Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
Advanced
19:11

Learning Focus
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
  • Latin Jazz
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If you want to become a proficient jazz soloist, then you have to develop an understanding of the grammar and syntax of the jazz language. In today’s Quick Tip, The Ultimate Guide to Bebop Scales, Jonny May shares the unique scales that shaped the improvisational approach of bebop giants like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. You’ll learn:

This lesson is loaded with must-know scales, exercises and improv examples that will help you solo with an authentic jazz sound.

Introduction

The bebop era of jazz began in the 1940s and marked a large shift in the direction of the music. Firstly, the ensemble size shrunk considerably from the large big bands of the swing era down to small combos. In addition, the focus of bebop music shifted the to the performer rather than the audience. As such, bebop was the first jazz style that was not associated with dancing.¹ Instead, bebop tunes became vehicles for complex improvisational creativity and self-expression. In fact, the improvisational language that the beboppers developed had such a lasting impact on subsequent jazz styles that bebop is considered the common practice period of jazz history.²

One of the characteristics of bebop performers was their tasteful use of chromaticism in their solos. This simply means that their improv lines often incorporated notes that were not part of ordinary major scales and their corresponding modes. Later jazz educators, especially David Baker, have codified this use of chromaticism into a helpful set of memorable bebop scales.

What are bebop scales?

The essence of bebop scales involves transforming ordinary 7-note scales into corresponding 8-note scales by adding a chromatic passing tone. Since bebop solos are primarily comprised of 8th notes in 4/4 time, the extra passing tone serves to match the number of scale tones to the meter. Moreover, the chromatic note adds an interesting element of melodic tension and release. Bebop scales can be played upward or downward, but they are especially common in their descending form.

The following examples show why the beboppers developed an affinity for 8-note scales as opposed to 7-note scales. Notice that if you play a descending C major scale in 8th notes, you wind up with non-chord tones on the downbeats by the time you get to beat 3. This tends to obscure the underlying harmony. By contrast, if you play a descending major bebop scale (which features a chromatic passing tone between scale tones 5 and 6), then all of the chord tones land on downbeats. As author David Baker explains, the added chromatic tone makes the scale “come out right.”³

C Major Scale

What are Bebop Scales?

C Major Bebop Scale

How do you play a Bebop Scale?

The most frequently used bebop scales are the dominant bebop scale and the major bebop scale, although other constructions are also common. The following chart lists all of the bebop scale types that you are likely to encounter and where to add the extra note:
Bebop Scales Chart

Be sure to check out the appendix at the end of this lesson for a reference chart of essential bebop scales for soloing over 2-5-1 progressions in all 12 major keys!

Sample Improv with Bebop Scales

So what does improvisation with bebop scales sound like? In this section, we’ll examine two contrasting improv examples over the chord changes for the first four measures of “Fly Me to the Moon,” which are Ⅵm7→Ⅱm7→Ⅴ7→Ⅰ▵7. In C major, this chord progression is Am7→Dm7→G7→C▵7.

Our first improv example features scalar figures comprised entirely from diatonic tones. This means that all of the notes come from the key of C major. Let’s take a listen:

Improv Example with Traditional Scales

Improv Example with Traditional Scales

Now, let’s listen to a contrasting improv example that uses bebop scales over the same chord progression:

Improv Example with Bebop Scales

Exploring Improvisation with Bebop Scales

If you are an avid jazz listener, then you probably prefer the latter example with the bebop scales over the former example. In the next section, you’ll discover how to construct the most essential types of bebop scales.

Exploring Essential Bebop Scales

Bebop scales are a helpful tool for getting an authentic jazz sound when improvising. In this section, you’ll discover how to construct major bebop scales, dominant bebop scales and minor bebop scales. We’ll also show you helpful practice exercises that you can use to get these scales in your ears and under your fingers! Be sure to download the lesson sheet PDF which appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also change the key of this lesson using our Smart Sheet Music.

The Major Bebop Scale

The major bebop scale is an 8-note adaptation of a regular major scale with a chromatic passing tone between the 5th and 6th tones. Thus, the formula for the major bebop scale is 1–2–3–4–5–♭6–6–7. The passing tone may be written as either ♯5 or ♭6 depending on the direction of the melodic line. As an example, a C major bebop scale contains the notes C–D–E–F–G–A♭–A–B.

C Major Bebop Scale

C Major Bebop Scale

Notice that when you begin this scale with a chord tone on the downbeat, then the passing tone occurs on an upbeat, or what we also often describe as a weak beat. Another benefit of this scale is that the 4th scale tone (which is considered an avoid note because it clashes with the 3rd of the chord) lands on a weak beat also.

