Bustin Out!

The Top 12 Coolest Ways to Play Outside Licks on Guitar
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But it’s not just any kind of lead guitar my students want to learn. Whether they’re into hard rock, hard bop, or any genre in between, the inspired newbies who come through my door often have one thing in common—they want to play rebellious, radical, harmonically irreverent lead guitar lines that annihilate all clichés. They want to play conversation-killing riffs that drop jaws and inspire wide-eyed fascination amongst their listeners and peers alike. In other words, these budding mavericks want to learn how to play outside.

In the spirit of fearless melodic extremists such as Arnold Schoenberg, Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Allan Holdsworth, Buckethead, John Scofield, Scott Henderson, and other pioneers of the non-diatonic frontier, the following approaches will help you get off the beaten path the next time you’re taking a solo. Why? Because sometimes nothing sounds more right than the wrong note. Here come 12 cool ways to hijack the scales, chords, and theory you already know in order to play unrestricted lead guitar lines that gleefully shatter the established notions of what you should or shouldn’t play. So fasten your seatbelt. You’ve devoted years of practice to learning how to stay “in the lane” musically. We’re now going to veer off the well-traveled highway of mainstream guitar and do some serious harmonic and melodic off-roading.

Major Realization

The first thing I point out to my students is that you don’t necessarily have to play non-diatonically—that is, outside of the scale that suits the given tonality—to create the perceived effect of an outside lick. For instance, let’s say you’re improvising in the key of C major. Even if you never leave the C major scale, you can create a wildly subversive sound by attacking the scale with the simple pattern of wide intervals employed in Ex. 1. Where most guitarists’ first instinct would be to improvise lyrical lines using stepwise, scalar motion, this example uses contrary motion on distant strings to create an extremely out sounding yet brightly diatonic, inside phrase. (The lick, of course, also works perfectly over Am, the relative minor of C.) As with all the other examples in this lesson, once you’ve learned the required moves, be sure to also try the phrase in reverse, as well as at a range of tempos.

Chromatic Assault

Another simple way to get outside sounds is through unbridled use of the chromatic scale—in other words, freely tagging any or every note on the fretboard, regardless of what key you are in. Using two strings and a chromatic pattern that employs ascending and descending slides, Ex. 2 is a sonic war machine. It's powered by an aggressive fretboard pattern that suggests the more strident and volcanic riffs of Vernon Reid, Buckethead, or Steve Lukather.

The Big Dipper

Most guitarists know the minor pentatonic scale better than the back of their hands, yet don’t realize how convenient it is for creating refreshingly out phrases. As demonstrated in Ex. 3, if the band is vamping on Am and you move the A minor pentatonic scale up a half-step for the second half of every measure, you imply the Bm7 harmony shown in parentheses. As suggested by the three common pentatonic box patterns printed above the notation staff, this alternating inside/outside sound is created by blazing down eight notes of the first A minor box, shifting up one fret and ascending those same eight scale degrees of the B minor pentatonic box, and repeating the process with each new pentatonic box. Dipping in and out of dissonance, this riff is a pentatonic rollercoaster ride.

Half/Whole Helter Skelter

In a sense, Ex. 4, much like the major-scale riff that opened this lesson, utilizes string skipping, a simple pattern, and is fully diatonic. This time, however, it’s only diatonic to a very mysterious sounding group of notes—the A diminished (or "half/whole") scale. Try this riff the next time you’re vamping over A7, and you’ll be sure to attract attention as you spray the background harmony with #9s, #11s, and other stinging chord extensions. For a meatier sound, try double-stop approaches to this scale, such as the one in Ex. 5.

Kaleidoscopic Patterns

Taking inspiration from the late, great jazz maestro and GP columnist Howard Roberts, Ex. 6 proves that a fun, easy way to create outside sounds on the guitar is simply to play geometrical patterns on the fretboard. This lick, with its columns of ascending fourths, uses a visually predictable pattern to create an unpredictable melody. It generates one of an infinite number of new sounds you can create by simply visualizing a fretboard pattern and then playing it.

Supreme Horn Licks

Perhaps no musician made outside notes sound more in than John Coltrane. That’s because there was always both passion and concept behind every pitch that poured forth from his horn. One thing the legendary reedman was known for was superimposing various triads over a static background key, as in Ex. 7. Here, to stunning aural effect, a succession of major triads (G, E, C, and A)—each of which is a minor third lower in overall pitch than the previous—is projected against the background A7 vamp.

Whole-Tone Heaven

Don’t forget to check out the whole-tone scale when you’re looking for new melodic colors. One fingering for the scale is presented above the notation staff in Ex. 8. As if the enigmatic scale didn’t sound out enough already, here, as we ascend the scale, we’ve applied octave displacement—where some scale tones have been bumped up an octave—to heighten the notes’ already ethereal quality. Ex. 9 offers a two-string whole-tone pattern that’s fun to play fast.

Did Mean to Impose

Another fun demonstration of superimposition is Ex. 10. Here, alternating Aadd9 and Ebadd9 arpeggios are stamped onto an ordinary background harmony of A major. Building half of the riff’s add9 arpeggios on the key’s tritone, E—the so-called "devil’s interval"—we add a dangerous and dissonant melodic intrigue to the otherwise happy sounding passage.

Sweeping Success

For some rising triplets that tap into the innate power of a B5 groove, give Ex. 11 a spin. If blazing speed appeals to you, know that this lick can be executed quickly by playing the first two pitches in each triplet with a nimble downward sweep of the pick.

12-Tone Rows

Few if any licks sound more modern and atonal than 12-tone melodies—one of which is presented in the first measure of our final phrase, appropriately numbered Ex. 12. But Austrian-born composers Arnold Schoenberg and Josef Matthias Hauer were pioneering angular 12-tone music as early as 1919. The concept behind this genre of composition is simple: Arrange all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in whatever sequence you like in a row in which—unlike tonal music—no group of notes predominates. The way you eliminate tonal and modal focus is simply to ensure that no pitch recurs until all of the other 11 have been played. This idea is easy in theory, but tricky to put into practice on the fretboard.

Outward Bound

Now that you’ve tackled all the riffs in this lesson, realize that each example herein is merely a musical springboard. Once a given technique has launched you in a new musical direction, experiment with anything that can alter your melodic and timbral trajectory for further outside adventures. This can mean tweaking the tempo, changing the melodic direction, employing dynamics, engaging effects, accenting select notes while ghosting others, changing the time signature or rhythmic groupings, or transposing the phrase up or down in pitch. Each example has been presented with no key signature (i.e. in the key of C) because, although chord symbols are provided for every example, they are to be treated only as possible harmonies the rhythm section might play behind the written lick. (Don’t forget that often the quickest way to make a lick sound out is to simply modify or substitute the chords that accompany it.) And finally, be sure to innovate. Take inspiration from these techniques and invent some of your own outside approaches, because if everyone started playing these rad riffs, they would lose their rebel sound.