How to Play Bebop Piano in 6 Steps
Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!
The unique improv style of bebop jazz which evolved in the 1940s and 1950s permanently influenced the language of jazz for future generations. In today’s lesson, you’ll learn to play bebop piano with the classic improv sound pioneered by players such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell. In particular, you’ll learn to play bebop lines that use neighbor notes, adding a touch of chromaticism to your piano sound. This lesson includes:
- 2-5-1 Jazz Chord Progression
- Chord Shells for Jazz Piano
- 1 Parent Scale for Bebop Piano
- 8 Chromatic Neighbor Notes
- 3 Neighbor Note Exercises
- 5 Sample Improv Lines using Neighbor Notes
- 12 Backing Tracks
By the end of today’s lesson, you’ll understand exactly how chromatic notes work in improvised melodies. Afterward, you’ll be able to play bebop piano too!
Intro to Playing Bebop Piano
The development of bebop jazz in the 1940s was in many ways revolutionary. The size of the ensemble shrank from big bands down to a quintets, quartets and trios. In fact, bebop jazz centered around the players themselves, who were ahead of their audiences in terms of innovation. This stands in contrast to the dance bands of the swing era that performed for audiences’ entertainment. As such, bebop jazz involves greater use of harmonic and rhythmic complexity, often blurring the lines between melody and harmony. Author James McCalla references Louis Armstrong’s reaction to the bebop sound as published in Downbeat magazine in April of 1948:
[The boppers] want to carve everyone else because they’re full of malice, and all they want to do is show you up, and any old way will do as long as it’s different from the way you played it before. So you get all them weird chords which don’t mean nothing, and first people get curious about it just because it’s new, but soon they get tired of it because it’s really no good and you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to. So they’re all poor again and nobody is working, and that’s what that modern malice done for you.
Armstrong was right in one sense, and wrong in another. It’s true that bebop marked the end of jazz as a popular music. However, the transition of jazz from pop to art music during the bebop era gave way to a unique and enduring jazz language. McCalla summaries, “Bebop began as the music of a small group exploring together, but it has become the mainstream language of jazz and the source of all jazz styles to come.”
Bebop Scales vs Chromaticism
Many jazz textbooks contains certain specific bebop scales with regard to improvising in the bebop style. In fact, our course 2-5-1 Soloing with Bebop Scales (Level 3) covers that approach in detail. However, in this lesson, we take a slightly different approach. Specifically, the focus of this lesson is to help you understand how chromaticism works more broadly in approaching chord tones. Furthermore, bebop scales use only one chromatic note, transforming a 7-note scales into an 8-note scales. However, there are actually 8 possible chromatic notes available over any chord. How is that, you ask? Well, you can approach each chord tone from a ½ step below or a ½ step above (2 neighbor notes x 4 chord tones = 8 chromatic neighbors per chord). This is covered in detail in Step 4 below and in our course 2-5-1 Soloing with Upper & Lower Neighbors (Level 3).
While there is indeed complexity in the playing of bebop’s greatest legends, this lesson provides a natural point of entry. In just 6 steps, you’ll play bebop piano using chords, scales and progressions that are familiar to most students.
Step 1 to play Bebop piano: 2-5-1 Progression
The first step to play bebop piano is to establish a harmonic context. This lesson uses a 2-5-1 progression to explore bebop improv with chromatic neighbor notes. This is the most commonly occurring chord progression found in jazz tunes. Here is the progression in C major.
In measure 4 above, the C6 adds variety over what would otherwise be 8 counts of a prolonged Cmaj7. These chords are closely related and often interchanged. You should also note that in many standards, you will find incomplete 2-5-1 progressions. For example, the tune “Four” by Miles Davis (excerpted below and transposed to C Major) contains several incomplete 2-5-1 progressions. The concepts of this lesson apply just as naturally to such incomplete 2-5-1 progressions.
Step 2 to play Bebop piano: Chord Shells
The 2nd step to play bebop piano is to learn some chord shells to play in your left hand. A chord shell is a 2-note or 3-note voicing containing any combination of the root, 3rd and 7th. The example below uses root+3rd chord shells for measures 5, 7 and 8. By contrast, measure 6 uses a root+7th shell.
The rhythm in the example above is commonly called the “Charleston groove” or “the Charleston rhythm.” Each occurrence should be played short, LONG. For further exploration of chord shells, check out the following resources:
- Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises (Level 2)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2)
Step 3 to play Bebop piano: Scale for Improv
In this step, we’ll explain how to play bebop piano right away by improvising with a scale you already know! That’s right, the C Major scale works over each chord of the 2-5-1 progression in C Major!