Compatible Chord Symbols

The major bebop scale works over any major chord sound such as major triads, major 6th chordsmajor 7th chords, major 9th chords and major 6/9 chords.

Major Bebop Scale Compatible Chords

C Major Bebop Scale Exercise

The following major bebop scale exercise will help you grasp the technical skill required to improvise freely with this scale. In addition, it will familiarize your ear with the sound of the extra passing tone in this scale.

Major Bebop Scale Exercise for Piano

The demonstration above begins with the fingering 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 when ascending from C and maintains this corresponding note/finger relationships throughout. Thus, measure 3 begins with the 3rd finger on E and ascends 3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2. This is just one of several viable fingering options. For example, you could also play measure 3 with the fingering 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. After you get comfortable with one fingering, it’s not a bad idea to experiment with other options since improvisational fingering choices are typically made spontaneously.

The Dominant Bebop Scale

The dominant bebop scale is an 8-note counterpart to the regular dominant scale (or the Mixolydian scale) with a chromatic passing tone between the ♭7 and the root. Thus, the formula for the dominant bebop scale is 1–2–3–4–5–6–♭7–♮7. As an example, a C dominant bebop scale contains the notes C–D–E–F–G–A–B♭–B♮.

C Dominant Bebop Scale

C Dominant Bebop Scale

When you play the dominant bebop scale with a chord tone on the downbeat, then both the passing tone and the avoid note (the 4th) occur on weak beats.

Compatible Chord Symbols

The dominant bebop scale works over all varieties of “pure” dominant chord sounds such as dominant 7th chords, dominant 9th chords and dominant 13th chords (see Dominant 7th Chords with Extensions). This scale is also compatible with dominant “sus chords” like C7(sus4), C9(sus4) and C13(sus4).

Dominant Bebop Scale Compatible Chords

Note: The dominant bebop scale is not a good fit for altered dominant chord voicings that contain alterations such as ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13.

C Dominant Bebop Scale Exercise

The following dominant bebop scale exercise will help you gain proficiency in playing this scale with ascending or descending motion from any chord tone as a launching point.

Dominant Bebop Scale Exercise for Piano

The Minor Bebop Scale

The minor bebop scale is any 8-note adaptation of a regular minor scale. The most common minor bebop scale is based on the Dorian mode and contains a chromatic passing tone either between the ♭7 and the root (see version 1 below) or between the ♭3 and the 4th (see version 2 below). Therefore, these scales are also known as Dorian bebop scales.

C Minor Bebop Scale 1

The formula for minor bebop scale 1 is 1–2–♭3–4–5–6–♭7–♮7. As an example, a C minor bebop scale that uses this formula contains the notes C–D–E♭–F–G–A–B♭–B♮.

C Minor Bebop Scale 1

C Minor Bebop Scale 2

The formula for minor bebop scale 2 is 1–2–♭3–♭4–4–5–6–♭7. As an example, a C minor bebop scale that uses this formula contains the notes C–D–E♭–E♮–F–G–A–B♭.

C Minor Bebop Scale 2

If you examine the above scale closely, you’ll notice that it is the same as an F dominant bebop scale (F–G–A–B♭–C–D–E♭–E♮), albeit starting from the note C. In other words, minor bebop scale 2 is the 5th mode of a dominant bebop scale. Moreover, these scales have a strong harmonic relationship. For example, in the key of B♭ major, a Ⅱ→Ⅴ→Ⅰ progression contains the chords Cm7→F7→B♭▵7. Therefore, most jazz musicians who use C minor bebop scale 2 in this context are simply thinking “F7” over both the Ⅱ chord and the Ⅴ chord.

Later in this lesson, when we explore Ⅱ→Ⅴ→Ⅰ progressions, we will focus on minor bebop scale 1 since it offers a unique set of notes and sounds that are different from the corresponding dominant bebop scale. However, both Dorian bebop scale formulas are valid options.

Compatible Chord Symbols

The minor bebop scale formulas shown above work over most minor chord sounds including minor triads, minor 6th chordsminor 7th chords, minor 9th chords, minor 11th chords and minor 6/9 chords.

Dorian Minor Compatible Chord Symbols

Notice that minor-major 7th chords are excluded from the list above. We’ll cover a different type of minor bebop scale later in this lesson that is a better fit for chords like Cm(▵7).

