Oleo by Sonny Rollins


by Sonny Rollins

This is a a true classic “Rhythm Changes” tune from the golden era of small groups in jazz. Composed and recorded in 1954 on the Miles Davis album “Bag’s Groove”, Oleo has a catchy melody and is fun to improvise over.

The lesson material provided here differs a little bit from all other tunes on JazzGuitarLessons.net: there’s no guitar-oriented chord melody arrangement of this one. It’s simply not practical because it’s usually played too fast for chord-melody stuff. (-:

What I’m providing, though, are accurate rhythms and suggested fingerings in this PDF to help you learn the tune well and in a short amount of time. On top of it all, I made this video so you can play along with me at a range of tempos, from med-slow to very fast…

Oleo: for jazz guitar
Oleo PDF (Lead Sheet with TABS and basic chord chart)

Video Demonstration

Rhyhtm Changes ?

Improvising on Oleo, or other songs with this basic form is essential to any serious jazz player. It’s based on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”, like many tunes from the swing and bebop era. We use the slang “Rhythm Changes” to describe a 32-bar song of AABA form.

Such AABA “Rhythm Changes” are typically played in the key of Bb. Yup! Keep in mind, jazz really is horn music after all. The A section evolve around the I chord and the IV chord (with obvious turnarounds) while the B section (or bridge) is usually a cycle of dominants from III. Or we can say that the bridge is in fact back cycling toward the tonic, the I chord.

It is challenging (and necessary!) for jazz improvisers to create meaningful melodies on tunes like Oleo. Playing well on “Rhythm Change” helps all other areas of playing. Trust me. 😉

Countless variations (and composition) on “Rhyhtm Changes” exist and I strongly encourage you to check them out! Some of my favorites Rhythm Change tunes:

If you want to sink your teeth into a good reference on Rhyhtm Changes, I highly recommend Aebersold’s Volume 47 This book will provide you with all necessary info to get started (progressions, scales, licks) and to understand how variations are created on the basic form. It even comes with a play along CD (in all keys). I believe it’s a must if you serious about playing jazz, period.

9 thoughts on “Oleo

  1. Hi Marc,

    Great lesson, thank you!
    One question, though. In which position do you play the Oleo-theme?
    I learned the different positons, like 6V2, 6V4, 5V2 and 5V4, and also the horizontal position from your ‘better phrasing’ lesson, but I can’t see to relate one of those positions to the way you play this theme. Or is there “position” here?

    Thank you.
    Best regards from Belgium,

    • Hey Christophe. Well … yeah … It’s probably not possible to stick to one position to play the entire theme to Oleo (and it’s probably better this way!) Nevertheless, I keep my fretting hand aligned around fret 3 most of the time.

    • Yes and no. Yes: you are right when you don’t worry about positions when learning a theme. And no: positions are not necessarily more helpful for improvisations. Scale positions are a tool meant to help guitarist “see” the fretboard better. It is like creating small compartments on the guitar to avoid the “same-note-available-in-many-locations” issue. 🙂

  2. Well, the head as written never reads correctly (to me). In the head on Miles Davis’ “Bags Groove” version, on the 4th beat of the 6th bar it should be an “A”, not, B♭. Think about it, that mere half step changes the vibe of the tune somewhat, meaning, it may be a little hipper than the transcriptionists (transcribers) understood.

    • Hey, you’re right! I was just practicing on this tune recently (along with a student on Skype), and realized that every single lead sheet I found is wrong. I was amazed. It’s just that little chromatic pass that makes sense on paper, but that is actually NOT what Miles is doing. Good catch. 🙂

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