You might be wondering, “How can this be? Don’t I have to learn a scale for each chord in the chord progression?” The answer depends on whether you are thinking of harmony per chord or per key. If you always think of the harmony per chord, this will always require a different scale each time the chord changes. For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll call this micro-analysis. However, if you recognize that each chord of a 2-5-1 progression in C major originates from the C major scale, then you can see that C major is the parent scale for each chord. We’ll call this macro-analysis. So which approach is correct? The answer is both! The point is that if you are a beginner, the macro-analysis approach will get you up and playing much more quickly. The diagram below illustrates the similarities and differences between these two lenses.
If you want to dig into these relationships more deeply for improvising over the 2-5-1 progression, check out our 2-5-1 Soloing with Chord Tone Targets (Level 2) course.
Step 4 to play Bebop piano: Upper & Lower Neighbor Exercises
In Step 3, we discussed how the C major scale is a great place to start if you want to play bebop piano. However, that is a beginning, not an end. The next step is to get familiar with the neighbor notes for each chord tone.
What is a neighbor note?
A neighbor note is a non-chord tone used for melodic ornamentation that is approached by a step and resolves by step to the original chord tone. If the neighbor note is a step above the chord tone, it is said to be an upper neighbor. Similarly, if the neighbor note is below the chord tone, it is a lower neighbor. Neighbor notes can be diatonic or chromatic. Neighbor notes typically occur on weak beats. Here are several examples of diatonic and chromatic neighbor notes.
In this lesson, we are particularly interested in using chromatic neighbors to play bebop piano lines. Keep in mind that in actual practice, neighbor notes do not always originate-on and return-to the same chord tone. In other words, many lines will only use the last two notes of each example above—the neighbor and the chord tone. In this sense, the neighbor note is an approach tone.
The following exercises will help you master your upper and lower neighbors for each chord of the 2-5-1 progression.
D Minor 7 Neighbor Exercise
G7 Neighbor Exercise
C Major 7 Neighbor Exercise
Great job! You are well on your way to play some sweet bebop piano lines! Want to practice these exercises in another key? No problem. You can use the Smart Sheet Music companion to this lesson to easily change the key. You can also download the complete lesson sheet and 12 backing tracks. These resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
Step 5 to play Bebop piano: Build Lines on Each Chord
The next step to play bebop piano is to improvise lines with neighbor notes for each chord in the 2-5-1 progression. Practicing one chord at a time will help you both hear and visualize the chords and their neighbors. Here are some sample bebop piano lines for you to play. Afterward, try creating some of your own.
D Minor 7 Sample Bebop Line
G7 Sample Bebop Line
C Major 7 Sample Bebop Line
Well done. Now you’re ready for the 6th and final step in which you’ll begin to improvise over the 2-5-1 progression. However, steps 4–6 should not be thought of as purely sequential. Rather, the are circular. Revisiting each step will help to strengthen and accelerate your ability to play bebop piano lines.
Step 6: Play Bebop Piano Lines on the 2-5-1
The sixth step to play bebop piano is to improvise with neighbor notes over the complete the 2-5-1 progression. Remember, in general, you are thinking of the C major as your parent scale. Then, as you improvise, look for opportunities to add approach tones with chromatic neighbors. At first, you may have the most success by restricting yourself to a specific rhythmic formula. For example, try basing your improv on quarter notes with the exception of a chromatic neighbor on the “and of 1” as in the example below. This type of restrictive practice keeps your mind and fingers in sync as you acquire this new vocabulary.
As you gain confidence improvising in this manner, begin to change the rhythm. For example, try placing the neighbor note on the “and of 2” instead. Gradually work your way up to lines that are entirely eighth notes. Keep in mind, not every upbeat requires a chromatic neighbor. Here are two sample bebop piano lines for you to play.
Example 1: 2-5-1 Bebop Piano Line
Example 2: 2-5-1 Bebop Piano Line
Congratulations! You’ve completed today’s Quick Tip. If you enjoyed this lesson, then you’ll also love the following resources.
NEW COURSE SERIES: 2-5-1 Soloing with…
- Chord Tone Targets (Level 2)
- Outlining Chords (Level 2)
- Upper & Lower Neighbors (Level 3)
- Bebop Scales (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us. We’ll see you next time.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
More Free Lessons
'Tis the season to let your heart find home with a warm and tender jazz piano ballad arrangement of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
In honor of Thanksgiving, I wanted to express my gratitude towards music. Hopefully, this will inspire you to reflect upon how music has impacted your life in a positive way.
Learn essential techniques to play Brenda Lee's holiday classic, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," in a jazz piano style.
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
The Piano With Jonny Membership
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Start your free 14-day trial today!