August 8th, 2017

Want to Master Rhythm Changes? Here are Six Solos that You Should Know…

By Eric

Here’s a question for you…

Are you making the process of learning to play jazz standards harder than it has to be?

…searching for answers in theory books, obsessing over scales, and turning your daily practice session into a soul-searching quest for your personal sound when you just want to be playing music?

The thing is, learning to play a great solo doesn’t have to be overly abstract or even complicated.

If you want to see results in the practice room, it comes down to something much more concrete: Find someone who sounds good and figure out what they’re doing.

It’s as simple as that. The process is the same for learning to play over a single chord as it is for learning to navigate the progression to a jazz standard.

And it’s the same for learning to create a great solo on Rhythm Changes.  

So if you’re frustrated with your playing, stop guessing, stop worrying about hundreds of scales and stop mindlessly jamming for hours with a play-a-long track.

With some key techniques ingrained from the right sources, you’ll go from scraping by in frustration to playing better than you ever could’ve imagined. 

In today’s lesson we’ve taken 6 incredible solos from the masters and highlighted dozens of specific techniques that you can begin practicing today. 

Ready to get started? Here we go…

1) Lester Young: Lester Leaps In

Before you get obsessed with scales and before you start worrying about turnarounds or ii-V licks, you need to remember one thing – you’re playing music.

Each time you take a solo your goal should be to create melodic ideas based on what you’re hearing. But this can be harder than it seems coming from the entrenched chord-scale approach to improvisation.

A great lesson in the art of simple melodic construction and musical phrasing over Rhythm Changes comes from Lester Young. In his famous solo on Lester Leaps In he creates melodic phrases with surprisingly simple material.

Many musicians practicing improvisation are simply trying to tackle too much at once. A valuable exercise is to limit your note choices and create a solo with only a few key techniques. Do more with less material!


On first listen the recording and musical style may sound dated, but the musical lessons inside are timeless. In the opening of his solo he states a simple musical idea with rhythmic clarity and swing and develops it in the phrases that follow – the essence of improvisation in any tune that you play.


One thing that’s notable about Lester’s solo is that he isn’t trying to outline every underlying chord in his lines. If you take a closer look, he’s primarily playing over a Bb chord – the tonic, creating musical phrases in one key instead of playing every single chord.

When you begin trying to improvise over Rhythm Changes, the prospect of changing chords every two beats is enough to make you freeze up. (Similar to tunes like Giant StepsStablemates, or Moment’s Notice.) Instead try something more conducive to creativity, approach the A section as an extended tonic chord (in this case Bb).

Here are 4 techniques Lester uses to create melodic statements while approaching the A section of Lester Leaps In as the tonic:

1) Create melodic statements using the major pentatonic scale

Throughout his solo, Lester creates phrases using the notes of the Bb pentatonic scale:


Instead of quickly moving from chord to chord, try this approach in your own solos. Limit yourself to creating melodies only from the major pentatonic scale. Can you create music with only five notes? What variations and intervallic permutations can you come up with?

Remember, it’s not just the scale or note choices that make a musical statement, it’s the shape, rhythm, time and sound of the lines you play. Try the same approach with major scale fragments, triads, or even intervals to create your musical statement.


2) Utilize ‘blue notes’ and blues language

Aside from using major pentatonic material, Lester also utilizes blue notes and blues language to navigate that extended Bb sound.

Listen to how he highlights the b7 over Bb in the line below:


In your own solos, try emphasizing blue notes like the b3, b5, and b7 in your phrases or using melodic material from the minor pentatonic or blues scale.


3) Use approach notes and enclosures with chord tones.

One way that Lester spices up the diatonic notes in his lines is through the use of approach notes and enclosures:


This technique is an effective way to augment simple phrases constructed of chord tones. Simply approach the triad or chord tones of the sound with approach notes that are a half-step below the goal note.


4) Create a motif around a specific chord tone, harmonic technique or interval.

