. Scroll down on the page and go to the 5th song of disc 1. The b5 is in bar 22, just before the piano break (0.18).

The Line Cliche

Another frequently returning cliche in bebop is the line cliche. The line cliche is a chromatic descending line going from the 1 of a minor chord to the 6 of that chord. On an F minor chord this would be: f to e to eb to d. This results in the following chords: Fm    Fm/maj7    Fm7    Fm6.

Here's an example of the line cliché. It's the first 4 bars of In Walked Bud, composed by Thelonious Monk, a brilliant and very eccentric piano player and one of the pioneers of bebop.


Thelonious Monk Transcription

Another very well known song that uses the line cliche is Stairway to Heaven from Led Zeppelin.



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