Playing Outside the Changes
I get asked by a lot of my students about playing ‘outside’ the chord changes when improvising and in this lesson I thought that I’d examine some approaches I use for this.
This is a big subject and I can only really just give you an introduction here, but I hope that it will at least get you started on what can be a very exciting concept for jazz improvisation.
Playing outside generally refers to playing melodic passages that aren’t within the diatonic scales and arpeggios you might use normally and it produces varying degrees of dissonance against the regular harmony.
To explain further, if you play lines that are ‘at odds’ with the given harmonic structure of a composition, you are in effect then playing outside of the harmony.
A quick word of caution is important here too – you really have to be able to play ‘inside’ the chords first (i.e. using conventional diatonic scales and arpeggios as suggested by the harmony) before you start playing outside of them so please do bear that in mind!
In my experience, to achieve real success with outside playing you need to have structure and purpose to your approach and this can be achieved in several different ways, some of which I’m going examine below.
I should also point out that outside playing also needs to be rhythmically strong, as otherwise you can just sound as though are playing out of key (and not in a good way!)
The first approach I use is sometimes called side-slipping and involves momentarily playing in a key/scale adjacent to the one you are currently improvising within and then returning to the original key/scale. Many improvisers use melody lines that are either a half-step above or below the key/scale that they normally play on the harmony.
Playing Outside with Side-Slipping
The example below demonstrates a side-slipping line built from minor pentatonic scales. A lot of players use pentatonic scales for side-slipping as the intervallic nature of five note pentatonic scales makes them ideal for the purpose.
In the line below, I begin within the A minor pentatonic scale (I’m playing over an Am7 chord) and then side-slip into the Bb min pentatonic scale briefly before returning back to the A min pentatonic scale. The dissonance is obvious here, but it’s quite short lived, so doesn’t make the listener think that I’m completely lost!
When I begin my descending passage in bar two, I side-slip once again, but this time use the Ab minor pentatonic before returning finally to the A min pentatonic to close the line. To hear this line (played on MIDI piano) please refer to the audio clip further down the page.
Using Cycle Patterns to play outside
Another approach to outside playing is to cycle alternative chords against the written harmony. There are a lot of different ways to achieve this, however here’s a method I’ve heard a number of jazz and fusion players use.
The example below shows a sequence of arpeggios and four note motifs played around a cycle very similar to the Giant Steps progression by John Coltrane. Even though some of the notes sound very dissonant against the underlying Amin7 chord, they still work due to the strong harmonic structure that they imply.
Using triads to play outside
Triads are a very powerful tool for outside playing, and in the final example I have used four triads drawn from the D H/W diminished scale: D F Ab B. These triads are then played sequentially against the Am7 chord to create a good deal of dissonance, but with a hopefully clear structure.
I’ve labelled the individual triads on the score so that you can see which ones are which within the line. Btw – the tab fingering is just one way to play this, so feel free to experiment to suit your own playing style.
All the above is really just the tip of the iceberg as regards outside playing, however it should at least whet your appetite to dig in further to this approach. I would highly recommend listening to masters of this style of playing and as a start I would suggest listening to both Michael and Randy Brecker. Both these musicians are masters of outside playing and on guitar, I would recommend John Scofield, Scott Henderson and Mike Stern.
Here is an audio file of the above examples to listen to and below that, a PDF that you can print out to put on your music stand.