Introduction to Bird Blues for Jazz Guitar

Ever been to a jam session where someone (read a alto sax player) calls a Bird Blues? Oh that embarrassing moment! The Bird Blues, a.k.a (Charlie) Parker Blues a.k.a. Major Blues a.k.a. Blues with New York Changes a.k.a _______ (insert yours here) is a very common 12-bar form perform by jazz musicians since the bebop era.

Prime examples of this type of chord progression are found in jazz tunes such as Blues for Alice, Chi Chi (both by Charlie Parker) and Freight Trane (by Tommy Flanagan).

In this short post, we’ll discuss several ways to approach the Bird Blues form in improvisation. Please watch the accompanying video to hear all the examples, and for your chance to play along with your own soloing ideas.

What is Bird Blues? (as compared to other blues)

Well, in fact the Bird Blues (or Charlie Parker blues) features what is often referred to as Bird Changes, a variation on the typical jazz blues chord progression. The main differences are as follows:

  • In the first four bars, the first chord is major (instead of dominant) and a cadence to the relative minor is played in the second bar. So, you typical blues reads C7, F7 then C7 for two bars. The Bird Blues goes Cmaj7, Bm7b5 to Eb7 going to an A minor chord in bar 3
  • The middle section (bars 5 through 8) feature a chromatic descending series of II-V

How About Some Examples?

Ok, yeah. In the key of C (often referred to as the “people’s key”) here’s the original jazz blues:

Jazz Guitar Blues

Transforming this into a Bird Blues now, you get these changes (analysis, courtesy of the editor):

Jazz Guitar Blues

And now guess what? We’re done introduce the concept, so we’ll get to examples from real-life applications. So, no more C major … let’s migrate to Ab major!

Introduction to Bird Blues: PDF Examples

For this video lesson on Bird Blues, here’s the Introduction to Bird Blues PDF. All the examples are in the key of Ab major, as we will be using the song Freight Trane to demonstrate all the musical examples. See the video.

Bird Blues intro for jazz guitar

Step 1 – Learn an Interesting Head (Melody)

Freight Trane is a relatively easy bebop head to play, especially compared to the more well known Blues for Alice. The original Freight Trane record (composed by Tommy Flanagan) features Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane.

freight trane - bird blues - for jazz guitar

The melody itself contains more space than other typical bird blues … plus, as a bonus, we hear a lot of easy pentatonic licks as part of the head.

It’s in the key of Ab, so get ready to see the II-V-I in that key (so Bbm7 to Eb7 to Ab major) and the minor II-V-I in the relative minor key, F minor (so Gm7b5 to C7b9 to F minor).

Step 2 – Comping with Basic Chords

Jump in right away and comp this bird blues with familiar chord shape. To get started, you can use the charleston rhythms throughout (so dotted-quarter to eighth-note). Use the video to play along with the instructor.

bird blues - basic comping jazz guitar- key of Ab

Step 3 – Comping with Top-Strings Chords

The trick to get fluid comping for faster songs (such as bebop tunes) is to let go of the root and play drop 2 inversions on the top-4 strings. You have to take a look at the PDF (above) to get all the juices.

bird blues - comping with inversions for jazz guitar - key of Ab

In the video, in the second pass, the instructor varies the rhythms (instead of playing plain half-notes as written here).

There’s *way* more to be done on this kind of progression for voice leading, but I’ll let you get the hang of it yourself. Please see the Drop 2 is the New Black course on the store.

Step 4 – Bird Blues Soloing with (Only) Pentatonics

There’s so much magic in properly using the pentatonic scales. If you’ve never done it (a lot), now your chance to brush up on these skills.

The “magic” trick  here is simply using Fm pentatonic in the first four bars and then Abm pentatonic for the last eight bars. Notice how the F minor pentatonic is in fact simply the Ab major pentatonic. It has this twangy flavour we’re looking for in jazz improvisation.

bird blues - soloing with pentatonic scales - jazz guitar

Of course, use the video provided for your chance to trade solo choruses with the instructor. Also see Back to Basics Jazz Blues Fundamentals and this Beginner’s Guide Video to fully understand the how (and the WHY) to change pentatonic scales after four bars.

Step 5 – Improvising by Shedding that II-V-I

In the last few bars of the chord progression, there’s a II-V-I in the key of Ab major. Now’s the time to “plugin” whatever you know about II-V-I’s in that very spot. Whether you know the arpeggios, the scales, or some licks (or all of the above), simply take the last four bars, and commit to making the changes on that cadence.

bird blues improvisation - jazz guitar - using a II-V-I lick

So, basically, in this step you keep doing whatever you can for the first 8 bars, and aim to make the changes appropriately in the last 4 bars. Also see Making the Changes for All the Things, a rather intensive blog post with three videos included!