C Dorian Bebop Scale Exercise

It’s time to get comfortable ascending and descending from any chord tone with minor bebop scale 1. The following exercise will help you develop this skill.

Dorian Minor Bebop Scale Exercise for Piano

Other Possibilities

Since the overall concept behind bebop scales involves adding a chromatic passing tone to a basic 7-note scale, it is possible that virtually any 7-note scale could be made into a bebop scale. Some players may even use different variations of the scales we’ve already explored by placing the chromatic passing tone between different scale degrees. In this section, we’ll explore additional scale configurations.

The Bebop Melodic Minor Scale

The bebop melodic minor scale is an 8-note counterpart to the regular melodic minor scale with a chromatic passing tone between the 5th and 6th scale degrees. Thus, the formula for the bebop melodic minor scale is 1–2–♭3–4–5–♭6–♮6–♮7. In this scale, the passing tone may be written as either ♯5 or ♭6 depending on the direction of the melodic line. As an example, a C bebop melodic minor scale contains the notes C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–A♮–B♮.

C Bebop Melodic Minor Scale

C Bebop Melodic Minor Scale

The bebop melodic minor scale is a great choice when you have a minor tonic chord, which will often be voiced as a minor 6th chord, a minor 6/9 chord, a minor-major 7th chord or a minor-major 9th chord.

The Bebop Natural Minor Scale (or Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale)

The bebop natural minor scale is an 8-note adaptation of the regular natural minor scale, which is also known as the Aeolian mode. This 8-note scale has an added chromatic passing between the ♭7 and the root. Thus, the formula for the bebop natural minor scale is 1–2–♭3–4–5–♭6–♭7–♮7. As an example, a C bebop natural minor scale contains the notes C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭–B♮.

C Bebop Natural Minor Scale

Bebop Natural Minor Scale (Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale)

Interestingly, the above scale is also known as the bebop harmonic minor scale because it can also be viewed as a harmonic minor scale with an added ♭7 passing tone. Consequently, you can use this scale in playing situations that typically call for either the natural minor scale or the harmonic minor scale.

The Sky is the Limit…

As we have seen so far, virtually any 7-note scale can be formed into a 8-note bebop scale. Therefore, it is not too difficult to imagine the following possibilities:

  • Bebop Lydian Dominant Scale: 1–2–3–♯4–5–6–♭7–♮7
  • Bebop Phrygian Dominant Scale: 1–♭2–3–4–5–♭6–♭7–♮7

In the next section, we’ll show you how to apply the most common bebop scales when you are soloing.

Application: How to Use Bebop Scales When Soloing

Now that you have a solid understanding of how to build bebop scales and you have even explored some practice exercises, you’re ready to start creating improv lines with these sounds.

In this section, we’ll put these scales to work over a 2-5-1 chord progression in C major. The changes for this progression are Dm7→G7→C▵7. In fact, this lesson includes 3 downloadable backing tracks at various speeds for you to use while practicing. You’ll find the link for these tracks at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

Here are the scales we’ll use for our 2-5-1 progression in C major:

  • D Minor Bebop Scale: D–E–F–G–A–B–C–C♯
  • G Dominant Bebop Scale: G–A–B–C–D–E–F–F♯
  • C Major Bebop Scale: C–D–E–F–G–G♯–A–B

How to Use Bebop Scales When Soloing

When applying these scales, keep in mind that we generally want to place chord tones on the downbeats. Therefore, the chromatic passing tones will frequently land on up beats as in the following example:

Bebop Scale Improv Ex. 1

Bebop Scale Improv Example 1

Occasionally, you’ll find that a chromatic passing tone on a downbeat works well also. For example, notice the A♭ on beat 2 of measure 4 in the following example:

Bebop Scale Improv Ex. 2

Bebop Scale Improv Example 2

While the general premise behind bebop scales involves successive strings of 8th notes, it is also possible to use these scales with triplet figures as in the following example:

Bebop Scale Improv Ex. 3

Bebop Scale Improv Example 3

🔎 For an even further study of bebop scales, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Bebop Scales (Adv).

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on The Ultimate Guide to Bebop Scales. By practicing the exercises and examples in this lesson, you’ll be well on your way to a much more professional jazz improv sound.

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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Appendix: Bebop Scales for 2-5-1s in Every Key

Here is a master reference chart of essential bebop scales for soloing over 2-5-1 progressions in all 12 major keys! (Hint: you’ll want to bookmark this page.)

