Bebop Part I – Perpetual Motion Exercises

Round and around and around we go… The laws of thermodynamics don’t apply to jazz

Bebop is much more than just one particular style, it is pretty much the “grammar” of modern jazz, and bebop “licks” are not so much cliches as essential elements of speech within the jazz language.

Here are some bebop exercises to practise that repeat themselves over and over and make musical sense, so they work in the real world.

Players as diverse as Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley and others all developed original styles that seem far removed from the sound of bebop. But if you take a close look at what they’re playing, you’ll find it’s saturated with bebop principles.

There’s a good reason for this. The early bebop players developed a system that made it easier to improvise strong solo lines. There’s nothing arbitrary in this system, the “rules” are there for sound logical and musical reasons. The key elements of bebop are:

  1. Consistent addition of certain passing tones to scales so that the strong chord tones coincide with the strong beats.
  2. Use of encircling gestures to creatively delay the arrival of any given tone.
  3. Strong chord tones are approached smoothly across the bar by whole-step, half-step or by extending an arpeggio.
  4. Balance between the use of arpeggios and scales.
  5. Balance between the use of upward and downward motion.
  6. Notes are often doing more than one job – eg, appearing as part of an arpeggio and also as part of an extended encircling gesture that follows.
  7. Notes used at the point of change between chords either anticipate the chord that follows or work over both chords.

Actually, these are mostly generally useful guidelines that will make any melodic line in any musical style sound good.

There are plenty of books out there that will give you the details of bebop scale theory. There are also books containing hundreds of bebop patterns, but it has been my experience that when musicians truly internalise just one single pattern, it can transform their playing. Knowing why the phrase is constructed the way it is, is the key to this deeper understanding.

I’ve given a little talk-through of what’s going on in each of the eight figures that follow. Learn them parrot-fashion if you wish, but you’ll get ten times more out them if you devote some time to analysing how they’re constructed.

The figures given here are composed of lots of different fragments, very common and representative bebop gestures, strung together and designed to repeat across two bars.

They fit the major II-V, II-V-I-VI and minor II-V-I progressions that form the backbone of modern jazz. These chord sequences often repeat in real-life music, so it’s natural to loop them when you’re practising. The fact that these are “perpetual motion” exercises should also help you get more out of your practice time by making the process of repetition logical and musical.

Learning fragments strung together as a line like this is very efficient. Once you have a two-bar figure under your fingers, you may wish to rattle off the whole thing. A much more creative approach is to use fragments from the complete figure when the occasion demands. It’ll also be easier to link fragments in different ways if you’ve learned some examples of how it’s done from the very start.

Charlie Parker: could have played phone book and it would have swung

Charlie Parker: could have played the phone book and it would have swung

Another keystone of this style is very active use of rhythm. While bebop is predominantly played in a stream of eighth notes, it is common to mix things up using rests and rhythmic displacement. Someone once said of Charlie Parker (I forget who) that the rhythms he played were so strong that any notes would have sounded good over them. Some specific examples of rhythmic devices, and the players associated with them, are as follows:

  • Use of triplets and classical-style ornaments based on semiquavers (Parker)
  • Use of crotchet triplets (Bill Evans – whose style was more influenced by bebop than many people recognise)
  • Use of odd note groupings – 5s and 7s – to fit extended ideas into the space of two of four beats (Dizzy Gillespie, later Coltrane)

The next time you’re listening to a good bebop solo, focus on the rhythms – it’s actually quite easy to transcribe just the rhythms if you don’t worry about the note pitches, and well worth doing to expand the rhythmic possibilities in your own playing.

  1. Practise the figures round and round as written. Concentrate on what is going on harmonically as you play through them.
  2. Experiment with leaving different tones out to isolate the internal fragments and alter the feel of the whole figure. Leaving notes out and/or compressing parts of the figures into triplets is a good way to bring more rhythmic sophistication into your playing.
  3. Interchange fragments between the different figures, creatively altering the rhythms to fit them together.
  4. Finally, improvise freely over the chord sequences, looking to insert pieces of the figures to launch, extend or end your line.

By the way, it’s best to begin by assimilating these kind of lines thoroughly in one key, before you take them round the cycle of Vs. You will eventually need them in all keys, but you’ll be able to learn them much quicker in all the keys if you are completely clear about what’s going on in one key first.

In no time at all, the bebop language will start to appear naturally in your solos. If you’ve really internalised the “why” as well as the “what”, you’ll soon find yourself constructing more musical lines within the bebop idiom.


The first six notes are a popular fragment using the segment of the bebop scale with the passing tone. The next four are a truncated version of the same fragment, but in a different place in the bar. The line is extended up the G7 chord in 3rds, using a sharp 11th to bypass the “avoid” note, and then back down the G7 scale (when the 11th doesn’t need to be raised because it falls on a weak upbeat. This figure also works the other way round – the bars can be reversed against the chords – (where the C# is optional).


