Anytime a young musician – whether studying theory, harmony, etc. or not – asks me for advice about improving and widening their horizons, I tell them to make a priority: listen to Charlie Parker.
If you want to improve your solos, improvisation, and even your fundamental approach to riffs, then I can’t recommend enough listening to, learning, and studying Parker’s melodies and solos.
Here’s a few reasons why!
Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way. You might think that music doesn’t get much harder than arpeggios and sweep-picking. But man, you gotta check out some of the crazier lines that Parker either wrote or performed at insane tempos, like this recording of “Victory Ball” (also featuring the virtuosic Lennie Tristano on piano):
Parker’s lines are, for the most part, really freaking hard to play on stringed instruments like the guitar. They’re usually fast, continuous (non-repeating, like a blues lick), harmonically sophisticated, and unusually singable.
These lines are also uniquely hard for the guitar because of their particular scalular and chromatic (more on that later) qualities. You might’ve heard before that a great way to improve on your instrument is to learn solos played on other instruments – Parker is a great place to start!
Phrasing and Time
One of the exciting things about Parker’s playing is the way he moves in and around the beat, all in straight 4/4 time! His lines rarely follow a “static” pattern. Some will start by emphasizing the 1, then halfway through emphasize 2 and 4. Some feel like they’re veering off the meter, only to return with a strong, clean resolution. “Big Foot” is one of the latter:
You’ll notice that even though this line starts out with a clear honk on 1, it very quickly (and subtly) dances around the bar. If you learn this line and practice tapping on 1 and 3 with your foot, I guarantee you’ll start to hear some new ways to feel and stretch lines in your riffs/solos.
Chromaticism and the Stanky Notes
Parker is one of the most unique utilizers of chromaticism in the history of music. Even if you’ve never heard the term before, you know it well: along with the tritone, it is one of the fundamental building blocks of metal music.
Parker used chromaticism in a few different ways: to “surround” an approach note (by going half step-above, half step-below, then land), to ascend or descend up to an approach note, and others. Some examples are more subtle than others, such as “Perhaps,” a 12-bar blues tune.
Parker’s use of chromatics here dances around the chord changes – so the “stanky” chromatic notes are in a sense, hidden in plain sight. His solo has some lightning-quick licks in it, but there’s a ton of chromatic lines that move up to the root note of chords, as well as up to non-chord tones such as the 9 (in C Major, that would be D).
The takeaway for metal players should be that, if you work hard on Charlie Parker melodies, you will train your ear on how to find the stanky notes. These are the notes that, relative to a given harmony, are what both highlight and draw attention away from the chord changes. They make lines pop; they add drama to riffs; they widen the lens of expression.
The most important, and hardest to quantify, aspect of Parker’s playing is how melodic and sung his lines are. Parker was a master saxophonist partially because his sound transcends the limitations of his instrument – as difficult as some of these melodies are, the more you listen to him, the more you will appreciate his innate, natural, singable approach.
The qualities described above are just that – qualities. They comprise certain aspects of Parker’s unique expression, which can only really be understood by close listening!
So check out some Bird – pick one or two of his easier blues melodies – and get playing!