The fourth technique that Lester uses to navigate the A section is by creating a motif around a specific harmonic or melodic device. For instance, in this line he chooses to highlight the color of the 9th of the chord:


You could use this same approach with other harmonic or melodic concepts that you know. For example utilizing an augmented sound on V7 chords, a lydian sound on Major chords, or altered scales on the bridge – the options are endless. Pick one and make music with it.

Still wondering how to create a melodic statement over chords?? Check out our course Melodic Power for in-depth instruction, examples, and exercises on developing this essential skill. 

Keep in mind that great melodies don’t have to be complex. When you’re practicing, the simpler the idea the better!

2) Charlie Parker: Moose the Mooche

Charlie Parker ‘s musical language is the foundation on which modern jazz is built.

Not only did he master his instrument, he reinvented the music with his harmonic and melodic approach to improvising.

You could pick any solo that Bird played over Rhythm Changes or any other tune and pick-up invaluable language and solo techniques, and this solo on Moose the Mooche is no exception:


While Lester’s solo showed a simple motivic approach to the chord progression, this solo demonstrates a linear approach with another level of harmonic sophistication. Check out the first 8 bars of his solo:


Here Parker is closely following the underlying harmony as he creates his musical lines, incorporating ii-V lines into his phrases:


As you work on crafting your own melodic statements, aim to incorporate the ii-V lines and techniques you’ve practiced – especially in the 2nd, 4th, and 5th bars of the form. Also notice how Parker alters the V7 chord to add more harmonic interest to his lines, using the #5 (b13), b9 and #9.

Another technique that he uses in the same passage is enclosing goal notes or strong chord tones to create linear motion:


In both of the highlighted areas he is enclosing the third (D) over a Bb chord, using a 3-note chromatic enclosure for his goal note. In essence creating linear motion based on a technique for one note.

Tackling the I-VI-ii-V progression…

The chord progression to Rhythm Changes centers around the I-VI-ii-V7 progression. If you want to play a successful solo you’ve got to master this progression in every key.


The best way to do this is to steal a line from a great player, like Bird. Check out the line that he plays over the A section:


This line is a great starting point for navigating the I-VI-ii-V progression, learn it in every key:

Parker lands on strong chord tones on downbeats and alters the V7 chords with the b9. Start with this line and create variations by changing direction, inverting intervals, and substituting or altering chords.

The more ways you have to play the I-VI-ii-V progression, the more successful you’ll be at developing a solo and finding creative freedom over Rhythm Changes.

Another great exercise in creating a linear or melodic approach to Rhythm Changes is to learn the heads that Parker wrote over the progression. Tunes like Moose the Mooche, Anthropology, Dexterity and An Oscar for Treadwell are excellent etudes – try learning them in all keys!

3) Miles Davis & Sonny Rollins: Oleo

In Lester Young’s solo we looked at motivic development and in Parker’s, linear phrases with complex harmonies

Next we’ll look at how Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins use a combination of these two approaches to create their musical ideas. 

Take a listen to Oleo


The first thing we’ll look at is the idea of making a melodic statement and integrating it with a linear approach to the progression. Check out how Miles begins his solo:


Miles opens his solo with a melodic statement and follows it with ii-V language, combining his improvised ideas with language and harmonic devices that he’s practiced. 

Here’s another example of the same technique from Miles’ solo. Like Lester did in the solo above Miles lays for the “blue notes” of the tonic. Here he’s creating a melodic statement around the blue notes of the Bb sound and ending the phrase with ii-V language:


Notice how the ii-V line in this phrase is almost identical to the one in the phrase above.

Practice this technique in your own solos, starting the first 4 bars of the A section with a melodic statement and then incorporating some ii-V language you’ve practiced on the following 4 bars.


