The Fast Track to Bebop Chops

Learning to play like jazz greats Pat Martino and George Benson might seem out of reach, but it’s a lot easier once you know their secret: Put the right notes in the right places. Using the classic ii-V-I chord progression as a harmonic backbone, here’s a foolproof formula for creating great bebop lines.
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  • Start on the 4th scale step of the major scale. In the key of C, that’s the note F.
  • Using eighth-notes, descend through the scale and, including your starting note, stop nine notes later on E. (You can also think of this as stopping one octave and one half-step lower than your starting note.)

Ex 1 illustrates the process. Notice that Dm7 and G7 each receive four eighth-notes. You’ve just played a line that fits perfectly over a ii-V-I progression! Why does it work? Simple: The 3 of each chord—a powerful note for implying underlying harmony—lands on the same beat where the chord falls. The line delivers the right notes in the right places.

To make the technique work in C minor, change Dm7 to Dm7b5, and lower all Es and As by one half-step to create a C harmonic minor scale. Ex. 2 shows how the new line links up perfectly with the minor harmony.

Ex. 3 contains a cool pattern for outlining chords in a bebop context. The pattern begins with tones 1, 2, 3, and 5 of a C major scale, and then repeats starting on each subsequent note of C major. Burn these moves into your fingers; the pattern surfaces in our next example.

You can play longer lines over a turnaround progression consisting of back-to-back ii-Vs a whole-step apart, as in Ex. 4 (Em7-A7, Dm7-G7). For starters, we’ll simply “copy and paste” Ex. 2’s first measure, transposing it up a whole-step for Em7-A7. Because this phrase was originally birthed in a minor key, it includes bop-approved altered tones: a b9 (F) against Em7, and a b9 (Bb) against A7. We’ll keep Ex. 1’s notes for G7, but instead of using Ex. 1’s Dm7 phrase, let’s plug in Ex. 3’s pattern, starting on the F note. This trick lets us avoid an awkward jump from A7 to Dm7. A mix of moves from Examples 1, 2 and 3, the completed line has a nice roller-coaster shape.

When a ii-V-I progression spans three bars, each chord receives a full measure, and we need to extend our lines accordingly. Arpeggios—or “broken chords”—provide a great way to accomplish this. Basic jazz arpeggios contain the 1, 3, 5, and 7 chord tones, as shown in Ex. 5, which offers an octave’s worth of arpeggios in the key of C. To prepare for our final, monster bebop line, practice these arpeggios forward and backward.

Ex. 6 is a three-bar, ii-V-I line in the key of C. Let’s analyze it one measure at a time.

  • We begin bar 1 by plugging in the Dm7 arpeggio from Ex. 5 (D, F, A, C). To complete beats three and four, we extend the arpeggio to include the 9 (E), drop back to the root, and finally begin a descending chromatic approach to bar 2’s first target tone, F. (A target tone is any note a line is heading toward or “targeting.” Target tones fall on the first and third beats in a measure and are usually chord tones.)
  • We’ve seen bar 2’s phrase before. This time we’re using it over G7, though in Ex. 1, we used it to tag both Dm7 and G7. (In fact, most one-bar, ii-V phrases will also work for a V chord occupying its own bar.) Bar 2 follows our target-tone placement formula: Beat one starts with G7’s b7 (F) and beat three starts with the 3 (B).
  • Bar 3 also contains target tones: Beat one begins with Cmaj7’s 3 (E) and beat three begins with the 5 (G). The remaining notes come from a Cmaj9 arpeggio.

Practice these lines in every key, and you’ll be on your way to playing killer bebop solos. Check out Pat Martino’s Strings! and George Benson’s Beyond the Blue Horizon to hear these ideas in a musical context.