Dave Hill Shares the Right Way to Play Wrong Notes Part 1

July 16, 2012

“Outside notes”—they’re easy to find, but tricky to use. By their simplest definition, outside notes are those pitches that do not reside within a key’s parent scale. But even though these rogue tones are sitting in plain view, most guitarists don’t know how to make a decidedly outside note—say, Db played over a C major vamp— sound anything but utterly wrong. How do we pull musical pearls out of these clams?

First, to hear what’s possible, we listen to the compelling ways John Scofield, Mike Stern, Robben Ford, Wayne Krantz, and other brilliant players are able to infuse their rock solos with intriguing harmonic ideas that weave gracefully in and out of the home key, all the while tagging plenty of “illegal” notes. Then, we turn to another brilliant soloist who does those very same things, but also has tons of experience explaining what he’s doing: renowned fusion guitarist and Musicians Institute instructor Dave Hill.

“Outside lines are useful, because they offer a way to create a feeling of motion and momentum over a static background chord,” says Hill. “Whether you play rock, jazz, or fusion, outside approaches are very handy for improvisation. They help you create tension and resolution within your solo. They’re perfect for jam bands, too, because that music is all about stretching.”

The trick to making an outside lick sound good, says Hill, is to use just that: a bit of trickery. “The idea is to sneak the outside notes by your listener’s ear. The notes may come from way outside the scale, but they don’t sound like wrong notes because you’ve phrased them in a cool way. One tactic is to establish a strong melodic or rhythmic motif—usually a simple idea is best, such as a typical blues line—and then repeat that same theme using outside notes. The resolution comes when you return to the home key—when you come back inside.”

Example 1 provides a basic demonstration of the approach. “Here, I’m soloing over a C7 groove, using the C blues box,” says Hill, “but on beat two of the second bar, I drop down a half-step into the B minor pentatonic for four notes, resolving back to C in the last two beats. In Ex. 2, I use the same approach, this time dropping the pattern twice until landing back in C on the final beat. Ex. 3 shows you how to do the same sort of thing in the key of A minor.”

Next month we’ll dig even deeper into this concept, so stay tuned.

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