Now let’s talk about the bridge…

The bridge of Rhythm Changes is composed of two bar V7 chords that move around the cycle of 4th’s:


However, rather than approaching the bridge as static 2 bar dominant chords, you can use a bebop reharmonization technique to create some harmonic motion. Play each two bar V7 chord as the related ii-7 to V7, for example approaching a D7 chord as A-7 – D7:

This shift will allow you to create more harmonic and melodic motion in your solo and give you an opportunity to use your ii-V language. Check out how Sonny uses this technique on the bridge of Oleo:


Because the bridge is essentially a sequence of dominant chords, you can employ melodic or harmonic sequences, picking a scale fragment, shape, interval or chord alteration and applying it to each successive chord.

Listen to how Miles applies a scalar sequence to the bridge in his solo, aiming for the altered or upper structure notes of the sound:


Sonny employs a similar technique with tritone subs, laying for the b9 and b5 on each of the V7 chords:


4) Sonny Stitt: Eternal Triangle

When it comes to playing flawless bebop Rhythm Changes, the name Sonny Stitt comes immediately to mind.

And his solo on Eternal Triangle is required listening for any serious improviser…


If you listen to the opening of his solo, you’ll notice that he consistently plays long lines that last for 8 bars or more. If you want to be able to effortlessly play seamless lines for an entire chorus, look no further than this solo.

Here are a few ways Sonny Stitt creates linear motion…


One technique he uses is in the phrase above is a framework of ascending guide tones:


The highlighted notes show an ascending step-wise movement that is the skeleton of his line, moving up from Bb to C, D, Eb, and so on.

If you’re looking for the secret behind his long lines, surprisingly he doesn’t have one. Throughout this solo he frequently uses “basic” techniques like diatonic arpeggios, scalar motion, bebop scales, and enclosures to create his lines.

Take this line built around arpeggios, diatonic scale motion and enclosures for example:


Standard stuff employed in a masterly fashion. Don’t sleep on these so-called basic techniques! If you truly master them you’ll be able to apply them to any musical situation, regardless of key or tempo.

Next let’s look at two techniques Stitt uses over the A section that depart from the standard harmony. One harmonic technique that applies is a diminished sequence:


Instead of following the progression, Stitt approaches the tonic with a pattern based on the whole-half diminished scale, highlighting the notes of the diminished arpeggio on the downbeats:

Try this technique out in your own solos, using the diminished scale, diminished arpeggios or other diminished patterns you’ve worked out over the tonic.

The second harmonic trick that Stitt uses over the A section also departs from the diatonic harmony. Here he uses a harmonic sequence that moves around the cycle:


He begins the sequence on the b6 or #5 of the tonic and continues around the cycle, moving up by fourths:


The eventual goal of this pattern is the Bb7 chord in the 4th bar of the progression. Similar to the way a sequence of descending ii-V’s are used to arrive at the IV chord in Blues for Alice. Practice applying this sequence to the A sections of Rhythm Changes and see what melodic patterns you can come up with.

5) Tom Harrell: Chasin’ the Bird

As you advance with the basics of improvisation and gather language from your favorite players, the trick becomes taking all this info and putting it together in a musical way…

This is tougher than it sounds because the more you know and the more technique you have – the more you’re tempted to cram everything you know into every solo.

As Dizzy Gillespie said: It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.

A great example of a player with unlimited technique and musical language that prioritizes melody is Tom Harrell. Listen to his solo on Chasin’ the Bird


As you listen to his solo, it sounds almost as if his melodic phrases were composed beforehand – something every player should strive for. 

Let’s start by looking at how Harrell approaches the bridge. Similar to the way that Miles played the bridge on Oleo, he creates a motif or shape that he continues over each chord, altering a few notes to adjust to the underlying harmony:


In this sequence he highlights the #9 of the A7 and D7 chords and uses the tritone sub over the G7, outlining a Db triad. The melodic construction is simple, but the harmonic application adds another layer of complexity. 

