An introduction to playing 'outside' the chords

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PLEASE NOTE. I can only upload 5 files at a time, so I shall have to post the remaining files in subsequent posts on this topic!

Before jumping into the lesson itself, I shall say that there will be some terminologies employed that may be distressing to some. For the sake of brevity I am assuming a certain amount of theoretical background in presenting these ideas. If the theory does not make much sense, start with some of the other lessons Fretsource has written for the forum.

So why do we want to intentionally play ‘wrong’ notes? A lot of music is based on light and shade, tension and release, or consonance and dissonance. We can generate movement and interest (light and shade) in employing ‘wrong’ notes in our improvisations that perhaps simple chord tones or the ubiquitous pentatonic scale cannot offer. Jazz musicians use such ideas all the time, but we can employ them in any style of music. As those of you who may have read my other posts on improvisation may recall, I am a firm believer in context when it comes to employing an idea. Just because we may be able to play something on the guitar, it does not mean that we should employ it at any time we so choose.

The first concept we shall consider is ‘sidestepping’. In the example I have provided, I am using an A minor pentatonic scale over an Am7 chord, then shifting up to a Bb minor pentatonic scale, before coming back to the Am7 chord. This concept can be very useful when playing over an extended chordal vamp, and is also applicable to the dominant chord as well.

By stepping outside the chord/scale relationship in this fashion, we now have the b9, major 3rd, b5th, minor 6th and major 7th at our disposal – all can be useful in adding a lot of tension, or movement, over a chord.

The next scale we shale discuss is the melodic minor, paying particular attention to the 7th mode of the scale, the super-locrian. When we examine its construction we see it includes the root, b 2nd (b 9th), b 3rd (#9th), 3rd, b 5th, # 5th and b 7th intervals. This is a very useful scale in generating tension over a dominant 7th chord. I typically employ this when moving to the IV chord in a blues, or when playing over the perfect cadence in a tune, being the V-I movement. Playing altered tones against the dominant chord creates varying degrees of dissonance which are resolved upon reaching the next chord.

You will see that I have included the scale in G, and some examples of how it may be used.

The diminished scale may also be used in a similar fashion. In this instance we are discussing the half-whole diminished scale, which includes the root, b 2nd, b 3rd, 3rd,

# 4th, 5th, 6th and b 7th chord tones. The diminished arpeggio is built from a 2nd below the root of the chord (in this case an F diminished 7th arpeggio being played over a G7 chord) provides some very useful tension for movement to the IV chord in a blues, or the I chord in a resolution. The F diminished 7th arpeggio contains the notes F, G#/Ab, B and D. Three of the tones are contained within the chord we are playing it over anyway, so the note that stands out is the use of the G# note, providing a b 9th interval, which is a very dissonant note in this harmonic context.

Following on from this we can see that employing arpeggios a minor 3rd apart yields some interesting tension over a chord as well. John Coltrane employed such ideas regularly.

And as guitarists, where would we be without the beloved minor pentatonic? To create tension over a dominant chord, try this move. Use both the minor pentatonic scale built from the root, in this instance a G, and combine it with the minor pentatonic scale built from the b 5th, being a C# or Db minor pentatonic scale. This scale offers up the b 5th, 6th/13th, major 7th , b 2nd/9th and major 3rd intervals when employed over the G7.

These are some of the approaches musicians may employ when choosing to go ‘outside’ the chord. All of these examples reflect my preferences in pursuing such sounds. I like to weave in and out of the chord/key, creating tension and releasing it. That ‘works’ for me, and I find that I can use these concepts in differing contexts too. I always use these ideas when playing blues gigs, but I will use them in pop and rock on occasion as well. Some players seem to use them more readily (John Scofield, Allen Holdsworth), playing ‘outside’ and using much more tension than my brain can handle. Joe Pass said once that the strength of a line is judged on what note we choose to finish on. I almost always go back to a chord tone, but some outside players like to leave the listener hanging on the phrase. Miles Davis did this regularly, especially in the 80’s. I find concluding an idea, or line, on a chord tone offers some structure, and allows the listener to realise the intent of the line, and realise I meant to play the ‘weird notes’.

One last thing with employing these ideas - it is important to play it like we mean it. If we are timid in our phrasing and note choice it sounds wrong, but if we play it like we meant to do it, the attitude can make it work and give us some really cool sounds.

There are other options for playing outside that I have not covered, but hopefully this will offer you some ideas for generating new sounds in your improvisations.

sidestepping example.mp3

G super-locrian mode example 2.mp3

G super-locrian mode example 1.mp3

G super-locrian mode.mp3

g half-whole dimished scale.mp3

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