Jazz Guitar Rhythm Changes Explained

Rhythm Changes

‘Rhythm Changes’ is the term given to the cyclic pattern of chords that underpinned the famous old standard ‘I got Rhythm’. Brilliant saxophonist Charlie Parker wrote many ‘contrafacts’ (same chords, different melody) over these progressions, most usually appearing in an AABA form – with slight manipulations of the basic harmony for melodic considerations.

The A Section(s)

I have attached a harmonic lead sheet (chords only) of a Rhythm Changes in Bb with a few included chord alterations. It is important to consider the harmony – the biggest part of which is made up of a cycle of chords taken directly from the key centre of the tune. These chords, in Roman Numerals are:


This is the A section (there are 3 A’s in one chorus!) of a Rhythm Changes and is also referred to as a Turnaround (See Core Lesson 25 on the 2-5-1-6 Turnaround for more info).

With 7th chord types attached the turnaround appears thus:

I(ma7) – vi(mi7) – ii(mi7) – V(dom7)

In order to create more ‘leading’ tensions and introduce a deeper sense of movement to this set of changes, a jazz musician will often superimpose a few common substitutions and alterations. After which, the exact same set of chords may end up looking something like this:

Note the alterations to the I chord (now a dom7) and the ii chord (now a 7[#9]). There are many changes that can be made without altering the prevailing sense of the harmonic movements, a few of which I have included in the attached PDF.

The B Section:

The other part of the tune (the B section or bridge), is a series of dominant chords set over two measures each, that start from D7 and cycle through 4th ’s to F7, i.e.:

|D7 | | G7 | | C7 | | F7 | |

This can be handled in many ways- treat each chord as if it were a Mixolydian, Lydian dominant or altered chord, place a iim7 chord in the initial bar of each dom7 chord so it reads thus:

|Am7 | D7 | Dm7 | G7| Gm7 | C7 | Cm7 | F7 |

Or one of my fave’s is to play wholetone scales based of each chord root (i.e. D wholetone for two bars then G wholetone scale for two bars etc).

Soloing Approaches:

There are two basic ways in which you can approach soloing over rhythm changes (R.C.): 1. Melodically without focus on the chords, OR 2. Playing the changes. Because R.C. is commonly called at gigs at faster tempos, it is a good idea to learn both approaches well. See Core Lesson 17 on ‘Playing the Changes’.

The first ‘melodic’ based approach is beautifully summed up on Jody Fisher’s interview / lesson with George Benson (part of which can be viewed here on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh9N0SjJJlc) where George mixes some amazing change playing, bebop lines and melodic blues lines. If you approach it like a blues you can use major or minor pentatonic lines to create
melodic pathways and ideas through the chords. You may also use the major scale, and dominant / Mixolydian scales for the majority of the changes.

The second ‘Change-based’ approach demands a lot of practice. This usually consists of building lines from patterns, scales, arpeggios, (and their inversions / retrogrades) that relate to each chord, then practicing joining them together in a musical fashion. Because the chords change every two beats and the tempo is usually quite fast, a large amount of practice is required to gain headway with this technique.

I have worked on both these techniques in great detail, analysed R.C studies and even written my own. If you can get your hands on the Steve Erquiaga Rhythm Changes it’s great! But there are a lot of transcriptions worth looking into and etudes worth checking out online.

Have fun and enjoy my takes on this classic tune!