Improvising with Arpeggios (BeBop)

In this post I’ll be exploring how we can create jazz or bebop lines using arpeggios. Arpeggios sound excellent in jazz lines partly because they give us the exact sound of the chord we are improvising on. Arpeggios are in fact a chord played melodically or horizontally as opposed to all at once or vertically.

When we look at a transcription of a bebop style solo, one of the first things we notice is that there are a lot of 8th notes. This is especially true for tempos that are medium to up. We will start with the idea that since the style calls for lots of flowing 8th notes, we will build improvisational lines that use mostly 8th notes.

To begin, let’s look at some 4 note arpeggios. There are 4 note arpeggios with no extensions (root, 3rd, 5th and 7th) as well as 4 note arpeggios which include the 9th. In this case we will omit the root and use the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th.

Let’s start with a simple II – V7 – I chord progression in the key of C major.

Next thing we need are some 8th notes to fill in the empty spaces. Notice the change in octave in bar 3 for the C note. When an arpeggio changes direction this is called a “Pivot.” The Pivot allows you to keep your arpeggio within a specified range. Had we not used the Pivot, the range of the line would be much greater and a change of position would be needed. By using a Pivot, the entire line fits nicely within a position.

This example illustrates a slightly different possibility.

Now let’s try playing 3 – 9 arpeggios. (3rd to 9th)

Now let’s add some notes to connect the arpeggios. In this example I’ve used some chromatic notes as well.

And another example. Also note that I’ve changed position as we are starting a 3rd higher.

As a next step, learn these jazz lines in different keys and in different positions. Also try playing them over a simple tune like “Tune Up” by Miles Davis. Tune Up uses only II – V – I progressions so it’s a great place to start.

Next, try to create new lines of your own using different notes to connect the arpeggios. You could also try to include some chromatic notes and/or neighbour tones. Also consider breaking up the arpeggios by using the Pivot in different ways.

Author: Michael Berard

Michael Berard was a part-time music professor for over 25 years at Concordia University in Montreal Canada. There he taught jazz guitar, jazz arranging, jazz composition as well as other jazz related courses. He has worked over the years as a jazz musician playing jazz clubs, concerts and studio sessions. Michael has played on numerous recordings including 3 of his own: "It's Autumn," "Little Voices" and "Good News." Michael is also the author of "Jazz Guitar Elements," a comprehensive jazz guitar method and "Jazz Reading Elements," a new jazz sight reading book geared towards jazz guitarists.