Bebop Guitar

History, Technique, and Recommended Listening

Gibson ES-175
Gibson ES-175, a classic bebop instrument. By Martin Hesketh from London, UK (Gibson 1959 VOS ES-175-3) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Though it was not always at the forefront of bebop, guitarists played an important role in the development of that style since its earliest days. Setting the stage for bebop era, guitarist Charlie Christian’s pre-bop work influenced many beboppers, with his extended solos and relatively free-spirited approach, compared with the more formal jazz arrangements of the 1930s. Charlie Parker, the most influential musician of the bebop era, credits his early conversations with guitarist William/Bill “Biddy” Fleet with the theoretical underpinning that inspired some of Bird’s most important conceptual harmonic breakthroughs.

And though Django Reinhardt wasn't directly associated with the bebop style, his guitar virtuosity set the bar high for generations of musicians.

These elements—virtuosity, prominence of improvisation, and an evolving harmonic and rhythmic palette—all informed a contemporary jazz style that could be free, deeply expressive, and personal, and even aggressive. The evolvement of jazz from formally structured arrangements of popular songs to a medium for improvisation was liberating. Central to the style was the showcasing of individual players, within the context of a tight, usually small ensemble, such as a trio or quartet. The bebop-era standardized the now-common practice where an arrangement would include the written “head” (written song melody) at the beginning and the end, with extended improvisations based on the song’s chords in between. The primary focus was the improvisations over the “changes,” which generally went on longer than the melodies themselves.

The written chords might be embellished by the improviser not only with tension substitutions but with references to additional chords, such as super-imposing II V’s over a single chord region.

In bebop, musicians stretched and expressed their individual creative spirits. Sometimes, this took on a sporting edge, which played itself out in competitive improvisation, in the context of jam sessions.

A goal was sometimes to “cut” (e.g, outplay, or even humiliate) other musicians through higher velocity, greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity, and a more swinging groove (not unlike the turntablist battles of more recent times). Early bebop in particular was influenced by this tradition, and it could be argued that its innovations of high complexity were in part designed in this competitive spirit. Intricate melodies, surprising phrasing, upper-structure tensions such as the 9 and 13, and reharmonizations confounded many a neophyte, as an added bonus to the newfound expressive possibilities. This spirit of competition helped fuel the innovation.

So, having a competitive advantage is one way to understand the bebop sound, and thus, its required techniques. Of course, the story of much art of the early 20th century follows a parallel journey towards ever-increasing creative freedom, shedding the formality of the preceding era, and seeking new and more vibrant palette. Bebop’s asymmetrical phrasing (within a bar and across harmonic regions), complex rhythms and harmonies, and general virtuosity simultaneously pushed creative boundaries and excluded those who couldn’t keep up.

The original melodies were used essentially as launching points for improvised choruses, which were the primary focus of the style, and typically involved virtuosity and high velocity, such as strings of primarily continuous swinging melodies, often with continuous running eighth or sixteenth notes interspersed with triplets.

Bebop friendly scales (such as Mixolydian with an added major 7) were used to intersperse scalar passages with arpeggios, and guitarists would occasionally mix full chords into the line as well.

For guitarists, the supporting fingering techniques for style are typically those that enable velocity. Pull-offs, hammers-on, and string crossings are common. Because the style was so strongly influenced by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other horn players, bebop phrasing often has a horn-like quality to it, even when played by guitar, piano, or other instrument that doesn’t technically have to breathe. A common guitar-friendly characteristic bebop melodic gesture is to surround (or “enclose”) a target note chromatically from a half step above, or below, or (often) both, either as full duration notes or as grace note embellishments.

This is similar to short trills natural to the saxophone.

Traditionally, the instrument of choice for bebop guitarists has been electric hollow-body arch-top instruments, such as the Gibson ES-175, generally played without effects, and plugged straight into an amp. Picks are common but not ubiquitous. Heavy gauge strings are typical.

Influential bebop guitarists include Grant Green, Jimmy Raney, Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, and Kenny Burrell.

Bebop Guitar Discography

Grant Green Standards (1961, 1998), Remembering (1980)

Jimmy Raney, Jimmy Raney Visits Paris (1954)

Joe Pass’ duo album Chops (1978, 1993)

Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery

  • Cannonball Adderley and the Poll-Winners (1961)

Tal Farlow The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow (1957), This is Tal Farlow  (1958)

Kenny Burrell, Midnight Blue (1963)


Bebop Guitar Solos, by Michael Kaplan (Berklee Press, 2014; edited by this article's author, Jonathan Feist). Meticulous transcriptions of ten classic bebop guitar solos. Michael teaches at The American Guitar Academy in Tokyo, Japan.