Charlie Parker on Guitar
I thought it might be fun to share this Charlie Parker solo from the song Tiny’s Tempo by Tiny Grimes. This is a great blues tune from 1944. I’ve put in some fingerings that I think make it easier to get some of Bird’s phrasing right. I’ve also written it in the correct octave for guitarists to read.
The ascending triplet Gmin7 (really a Bb6) arpeggio that starts off the solo is followed by a descending scale passage. Note that he is hitting chord tones on the beats with passing tones on the off beats. This is how you want to be using your scales when improvising most of the time. Bird hits the 5th of the chord on beat 2, the 3rd on beat three, the root on beat four, and nails the 3rd of the IV chord on beat one of measure 2. The first two measures of this solo make a great lick to learn in all keys.
Measures 3 and 4 are an excellent example of chromaticism with the whole tone scale. Think of the chord as Bb9(#5). The line starts on the 9th and drops chromatically so that on each downbeat a consonant note is played – 9th, root, 7th, and 6th. The 6th does not fit into the whole tone scale. When I first looked at this line I was confused by the F# just left hanging unresolved at the end of the measure. Then I noted that the G is the only note on a strong beat that is not part of the whole tone scale. The F# along with the D and Bb in the next measure form a D augmented triad. I think that Bird’s drop down a sixth (something he does quite often) on the “and” of 3 in measure 3 flipped the chromatic line out of sync for a beat. I guess I’m claiming that the G is an accented passing tone while the F# is the chord tone. The whole tone line continues into measure 4 until the F# which is both the last note of the whole tone scale and a half step approach to the Gmin7 (Bb6) arpeggio on beat 4, echoing the starting lick an octave down.
I love the way Parker leaves notes hanging and then resolves them later. You can find so many great guide tone lines in his playing. That F# from the end of measure 3? He picks up the F (now the 9th of the IV chord) at the beginning of measure 5, brings it down to the E (b9) at the end of the measure, down to Eb in measure 6, and then resolves it nicely with a D in measure 7, back at the I chord. Measures 5 and 6 also just sound nice and bluesy.
In measure 8 we see the same lick as the opening statement but at a different pitch level, and starting on a different beat. The ascending Dmin7 arpeggio implies a BbMaj9 chord. The descending scale that follows uses a chromatic note so that Bird can land on the b7 of the ii chord in measure 9. Again, note the chord tones on the strong beats. Also note the drop of a 6th in beat 3. Did I mention he does that often? At the end of measure 9 is a Gmin arpeggio. Over Cmin7 that gives us the 5th, b7th, and 9th. This concept of playing arpeggios off of notes other than the root to get more interesting extensions is an important one, and the more you transcribe the more you will see it.
Measure 10 is pretty straightforward looking, though I have replaced Bird’s flurry of notes on beat two with a triplet because I think it mays better on the guitar and still gets the gist of what is happening. Beats one and two of this measure are repeated note for note in measures 22 and 34. In fact, the last four measures of all three choruses are basically the same. Measures 10 and 34 are exactly the same. Measures 21 and 33 are exactly the same and only differ from measure 9 in that there is no turn on beat one of that measure. Charlie Parker is inventive, but no one is endlessly inventive, and the repetition draws everything together nicely as well.
I’m not going to dissect every measure of the next two choruses, but I will point out the things I find particularly compelling. Contrast the third and fourth measures of the second chorus (mm. 15 and 16). Note how measure 15 is completely diatonic (even using a Major 7th) while measure 16 has a b13 and both flat and sharp 9. The tension in measure 16 leads nicely to the IV chord in measure 17. The chromatic enclosure at the end of measure 16 is particularly common in bebop.
Measures 20 and 32 are both interesting in that they use passing arpeggios. Descending Dmin7-Dbmin7 arpeggios lead nicely to the Cmin7 chord in measures 21 and 33. What a great way to play four “wrong” notes in a row! This idea works just like chromatic passing tones but it takes up more time and builds more tension.
I would also note the chromaticism of measure 26, the descending scale (interrupted by another drop of a 6th) with a chromatic passing tone of measure 27, and the general fact that chord tones are played on strong beats.
The melodic elements of this solo are scales, arpeggios, and chromaticism. The harmonic elements are the same because Parker’s use of extensions and altered notes affects the harmony. The rhythmic elements are not something I have gone into here, but it is worth noting that he starts and ends his phrases in a variety of places within the measure. There are repeated patterns such as the triplet ascending arpeggios. And of course, as usual in jazz, the primary rhythmic unit is the 8th note.
Overall it’s a great introduction to bebop improvising over a familiar set of changes. It sounds killer and it lays well on the guitar. I learned a lot from looking it over and that’s the point of transcribing. You get to see how concepts are applied.
Finally, I would note that it is not likely that you will be able to use scales and chromatic lines to such good effect if you don’t know where your basic chord tones are. That’s why practicing arpeggios is so important. You don’t just land on chord tones accidentally. You need to know they are there and how they sound. Charlie Parker knew his instrument, and he knew where his chord tones were, and he knew those things because he practiced. So stop reading and go practice!