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9 Rhythm Changes Heads to Learn

When studying jazz, it is important to learn lots of jazz standards. Why? Because these songs are the vehicles on which jazz musicians learn how to improvise. It is the common repertoire that jazz musicians use to play together. This music can help us understand the jazz style, it’s history and its tradition, and serve as a spring board for composing our own music.

Within this study of jazz standards there are two important song forms that jazz musicians need to know well: the blues and rhythm changes.

Jazz musicians call this 32 bar form rhythm changes because it is based off of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Not only is important to know the form well, it is important to know a good handful of heads (aka melodies) to play.

To help you get a start (or continue your learning) here are 9 awesome rhythm changes heads to learn. It can be helpful to have some of these ready to go for gigs, jam sessions, and your own personal study! You can click the title of the tune to learn more and practice the song.

1. I Got Rhythm

This of course is the original rhythm changes by George Gershwin. It’s important to know where rhythm changes came from and be familiar with this tune. Keep in mind I Got Rhythm has a couple extra bars than the standard 32 bar rhythm changes form.

2. Lester Leaps In

This head was written by saxophone legend Lester Young for Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven. I suggest this one because it is incredibly easy and just a good catch phrase to know.

3. Rhythm-A-Ning

This is a great rhythm changes head by Thelonious Monk. A lot of jazz musicians like to call this one, so it’s a good one to know!

4. Moose The Mooche

Charlie Parker wrote a lot of great bebop heads over rhythm changes, and this is a good one! It is believed that the title of the song refers to his drug dealer when he was out in Los Angeles for a period of time.

5. Dexterity

Another great Charlie Parker tune. Parker’s heads are often times great studies on their own for learning how to improvise over chord changes.

6. Anthroplogy

Another classic Charlie Parker head, and one of my personal favorites!

7. Steeplechase

Parker again. This one only has a melody for the A sections and the B section is open for improvisation.

8. The Eternal Triangle

This is a rhythm changes head written by saxophonist Sonny Stitt. You can hear it on Dizzy Gillespie’s 1957 record Sonny Side Up. This is a great one to learn because the bridge is re-harmonized, and is worth looking in to.

9. Oleo

I can’t not mention this one. It is arguably the most commonly called rhythm changes head and is incredibly important to know. This one was written by Sonny Rollins.

This list should give you a good start, and a good amount of rhythm changes material to draw from. Study up!

If you need help practicing the rhythm changes form, it can be helpful to practice in different keys. Check out our play-along album, Rhythm Changes in all 12 Keys.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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