How To Practice Chameleon by Herbie Hancock

If you don’t know Herbie Hancock then I envy you because you’re about to be introduced to a pioneer in MUSIC - not just traditional jazz, but jazz-rock, funk, fusion, orchestral works, classical, pop… the man has literally done it all. But Herbie’s oft-covered funk-masterpiece “Chameleon” may be the song that straddles the largest cross-section of musicians. I’ve met goth-rock, classical, bluegrass, punk-rock, latin, pop, and reggae musicians, and “Chameleon” is universally known by them all. Is this song so highly regarded because it is some divinely inspired work of harmonic and melodic genius? Actually, no. It’s really as simple as it gets:

  1. The main theme of the song is built on just two chords, Bbmin7 to Eb7, which repeat over and over again;
  2. The drum track is simply a traditional funk groove that stresses 8th and 16th-notes in straight time (i.e., not swung);
  3. The melody is a catchy, very repetitive line that is built using a Bb minor pentatonic scale (Bb, Db, Eb, F, Ab);
  4. The bass line is a repetitive, ascending line that uses a couple chromatic approaches and then outlines chord tones of the two chords;
  5. Despite all the music you hear going on in the track there are only 4 musicians on the recording (sax, bass, drums, and keyboards… lots and lots of keyboards).

As a beginning improviser, I remember spending hours and hours playing along with this track. It was one of the first tunes I learned in which I was able to play the left hand bass line and the right hand melody simultaneously, and later to play the bass line while freely improvising with my right hand. Getting to the point at which you can play a repetitive bass line with your left hand while soloing with your right hand is quite a challenge, but definitely one that you can accomplish with some focused practice. I’m going to use “Chameleon” to show you how I learned to do this, and teach you the steps to help you:

  1. Learn this classic funk tune;
  2. Practice with your metronome and improve your sense of time and rhythm;
  3. Improve your ability to improvise over a left-hand bass line.

Step 1: Learn the left hand bass line. Use your metronome (start slowly ~80 bpm, your target tempo is approx. 104 bpm).

Chameleon 1


Step 2: Learn the right hand melody. Use your metronome.

Chameleon 6


Step 3: Practice putting hands together by playing small chunks, one section at a time, and repeating them over and over again (i.e., “looping”). Continue in this way (practicing small sections at a time, then linking them together in order to play the entire melody). Use your metronome.

a.) Start with the first small section:Chameleon 4


b.) Then focus on just the second small section:

Chameleon 8


c.) Then link the 2 sections together and practice playing as one phrase:

Chameleon 7


d.) You’re done when you can play the entire melody in time with the bass line:Chameleon 5


Step 4: Start playing the bass line. With your right hand, find just two notes and practice playing a simple and repetitive rhythmic idea. Loop this idea over and over again. Once you have established the hand independence, practice with your metronome or a drum track.

Chameleon 9


a.) Then do the same with another 2 or 3-note rhythmic idea.Chameleon 10


b.) Combine these two rhythmic ideas, and be able to alternate between the two.Chameleon 11


Continue in this way, building and linking small rhythmic ideas, while getting more comfortable playing over the bass line. Start creating more challenging right hand ideas and forming short solos by linking these ideas together. With this kind of focused practice, you will begin to grow comfortable improvising freely over the bass line.

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