Variation on the first figure. This figure also works the other way round – the bars can be reversed against the chords – (where the C# is optional).


Treat the first note as a pickup to a very common bebop gesture which is all about lowering the root of Dm7 by semitone steps, seesawing with the 5th below, to approach the 3rd of the G7b9 chord that follows. The line then climbs the diminished scale that goes with G7b9 in thirds, descends the scale for two tones, and ends with a chromatic approach to the opening pickup. Any of the above three figures can also resolve to C.


The first three notes are another popular fragment which chromatically encircles the root of the Dm7 chord. Then it’s up the scale that fits both Dm7 and G7 with a skip at the end. The C doesn’t need raising over the G7 chord because it appears on a weak upbeat. In addition, the 7th of the C chord (B) is encircled by A and C. Then it’s down an inverted CΔ9 arpeggio to arrive smoothly by stepwise motion at the 3rd of A7 (C#). Finally, we skip up to the root and run down a fragment of the A7alt scale which is the same as the Dm7 scale that follows.


Descending melodic cell pattern (5321) over the Dm7, then the first four notes of the popular fragment of the bebop scale over the G7. This leads smoothly, upwards this time, to the 7th of the C chord. Then down a CΔ arpeggio to a seesaw figure on the A7b9 chord between the 3rd and b9th. The three final notes (Bb, G and G#) form an extended chromatic approach to the 3rd of the Dm7 chord (A) that we started with.


That popular bebop scale fragment again, with the first two tones acting as a pickup, then an extended chromatic encircling (G, F, D, D#) of the 3rd of the C chord. The line then drops to the root of C, then anticipates the A7b9 chord by a beat with its 3rd and 5th. Finally up to the 7th and root of the A7b9 chord, arriving back at the pickup.


The first three notes descend the Dm7 scale. The next four notes just ignore the G7 chord altogether and form an extended chromatic approach to the 5th of the C chord. The line then descends a melodic cell (5321) in C and ascends the diminished scale that goes with the A7b9 chord in 3rds.


A little something in minor. The first four notes go up a 7th chord in DÆ , then the next three notes descend the diminished scale that goes with G7b9 or G7alt. The Ab and F# also form an encirclement of G, which is the 5th of the Cm chord that follows. Then down a melodic cell (5321) in C minor, which connects naturally with another melodic cell (431) – very bluesy sounding. The Eb, C and C# then form an encirclement back to the D. Note also that the final four notes in the second bar fit both Cm and A7alt (the VI chord).


This is the sort of thing you can come up with by creatively combining the fragments from the 8 figures with some connective material (the chord sequence is Dm7 G7 | CΔ A7b9 repeating over and over):

For more creamy “bappy-diddle-doo-dap” goodness, see Bebop Part II – All the Exercises You Can Eat.

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes
7 comments on “Bebop Part I – Perpetual Motion Exercises
  1. Matthew Weatherly says:

    Hey man this article really helped me get my feet wet in bebop lines. Keep up the great lessons

  2. To say that these exercises really help me would be a huge understatement. I can’t really claim to be a musician with any deep theoretical understanding so I was shocked by the way it improved my improvisation. I don’t know if its the repetition or what but it seems to link your ear to the changes………wish I understood a what a Hexatonic was though.

    • Jason says:

      Very pleased to hear this has helped, Elton.

      A hexatonic is what a witch drinks when they’ve run out of gin…
      Seriously though, I’ll put up something on hex scales soon. Stay tuned!

      PS Wonder why my avatar looks like a chicken that’s past its sell-by date?

  3. Ryon says:

    Excellent! I have been wrestling with your Bebop I and II for weeks, and look forward to months and months more work before I finally get it right.

    Hope you’ll have more for me, when I get there!

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Ryon. It’s always nice to hear that my mad ramblings have been helpful.

      I hadn’t planned to do anything more on bebop for now, but if you have any specific suggestions, do let me know and I’ll try to put up something useful.

  4. Ryon says:

    As you can see, it took me quite a while to get through this lesson. It was a challenge to read, and to put my fingers in the right places. But an even bigger problem has been restricting myself to the lesson itself. I keep hearing lines in my head that I just can’t help but explore. A good thing, I think! This music really kicks itself. Without a doubt the most useful music lesson I’ve come across in forty some-odd years, bar none. There is so much here to learn!

    Yes I do have some suggestions, MORE! Rhythm changes in a bop style would make a great lesson, as would bossa nova, blues, etc. This is where I’ve always wanted to go, but just couldn’t find my way. I’ve been thru many of the usual books, but just did not find the inspiration that is contained in this one lesson. Are there any practice books along these lines that you would recommend?

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