Exercises for While You're Out There

A number of people wrote and commented on my outside playing video, asking specifically about my 4ths and 5ths example.

While most of the comments asked for written examples or exercises (a few provided below), some were asking what I was thinking about while playing those intervallic lines.

Intervallic playing, like any kind of outside playing is very different in approach than inside playing. It's a much more "big picture" way of improvising.

For me, it's about creating tension with my lines and chordal ideas but with the idea of resolving that tension at key points, often at the ends of natural phrases in the song, or if you're playing in a more open setting – say vamping on a static harmony – resolving the tension at the end of a 4, 8 or 16-bar phrase.

So, to rephrase, I'm not thinking about playing particular harmonic sounds or implying chord changes or anything, I'm really just playing intervallic shapes, in the case of the video 4ths and 5ths primarily, and moving them around on the neck chromatically. The whole time though, I'm listening for points to resolve my lines (in the video I did it every 4 bars), and that is when I take a harmonic approach and play 4ths and 5ths that are inside to the key that I'm playing over.

Hopefully that makes sense.

Now, on to the examples!

I would first encourage you to play a scale you're comfortable with in 4ths, 5ths and 7ths. Improvising using these types of leaps – and on string instruments a lot of string skipping – will be much easier if you first get used to hearing these intervals in a harmonic situation your comfortable with.

Click image to see larger size. You can download a PDF here.

These first two pages have the Major scale played ascending and descending in 4ths, 5ths and 7ths. Get comfortable with this before moving on to the line exercises below. Also, play these scales harmonically as well, as double stops up the scale.

For line examples, I've provided a few exercises below to get your fingers and ears working together. This is a very different physical approach than scale or arpeggio playing (especially for string instruments). The first two examples employ some mostly 4ths/5ths based sequences, one descending and ascending. The third and fourth exercises employ mostly Minor 7ths/Major 2nds, again both ascending and one descending.

Click image to see larger size. You can download a PDF here.

Finally and most importantly, these are examples, they're not licks to plug in at appropriate moments of wailing. They're a way to get your fingers moving in these kinds of shapes and get your ears used to hearing these types of relationships. This is the reason these lines, though they are sequences, are not strict all the way through. I'm purposely breaking up the pattern in a few of the examples as a stepping stone to get you out of the mindset of just playing straight patterns.

As Hal Crook once said to me about exercises in general, "They're not the shit. They're the shit leading to the shit."

Time Machine

A friend of mine sent this video over a bit ago and it fit nicely with a post I was going to write and film about working on your time, something that most musicians work on or certainly should work on in my experience.

Good timing.

Fixing any problems you have, whether it be sloppiness, bad feel, not being able to swing well, funk well, rock well or whatever well always comes back to your perception of and playing of time. If you don't perceive and feel exactly where the beat is, you're not going to be able to place your notes in the right space. And even more, you're not going to be able backphrase or play on top of the beat either -- at least not as a conscious choice. You'll end up dragging or rushing, which is not the same thing as consciously backphrasing or pushing in order to create tension.

When I was in college, the idea of playing with a metronome to many people seemed like the most school thing you could do-- that's not music, that's academic. It's what classical musicians do, not rock players or jazz players or whatever. In one of the first ensemble classes I had at Berklee, the teacher berated us, rightly, for our crappy time and told us we needed to practice with a metronome.

I remember thinking that was lame because first; I already had good time (right), and second I wanted to learn about more interesting things like hybrids and exotic scales. What I didn't realize was that no one would want to play with me if I couldn't play those hybrids with good feel.

So, for everyone who thinks that playing with a metronome is square, I'll let Metallica make my argument for me.

Check out James Hetfield's monstrous right hand technique in this video, especially when he's in the control room starting at about 0:16 through 1:15. What's that you hear in the background that he's playing with?

A metronome.

Don't take my word for it, Hetfield gives you permission to work on your time.

A la Mode(s) [Part 1 of a series]

I've noticed a lot of confusion on different forums about modes. Players want to know how to use them, but are intimidated when approaching them. Modes have somehow taken on a mythic quality -- kind of like those exotically-named scales Gypsy Minor and Super Locrian-- scales that many musicians would prefer to view from afar.

Fear not. In this introduction to modes, you'll learn what they are, where they come from and seven of the most common ones.

First off, remember when learning anything new about music: there's only 12 notes* -- so how hard can it be?

Simply, a mode is just a name for a scale derived from another scale. Got that? A mode doesn't exist on its own, it exists in relation to a parent scale.

If this is confusing, here's an analogy using fruit: An orange is a scale. Orange slices are a mode. Orange juice, another mode. Orange zest still another. You recognize that the modes of the orange (slices, juice and zest) are different things from each other but that they all come from the same place, the parent scale: an orange.

Modes are that easy.

OK, now that you understand the concept, here it is in practice.

Major Scale Modes
The most commonly referred-to modes, like when people say, "Hey, do you know your modes?" are those derived from the Major scale. I'm sure you've heard or even had some experience with a few of them. Let me fill in the blanks for you using C major as the example.

There are 7 notes in the C major scale so there are 7 modes you can create from the scale. It turns out they all have Greek names, which makes them easier to remember if you're Greek, but seem somewhat exotic if you're not.

Here's the C major scale = C D E F G A B

And here are the modes of the C major scale, notation and TAB below:
Ionian: C D E F G A B (Yes! It's the same as C major - it's still considered a mode.)
Dorian: D E F G A B C (C major scale, starting on D)
Phrygian: E F G A B C D (C major scale, starting on E; and so on for the rest)
Lydian: F G A B C D E
Mixolydian: G A B C D E F
Aeolian: A B C D E F G (also known as Natural Minor)
Locrian: B C D E F G A

Click image for full-size

So, if you know the major scale, it turns out you already know all its modes. You just start the scale from a different note and you're playing a mode. And if you're improvising with these modes, landing on the first note of them on a strong beat or at the end of a phrase will reinforce that you're playing one of the modes and not the Major scale.

