Bebop Guitar: Surfing the Changes with Jazz’s Most Exhilarating Soloing Style

Bebop guitar has come a long way in the last 60 years or so. It began with a handful of often self-taught guitarists struggling to adapt the fast, flowing lines of musicians such as saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Bud Powell. It has grown into a worldwide scene where guitarists use bebop phraseology as a means of expression in jazz or any other style of music. Since jazz is often called “America’s classical music,” then perhaps you could compare jazz guitarists learning bebop sax solos to classical guitarists adapting the Kreutzer violin etudes to their instrument. By attempting to play melodies not originally conceived on our instrument, we get away from familiar patterns, open our ears, and stretch the limits of our technique.

Swing to Bop

The young bebop pioneers drew upon the material of great big band swing-era soloists—such as tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young—and added more complex harmony and phrasing to the mix. WWII profoundly affected the music scene by taking out entire big bands with the draft and introducing higher entertainment taxes that forced clubs to cut back drastically. The resulting return to the small group format allowed underage musicians who remained stateside to stretch out their solos and try more complicated ideas on the bandstand. Soon New York’s many after-hours clubs—including Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem—became a Mecca for young musicians to hone their craft. In fact, there are some amazing recordings of legendary Benny Goodman guitarist Charlie Christian jamming there with bop legends such as Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk in 1941. It is widely speculated that if Christian hadn’t died the following year—just short of his 23rd birthday—he would have gone on to become a major player in the bebop movement.

Passing the Torch

Few guitarists in the early days of bebop could keep up with the horn players as well as Bill DeArango. The young Clevelander hit New York’s exploding 52nd Street scene in 1944 and was quickly recognized for his ability to play blistering single-note lines with great finesse. DeArango played with saxophonist Ben Webster from 1945 to 1947, while recording on his own for the Haven and EmArcy labels. (Though an original bebopper, he was later so heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis’ electric work that by the mid 1970s he was plugging a Les Paul into a wah pedal.) For a glimpse into DeArango’s early playing check out Ex. 1, which is based on the first four measures of Parker’s “Anthropology,” which DeArango recorded with Gillespie in 1946. Here DeArango approaches the tune in a bluesy manner, not worrying too much about the chord changes, but throwing in some tasty chromatic notes in measure 4 that give it a distinctly bebop flavor.

Barney Kessel

Right around the same time DeArango arrived at 52nd Street, Barney Kessel (below) was burning it up in Los Angeles. Interestingly, it was Christian who encouraged Kessel to move west in 1942, after the two met at a jam session in Oklahoma. When later asked about that fateful meeting, Kessel recalled thinking, “What was I going to play? All I knew was his stuff. There were two guys [at the jam session] playing like Charlie Christian. I knew I had to find myself.” Not only did Kessel find his own voice in jazz—even recording with Parker himself—he appeared on hundreds of pop albums over the years, including those by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and even the Monkees. Ex. 2 is based on the first eight measures of a Kessel original entitled “Minor Mood,” which can be found on the 1957 trio album The Poll Winners, a record that featured Kessel with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne. Check out Kessel’s classic bebop move in bar 5 when, instead of playing a superimposed Abmaj7#5 chord (Ab, C, E, G) from low to high over Fm, he plays the Ab then drops down to the lower octave and plays the last three ascending notes. This multi-faceted technique, dubbed “pivoting” by master bebop pianist and clinician Barry Harris (see sidebar), allows you to elongate your lines while staying within a narrow melodic range.

Tal Farlow

Amazingly, North Carolina’s Tal Farlow (above) didn’t take up the guitar until age 21, but was out gigging within a year, and by 1949 (at age 27) had landed a primo spot in vibraphonist Red Norvo’s band. It was during his four-year tenure with Norvo that the jazz world truly recognized Farlow’s brilliance. After a brief stint with reedman Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five in 1953, Farlow began recording with his own group. He became known for his speedy yet delicate lines, inventive chord voicings, and his exploration of wider intervals—all facilitated by his large hands.

After a six-year run of successful recordings from 1953 to 1959, Tal Farlow settled in Seabright, New Jersey, where he resumed his original profession of sign painting. He continued playing local gigs and only occasionally ventured out to record or play larger concerts sporadically until his death in 1998 at age 77. According to his wife, Farlow was so hard on himself that he couldn’t take the pressure of a regular performance schedule outside of his comfortable surroundings. Ex. 3 (played over the changes to the classic “Out of Nowhere”) shows just how many twists and turns Farlow could take the listener through in his solo, while still remaining cohesive and melodic. Notice his use of the aforementioned pivot in the first two beats of measure 3. Here he spells out Dbmaj7 (Db, F, Ab, C) over Bbm7, starting on Db, then jumping down to F and ascending through the chord. Dig how easily he could whip out a sixteenth-note run like the one in measure 4 and still resolve beautifully from the key of Ab back to G.

