Dave Hill Shares the Right Way to Play Wrong Notes

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“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.

Part One

“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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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Part Two

Picking up where we left off and switching to an E7 vamp, Hill uses Ex. 1 to remind us that symmetrical fretboard patterns can also be quick portals to outside harmony. Notice that the E-G# major third on the line’s opening beat is transposed up the neck in minor thirds until an E blues lick (bar 2, beat two) brings us home to the root. And in Ex. 2, Hill expands from volleying major thirds to superimposing complete major triads over a Dm7 back- drop. “The F and G triads give you a clear D Dorian sound,” says Hill. “The E triads later in the lick take us out of the key, and their 3, G#, provides an edgy #11 tension over D minor.”

If a lick sounds good in its home key, can the same idea sound good shifted up a tritone? “If George Benson does it, then you bet!” exclaims Hill. “That’s where I got this next example [Ex. 3]. Notice Ben- son’s use of diatonic substitution by playing a lick based on a Bbmaj7 arpeggio over the Gm7 background. Those two harmonies combine for a Gm9 sound. Then, on beat three of the first bar, he transposes the same lick up to E. The resulting Emaj7 arpeggio creates three strongly dissonant outside notes that certainly are not found in the G Dorian scale: G#, B, and D#. He then repeats the entire process up an octave in the second bar. That diatonic/chromatic back and forth is fun—it creates a sense of swooping in and out of the key.”

As you are learning the lines of Mike Stern—the inspiration behind Ex. 4—and other iconic improvisers, remember who informed their playing. “A lot of jazz and fusion guitarists borrow heavily from the piano and sax vocabulary of everyone from McCoy Tyner to Michael Brecker,” says Hill, offering up Ex. 5. “This final idea really puts it all together. After a chromatic, jazz-influenced blues line in bar 1, a lot of altered tension is being created through the creative use of the C dominant-diminished scale. This scale is also known as the ‘half/whole’ scale, as it consists of entirely of repeating half- and whole-steps [spelled C, Db, Eb, E, F#, G, A, Bb]. It’s an eight-note symmetrical scale that provides many interesting patterns of inside and outside triads. But remember that with all of these concepts, less is more. Don’t overdo it. Any overused technique or gimmick will quickly reveal its limitations.”

Dave Hill teaches Fusion Masters and other courses at Musicians Institute. To hear tracks from his latest solo album, New World (featuring members of the Yellowjackets), visit davehillmusic.com.