As you get ready to take a solo and think about applying all of these techniques you’ve learned remember to think about phrasing. A great example of this skill can be found in Tom’s first phrase over the A section:


Here he creates a complete musical idea with an initial melodic statement, answer, ii-V material and a closing statement:

In 8 bars you have a complete phrase with a beginning, middle, and end. Strive to do the same in your own solos, rather than running your licks or scale fragments.


In the next phrase Tom uses the same approach, but this time ends his statement with a double-time phrase:


He utilizes the same techniques for his normal lines, but played at double the speed. Work on incorporating double-time lines into your phrases to add interest to your solo. You can use some of the techniques from this post on solo breaks to help you craft your lines.


The last technique we’ll look at from this solo centers around tritone substitution:


Over the I-VI-ii-V progression in the 3rd and 4th bars he substitutes the V7 chords with their tritone subs, creating a descending half-step motion with the harmony:


He replaces D7 with Ab-7 and C7 with F#7, moving chromatically with the harmony from A- to F#7. This is an effective substitution that you can apply to any turnaround, so learn it in every key!

6) Michael Brecker – Oleo

Every improviser knows the name Michael Brecker.

And every improviser should know his solo on Oleo…


As you transcribe more solos, one of the most surprising things you’ll find about “modern” or advanced players is that they are using standard language and techniques to create their lines and applying it in novel ways.

For instance, check out the line Brecker plays below:


He’s using standard bebop language and later in his solo he even quote Sonny Rollins’ solo from Eternal Triangle, all while incorporating his own language and harmonic devices.

One such device that Brecker uses is playing outside of the key or established chord progression. Take a listen to the opening of his solo:


Here he creates harmonic tension by playing a half-step above key and creates a harmonic sequence that moves by half-step in the 3rd and 4th bar below:


Over the Bb chord he plays in B major and 2 bars later, moves from Eb to E to F7. Practice this technique in your own solos by momentarily “side-stepping” outside of the key and returning.

Next, let’s look at how Brecker plays the bridge…


Like most of the other solos we’ve looked at, he utilizes tritone subs and highlights the #4 over the successive V7 chords:

Notice how he applies the tritone sub to F7 as a ii-V, playing an F#-7 B7 line rather than just a static B7 chord. In addition to imposing another chord, strive to apply language and ii-V techniques to these substituted chords.

Another way that Brecker alters the chords of the bridge is by using the altered scale:


Along with implying ii-V’s and tritone subs over the dominant chords of the bridge, he utilizes the altered scale over the C7 and F7 chords in the 6-8th bars:

Also notice how Brecker doesn’t play the scale from root to root, but incorporates them naturally into his lines. Be able to play the altered scale in every key and apply them to the bridge of Rhythm Changes.

So where do I even start??

Mastering Rhythm Changes is something that takes a lifetime…

While we all envision playing incredible solos right out of the gate, the truth is that you’ve got to do your homework before you can start being creative.

And these 6 solos are a great starting point.

Remember, spending time on just one solo can mean the difference between having nothing to play and having some language that you can play in any solo.

In this lesson we didn’t give you transcriptions of the full solo because the notes on the page aren’t going to make you a better player. You’ll get much more benefit listening to and transcribing the solos yourself than reading the notes with your eyes.

Instead we’ve shared the recordings and some essential techniques that are essential for your study. In fact, you probably noticed that each of these players uses the same techniques in different ways.

Pick one and practice it until you have it mastered!

Keep in mind that these solos are just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of great solos that could have gone on this list – here are a few others to check out:

  • Dexter Gordon – Second Balcony Jump
  • Don Byas – I Got Rhythm
  • Johnny Griffin – Rhythm-a-ning
  • John Coltrane – Oleo (check out our article on this solo here!)
  • Fats Navarro – Anthropology
  • Hank Mobley – Room 608
  • Stan Getz – Wee
  • Joe Henderson – Straight Ahead

The solo you choose is up to you, it’s the way you approach it that matters the most!

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