William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

So How Do I... Use Bebop Dominant Scales?

As a jazz improviser, bebop scales are one of the most effective tools you can have at your disposal. However, many developing improvisers don't realize just how effective they can actually be. The following post will offer a basic introduction to bebop scales, and in the accompanying video I'll demonstrate some ways to begin using them in your playing.

So what exactly are bebop scales?

A bebop scale is an eight-note scale formed by adding a chromatic passing tone between two notes of a seven-note scale. There are several different types of bebop scales. The one we will look at today is often referred to as the "bebop dominant" or "bebop Mixolydian" scale. It is formed by adding a passing tone between the root and b7 of a Mixolydian scale.

What's the purpose of the added note?

The added chromatic tone has two functions:

1. It creates chromaticism. Chromaticism is one of the defining qualities of the jazz language, and the chromaticism contained in bebop scales is an excellent place to begin when it comes to incorporating chromaticism in your playing.

2. It helps us keep strong tones on strong beats. Aligning strong tones (chord tones) with strong beats (downbeats) is a very important element in improvising clear and strong-sounding jazz lines, and bebop scales can help us do that.

How does the added note help us align strong tones with strong beats?

When we create a bebop scale by adding a chromatic passing 7th to the Mixolydian scale, we have essentially created an eight-note scale that symmetrically alternates between chord tones and non-chord tones. The example below illustrates this with a G Mixolydian bebop scale. Notice how the chord tones all fall on downbeats, and the non-chord tones all fall in between them on the offbeats.

This symmetrical alternation between chord tones and non-chord tones allows us to use this scale to play eighth-note lines while continually aligning strong tones with strong beats. This leads us to one of the most important aspects of mastering bebop scales: the "rules".

The "Rules" of Playing Bebop Scales

Bringing up the term "rules" while discussing the practice of any art-form is always a thorny issue. We're all familiar with the plethora of adages regarding the absence of rules in art. However, I'm sure we're also equally familiar with the plethora of "you must learn the rules before you break them" adages. In the early stages of dealing with bebop scales, it is strongly suggested that you follow the follow three rules:

1. If You Begin Your Line on a Downbeat, Begin With a Chord Tone

2. If You Begin Your Line on an Offbeat, Begin With a Non-Chord Tone

3. Keep Lines in Stepwise Motion

Following these three rules will help you keep the chord tones of the scale on downbeats. I suggest internalizing the rules by practicing your bebop scales with a metronome. Play them by beginning from each chord tone on a downbeat, and by beginning from each non-chord tone on an offbeat. Be sure to practice them both ascending and descending, and in all keys, octaves, and registers.

So now we get to the good stuff: putting the bebop scale into practice. One of my favorite places to use bebop scales is over ii-V progressions. The bebop dominant scale outlines the sound of a dominant 7 chord, and due to the fact that the subdominant and dominant harmonies in a ii-V are so closely related, the bebop dominant scale of the V chord can be used to generalize both the ii & V chords. Thus, over a ii-V in C, a G bebop dominant scale can be used over both the D-7 & G7 chords.

In the following video, I demonstrate three different ways to use the bebop dominant scale over a ii-V progression. All three of these idea are simple and effective, and they're all great bebop sounds to get into your vocabulary. If you'd like to see what I play in the video written-out, click here to download an accompanying PDF.

There's a TON of great material that can be explored with the bebop scale, but this should give you some ideas to get started with. Sign-up for my mailing list to receive updates when I post a new Tip, and as always, feel free to leave any questions or comments below!

Did these ideas for using the bebop dominant scale help? What ways do you like to use the bebop dominant scale? Is there anything you want to know about using bebop scales?