Step 6 – Freight Trane is going to IV

Every blues song goes “to the IV chord”. So, in that key (Freight Trane), we go from the Ab chord to the Db chord. In the video, you can hear several examples of “making the change” going to the IV chord.

bird blues solo - jazz guitar - using altered scale - IV chord

There are several ways to go about this, but one of the most obvious and most interesting is to make the chord in bar 4 come from the altered scaleThis can mean several things, one of which is to make Ab7 an Ab7b9 chord, or even an Ab7alt chord.

Step 7 – Bird Blues Soloing: The Relative Minor (is Relatively Important!)

Going to the relative minor is what gives such songs (like Bird Blues form) their melancholy in the first few bars.

The trick is to play on C7b9 like your life depends on it! Furthermore, consider C7b9 as “F harmonic minor of destination”. Furthermore, the most important note to hear in this context is the E natural note … you’ve guessed it: it’s the third degree of the C7b9 chord.

bird blues - jazz guitar improvisation - relative minor - harmonic minor of destination

Pro Tip: You have to think of F minor before the chord happens, so in bar 2. Mostly just aim to use the 7th degree (in French la sensible), which is E natural note, going back to Fm. If you are able to have the listener hear an E natural note in that bar, you’re all good!

Step 8 – Improvisation on Freight Trane: the middle section

Observe bars 5 through 8 of this bird blues progression. We have a sequence of descending II-V’s … and they go down chromatically. This is such an easy spot to keep repeating the same idea downwards. See the video for more examples.

bird blues improvisation - chromatic II-V - jazz guitar

Pro Tip: think only of the minor chord (Dorian), since it’s going too fast! So after the Dbmaj (or Db7) has landed, immediately play a line in Dbm7 (dorian). Then simply repeat the same line one fret down … do this twice, and you’re set!

Step 9 – Putting it All Together

I hope all these tips can help you get a better handle on improvising on the bird blues progression at your next jam session. Remember, you don’t have to work on all these things at once! Slow and steady wins the race, so make sure you master each individual step above before moving on to the next one.

14 thoughts on “Introduction to Bird Blues for Jazz Guitar

  1. Great stuff. In your “Bird Blues” in C, msrs. 2-4, you have dominants descending by whole steps, resulting in a iiim7-VI7, iim7-V7 leading to the IV7 in msr 5. In the tune Freight Trane, msr 3 the E7 is throwing me a little. Shouldn’t it be a B7 to follow the form?

  2. Great lesson, I love the way you simplified it and made it more “jazz-like” step by step. I’d love you to do that for rhythm changes and/or any other bebop tune..

  3. Hi Marc! This is a really great post, I can see bird blues much easier now, I’m really thankful.

    I have two questions:

    First one is about the change to the IV. I saw this kind of progressions going also to IV7 instead of IVmaj7. I see logical to play the Ab min pent against the dominant but it sounds really weird to me over the Dbmaj7, so, should I keep the F- pent for one more bar on this place? And also if I go to F- in the 3rd bar coming from the harmonic scale I suppose the altered scale should fit only in the 4th bar or would you jump directly to the modulation sound?

    The second question is about colors in the main chords, for instance a Lydian sound in majors. It is possible to find a good way playing like old fashion? Or is completely out of style? I’m trying to use other pentatonic scales and modes for this, and cannot find the right phrasing to my ears.

    • Hi Numa,

      1. My advice will always be to follow your ear. You can certainly keep the Fm pent over the Dbmaj7 (it does sound more consonant), or you could go for the Abm pent and avoid the Cb note…or you could really go for the crunch and lean on the Cb note during the Dbmaj7 – it’s up to you! Additionally, if you’re only playing with a bassist, you always get to be the one who decides what quality the chord is. So, if you want to imply IV7 instead of IVmaj7, you can go ahead! As for the altered scale question, it’s only really supposed to fit in the 4th bar in the example, although I understand it’s a little hard to see with the graphic.

      2. As you said, using the Lydian sound over I chords is currently in vogue. It’s indicative of the current modern sound. But you can always find a way to make everything work – simply find an example of what you’re looking for and absorb and copy what they’re doing. You’ll understand what makes them sound like “them” after doing it enough.

      • Thanks for your reply Nathan, and sorry for addressing Marc exclusively, I imagine that they are several teachers but I am newbie in this page. Thank for your advices, mostly about the altered sound, I was a bit confused. And about the IV chord, is really helpful, because you know, sometimes you can plug the major 7th in a 7dom but in the other way is really tricky unless you use really shortly like an “apoyatura” (I don’t know the word in english), as an ornament. Anyway I’ll keep checking your lessons, it’s a really cool page 😉

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