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Why You Need To Learn Bebop Themes If You Want To Play Jazz

Learning Jazz Guitar you probably already discovered that some skills are a lot more difficult to internalize and also hard to improve with exercises in the way that you can practice scales and arpeggios. The things that I am talking about here are skills like rhythm, phrasing, and vocabulary. These topics require a lot of work, but one very effective way to get improvement is to start learning Bebop themes and let those Bebop themes teach you, to paraphrase a famous jazz guitarist.

What is a Bebop Theme Anyway?

When I am talking about Bebop themes in this video, then I am referring to the types of melodies that you find in pieces by people like Charlie Parker, John Lewis, Bud Powell, and others. Usually, they are written using standard progressions, and especially often on Blues and Rhythm Changes. To name a few famous examples, Donna Lee which is probably by Miles Davis, or Parker’s Anthropology, or Dizzy Gillespie’s Groovin High.

What is great about bebop themes is that essentially they are melodies that are written out Bebop solos, so the melody in a Bebop Theme is similar to a bebop solo and not a vocal melody as you find on a great American songbook Jazz standard like the one shown below:

A Quick Win And A Stepping Stone

The immediate bonus here is that when you learn a Bop theme then you are studying a solo and really getting that type of melody and phrasing into your ears and fingers.

One of the best ways to improve phrasing and vocabulary is to learn solos by ear. You have probably heard me and a lot of others say that often. The problem with this is that solos are long, they don’t repeat that many things and they are difficult to both learn and remember.

Since Bebop themes are complicated melodies similar to Bebop solos then they are not as easy to memorize or play like a “normal” Jazz Standard melody, but the fact that the theme is a lot shorter and also often has more repetition means that learning Bop themes is a bit like a fast-food version of transcribing, and unlike most fast food it is actually good for you.

So if you are new to learning Jazz solos by ear, what we call transcribing even though there is not necessarily any writing involved, then an easy way to get started is to learn some bebop themes by ear.

What Will You Learn?

There are quite a few things that you develop by playing Bebop themes. Let’s have a look at some of the benefits:

Technique and Fretboard Knowledge

When you are playing this type of vocabulary then you have to figure out how to execute some pretty difficult music, and obviously, that is good for your technique and while figuring out how you can play the phrases then you are most likely going to move around a bit and find a practical place on the neck where you can play it, so in that way it is also a useful exercise for your fretboard knowledge.

Phrasing and Rhythm

Studying and learning Bebop lines, and especially when you also (of course) checking out recordings of the song, is going to develop your phrasing. Playing along with a recording and really listening to how a piece of music is phrased is probably the most efficient way to learn to phrase, and I have used Bop themes for myself but certainly also for my students with great success when it comes to improving phrasing. Another exercise that I also see work really well is to write easy solos for students and teach them to play it along with a recording of it. This is also a major part of what people learn in my course the Jazz Guitar Roadmap. One thing is to understand what to play, but it is much more useful to hear it and to experience how it feels to play it with good phrasing.


My friends over at the Guitar Hour Podcast are often finding themselves discussing what studying vocabulary and language actually is, and it is a term that does not always mean the same thing from lesson to lesson or teacher to teacher. So to me, the point of developing your vocabulary is that you can create and play lines or melodies that sound in-style for a specific genre, in this case, Bebop. So when you are working on vocabulary, then you are, hopefully, taking melodies or licks and using them to help you get better at improvising in the same style. That does not have to mean playing licks all the time, but it is more about learning the language or style by example, which is not that far from how we learn actual languages.

From this point of view then playing Bebop themes are exposing you to those phrases and you internalize examples of how those melodies sound, and how they work which will help you hear phrases like that internally, something that is a part of being able to play solos in that style, but not the only thing you need to do. If you stick with the language analogy then I would describe this as being able to listen to a language and understand it, but not being able to speak it. In fact, that is how I learned Dutch, with an odd period where I understood most things but never could take part in a conversation because it was all passive.

And if you like podcasts then check out the Guitar Hour Podcast for some interesting discussions about pretty much everything guitar-related. They are often what I spend time doing when I am driving long trips, and I am not only saying that because I won the quiz they had at the end of the year.

You can check it out here: https://theguitarhour.libsyn.com/

How Should You Study?

A huge part of what is practical about Bebop themes is that they are shorter than solos and generally also more repetitive. This means that they are simply less information to learn, but they still have important and very useful information.

You will probably benefit from learning and practicing them in any possible way, but there are a few things I would suggest you consider:

Learning by Ear

If you learn the theme by ear then you don’t have to worry about mistakes in a real book or Omnibook, and while it may seem more difficult in the beginning, then the time you need to spend listening to it to figure it out will probably mean that actually learning to play it will take less than half the time because you already know what it sounds like. Using the ability to slow down recordings can be very helpful, but watch out that you don’t overdo it so that you only hear a note and not the phrase.

This is also often overlooked when it comes to checking out transcriptions vs learning solos by ear. If you learn it by ear then you don’t have to worry that much about learning to play it.

If you want to check out some solos to train your ear then have a look at this post:

The Solos You Want To Learn By Ear To Play Better Jazz Guitar

Playing along with recordings

The most efficient way to learn phrasing from studying Bebop themes is to really dig into the way it is played and try to learn the phrasing of somebody performing it. By really experiencing how the melody sounds and how the phrases are played you can develop your own ability to hear and play lines with that type of phrasing.

Of course, this is a lot easier if you also check it out by ear, because you then have already listened to the melody a lot and probably already know how it is phrased, that aspect is already in there.

It is a lot more difficult if you are reading the melody and have to internalize the phrasing from a much more abstract medium like sheet music (of some form).

That said, learning bebop themes and playing them with the recording is never a waste of time, and often also a fun challenge.

What More Can You Get Out Of It?

Now you already know how studying bebop themes will help your phrasing, technique, and ear-training. But of course, it can also be put to use to develop your vocabulary.

The melody is a bebop solo used as a theme so analyzing, studying, and using it as licks can be very useful. Especially if you can find small fragments that you can make variations of and turn into new vocabulary, rather than just quoting the theme. It can also be very useful to start analyzing the melody and understand some of the melodic techniques used since there are quite a few things that are very typical to Bebop that you can check out and use as a way to create your own licks.

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