Joe Pass

Though he began performing and recording as a teen in the late ’40s, an unfortunate brush with drug use and jail time kept Joe Pass from reaching his full potential until 1961, when he made his famous Sounds of Synanon recording while in recovery at the Synanon Center in California. He was a master of solo guitar and a consummate accompanist, teaming up with vocal great Ella Fitzgerald for a series of duet recordings on Pablo Records in the 1970s. Pass could hypnotically weave melodic lines and chords together in such a way that listeners might momentarily forget that they were listening to a solo guitar performance. To Pass, good solo guitar playing meant giving the illusion that more was going on than really was. For example, he might start off a passage with walking bass and chords, and then slip into such a finely crafted single-note passage that nobody would notice the bottom had just dropped out. Notice how in Ex. 4 Pass is able to play a continuous line over the first four measures of Charlie Parker’s blues, “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” By mixing blues riffs with bebop patterns like the one in measure 4, Pass stretches the phrase several beats more than one might normally expect.

Disciple of Bebop

Among the few pure bebop guitarists (by today’s standards) who came of age in an era when everyone else was plugging in, turning up, and tuning out is West Coast guitarist Bruce Forman. He recorded his first solo album Coast to Coast in 1978 at age 22,and has collaborated with saxophonists Joe Henderson and Richie Cole, vocalist Mark Murphy, and even the great Clint Eastwood, providing music for his movie Million Dollar Baby. In Ex. 5, Forman navigates the changes over a brisk reading of the classic tune “Strike Up the Band,” from his 1986 release There Are Times.

Bebop and Beyond

Just as all popular music has undergone some pretty radical changes throughout the decades, so has bebop. Today you can find it fused with rock, blues, Latin, hip hop, and even classical music. One need look no further than jazz/rock guitarist Mike Stern (below) for examples of how bebop can coexist with other styles in perfect harmony. Stern started out playing rock, blues, and Motown, but quickly discovered that studying the intricacies of bop would only enhance whatever other music he might call his own.

“Bebop didn’t seem like something I could even do at first—learning all the chords to some of those tunes,” said Stern before a recent recording session in Los Angeles. “It was a real challenge, but the more I got into it, the more I loved it. The first guys I studied seriously were Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. Then I got way into Joe Pass. In fact, the first tune I transcribed was a blues by Joe Pass on a record called Intercontinental—real straight-ahead be playing. Nothing beats actually transcribing the music yourself and letting it get inside your soul. It’s like learning any other language: You speak it, make a lot of mistakes, and finally develop fluency in it.

“When I got into jazz, I didn’t just let go of all my previous influences and switch to a big, fat guitar. I played a solidbody, and kept the string bending, the sound, and the vibe you get from playing blues or rock. After spending some time studying guitar players, I went back and listened to sax players like Bird, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster, but it was really Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt who did it for me.

“When I started playing with Miles he wanted to hear rock. He liked that there was some bebop in my playing, but wanted me to have that rock sound and energy. Miles could relate to Sly Stone and the funk feel. He always went for the attitude, no matter what style it was.”

Too Legit to Quit

Mike Stern’s lines can get a lot more angular than more traditional players but, as evidenced in Ex. 6 (played over a III-IV-II-V progression leading to Bb), he can also stay pretty close to home. In measures 1 and 2 he essentially plays a D major pentatonic figure (D, E, F#, A, B), save for one G in measure 1. Measures 3 and 4 are also fairly inside. In the second system he gets a little more adventuresome, exploring the symmetrical dominant/diminished (half-step/whole-step) scales that go with C7b9 (bars 5 and 6) and F7b9 (bar 7) before playing an F altered dominant idea in measure 8, and then finally resolving to Bb. Though these may be new sounds to some readers, if they were played on a horn in a smoky Harlem nightspot back in the middle of last century, they’d definitely pass as legit bop lines.

School of Bop

Back in the old days there were a lot more opportunities to learn bebop on the job or at jam sessions. Luckily, there are a bunch of schools these days that teach jazz in some form or another. However, if you really want to learn pure bebop from a master—and can make your way to New York City—you owe it to yourself to stop by one of pianist Barry Harris’ workshops for all instruments, which have been held on Tuesday nights since the 1960s. His teaching method makes sense, is easy to follow, and is done strictly by ear, so bring your recorder and transcribe everything! The price is kept low and nobody is turned away for lack of funds. Luckily Harris does hold clinics outside of Manhattan, and you can order DVDs, but it’s always a thrill to attend the New York workshops, because you never know who might show up to pay their respects to the master and learn something new. For more info go to