C Major

ⅱ7 D Dorian Bebop Scale: D–E–F–G–A–B–C–C♯

Ⅴ7 –  G Dominant Bebop Scale: G–A–B–C–D–E–F–F♯

Ⅰ▵ – C Major Bebop Scale: C–D–E–F–G–G♯–A–B

F Major

ⅱ7 G Dorian Bebop Scale: G–A–B♭–C–D–E–F–F♯

Ⅴ7 –  C Dominant Bebop Scale: C–D–E–F–G–A–B♭–B♮

Ⅰ▵ – F Major Bebop Scale: F–G–A–B♭–C–C♯–D–E

B♭ Major

ⅱ7 C Dorian Bebop Scale: C–D–E♭–F–G–A–B♭–B♮

Ⅴ7 –  F Dominant Bebop Scale: F–G–A–B♭–C–D–E♭–E♮

Ⅰ▵ – B♭ Major Bebop Scale: B♭–C–D–E♭–F–F♯–G–A

E♭ Major

ⅱ7 F Dorian Bebop Scale: F–G–A♭–B♭–C–D–E♭–E♮

Ⅴ7 –  B♭ Dominant Bebop Scale: B♭–C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–A♮

Ⅰ▵ – E♭ Major Bebop Scale: E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭–B♮–C–D

A♭ Major

ⅱ7 B♭ Dorian Bebop Scale: B♭–C–D♭–E♭–F–G–A♭–A♮

Ⅴ7 –  E♭ Dominant Bebop Scale: E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭–C–D♭–D♮

Ⅰ▵ – A♭ Major Bebop Scale: A♭–B♭–C–D♭–E♭–E♮–F–G

D♭ Major

ⅱ7 E♭ Dorian Bebop Scale: E♭–F–G♭–A♭–B♭–C–D♭–D♮

Ⅴ7 –  A♭ Dominant Bebop Scale: A♭–B♭–C–D♭–E♭–F–G♭–G♮

Ⅰ▵ – D♭ Major Bebop Scale: D♭–E♭–F–G♭–A♭–A♮–B♭–C

G♭ Major

ⅱ7 A♭ Dorian Bebop Scale: A♭–B♭–C♭–D♭–E♭–F–G♭–G♮

Ⅴ7 –  D♭ Dominant Bebop Scale: D♭–E♭–F–G♭–A♭–B♭–C♭–C♮

Ⅰ▵ – G♭ Major Bebop Scale: G♭–A♭–B♭–C♭–D♭–D♮–E♭–F

B Major

ⅱ7 C♯ Dorian Bebop Scale: C♯–D♯–E–F♯–G♯–A♯–B–B♯

Ⅴ7 –  F♯ Dominant Bebop Scale: F♯–G♯–A♯–B–C♯–D♯–E–E♯

Ⅰ▵ – B Major Bebop Scale: B–C♯–D♯–E–F♯–F𝄪–G♯–A♯

E Major

ⅱ7 F♯ Dorian Bebop Scale: F♯–G♯–A–B–C♯–D♯–E–E♯

Ⅴ7 –  B Dominant Bebop Scale: B–C♯–D♯–E–F♯–G♯–A–A♯

Ⅰ▵ – E Major Bebop Scale: E–F♯–G♯–A–B–B♯–C♯–D♯

A Major

ⅱ7 B Dorian Bebop Scale: B–C♯–D–E–F♯–G♯–A–A♯

Ⅴ7 –  E Dominant Bebop Scale: E–F♯–G♯–A–B–C♯–D–D♯

Ⅰ▵ – A Major Bebop Scale: A–B–C♯–D–E–E♯–F♯–G♯

D Major

ⅱ7 E Dorian Bebop Scale: E–F♯–G–A–B–C♯–D–D♯

Ⅴ7 –  A Dominant Bebop Scale: A–B–C♯–D–E–F♯–G–G♯

Ⅰ▵ – D Major Bebop Scale: D–E–F♯–G–A–A♯–B–C♯

G Major

ⅱ7 A Dorian Bebop Scale: A–B–C–D–E–F♯–G–G♯

Ⅴ7 –  D Dominant Bebop Scale: D–E–F♯–G–A–B–C–C♯

Ⅰ▵ – G Major Bebop Scale: G–A–B–C–D–D♯–E–F♯


¹ Tanner, Paul, et al. Jazz. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2009, p 169–192.

² Baker, David. How to Play Bebop 1: For All Instruments, The Bebop Scales and Other Scales in Common Use, Alfred Music, 1988, preface.

³ Ibid., 1.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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