Maybe you're wondering, If I'm just playing the Major scale from a different starting note, why doesn't my ear hear it as C major? The reason is we're very susceptible and open to sound by reinforcement. Modal playing requires proper reinforcement of the starting note (in music theory it's called the "one" -- because it's the first note -- or the "tonic"), so that your ear makes the connection that it's a mode you're playing, not the Major scale.

Jump in and play with these! There's three Major-sounding modes (Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian) and four Minor-sounding ones (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian).

A great way to really hear how they work is to use a sequencing program to accompany yourself. Set up a drum loop or metronome and a bass drone pitch of the mode you want to work with. For example, if you want to play around with D Dorian, set up your drum loop, make the bass drone pitch D and then play the C major scale over it, making sure to start on D and emphasizing that pitch on strong beats and phrase beginnings and endings. Suddenly your C major scale sounds like a D minor one.

And if you've ever been afraid of music theory, guess what? I just taught you some. Music theory is simply a way to talk about and better organize sounds. Remember though, music came first, the theory second. Playing your instrument is the best way to experience and express your sound, theory is just a way to talk about it when you're not playing.

Extra Credit
Listen to Miles Davis' record Kind of Blue if you haven't checked it out before, and if you have, check it out again. It's full of modal tunes and playing and additionally is one of the greatest records of all time.

Next up: a video showing you some modal playing and improvising ideas.

* Only 12-notes in Western music. Middle Eastern, Balinese and lots of others have more. Be glad you're not learning things in those traditions.

You're the Top

Happy birthday Cole Porter (119) and Les Paul (95).

It's pretty cool that these guys' music and innovations are still touching and influencing musicians decades after they were first produced. Even more, their contributions have absolutely wound themselves into popular culture so much most people would know of a Cole Porter song or have seen or listened to a Les Paul without even knowing it. That's pretty amazing.

Maybe tonight I'll play "Night and Day" on a Les Paul. Seems only fitting.

Got Plans Tonight? Now You Do

Just a quick note-- Wayne Krantz is playing with Tim LeFebvre and Keith Carlock at the Highline Ballroom in NYC tonight. If you're in the area, go. I'll be there.

All three of these guys are fantastic musicians and play beautifully together. Wayne especially is an unbelievable improviser. I just did a 4 day seminar with him last week and I've been practicing incessantly since then. He has a great method I'll share at some point on this blog.

In the mean time, I've got a lot of gigs over the next few days, one I'm learning a bunch of music for (with a comedian(!)) so my next video on chord-tone soloing is a bit delayed. Real life sometimes gets in the way of writing a blog. Weird.

Anyway, to sum up: go see Wayne tonight. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Do Your Thing

And I'll do mine.

"In the end we can talk for hours but that's the only thing that really matters, like you try to convey something that will reach people at an emotional level. And that's it for me. I don't play for musicians, I don't care about what other musicians think ... I don't play for them, I'm not trying to be accepted by other musicians, like, "Yeah OK this guy is good enough. He's one of us." I'm not one of anything, I'm just doing my thing."

-- Argentine pianist Emillio Solla


I ran across this recently on YouTube and it doesn't require a lot of explanation.

If you've ever played an instrument at any level and been around people better than you, and especially if you've ever sat in on a bandstand you can relate to this.

Bill Cosby is a genius.

Go Play Outside!: How to Start with Outside Improvising

Did your mom ever yell "Go play outside!" when you were a kid? Well, here's your chance to do it all on your own.

Playing outside allows freedom. You don't have to worry about breaking any windows or vases; you're finally free to do what you want.

When you played games as a kid, you had your own internal logic for what was happening. You might have been playing cops and robbers and suddenly a space alien appeared on the scene. It might not have made any sense to a casual observer, but to you and your friends who were just playing in the moment, it flowed seamlessly.

It's the same with music.

We spend all our time learning rules (quick-- what's the chord scale that works over D7alt? trick question: there's more than one), memorizing scales, songs and chord voicings. So it's not unusual for someone when first asked to play outside to just go blank.

How do you deal with no rules and all that freedom? You're so trained to color inside the lines, the very idea of coloring outside of them gives you the sweats.

George Garzone
Even worse is the fear that if you're playing free, you're just bullshitting-- none of your notes or phrases has any meaning. I had a lesson once with the great George Garzone and when I expressed this to him he said, "Who cares? Maybe you could stand to bullshit a little."

So let's bullshit a little.

In a previous post I talked about how to begin playing outside. Like learning anything, it's helpful to check out a master first, study them, and then figure out your angle on it.

As Clark Terry said, "Imitate, assimilate, innovate."

Now that you've checked out Steve Coleman, Ornette Coleman and hopefully lots of others, it's time to start assimilating and innovating. This can be daunting-- where do you start?

In the following video, I demonstrate three ideas to get you going. These three different exercises are great if you're just beginning to play outside, or if you're already familiar with it and are looking for new approaches.

In these exercises I play my ideas over an ostinato in C. This makes it easier to hear the relationship of the notes you're playing to the base harmony. If you're just starting out with this kind of thing and I had you practicing these ideas over a song with a lot of chord changes like "All the Things You Are," you'd probably lose your sense of where you were pretty quickly. These exercises are designed to develop your ear and your phrasing, and keep you focused on the task at hand, not at keeping track of chord changes.

And as I've said before, there's always time to make things more complicated. When you start to get comfortable with this material, go ahead and try employing it over a blues or a standard.

Finally, it's helpful if you practice these ideas as I demonstrate in the video-- alternating between playing 4 bars outside and 4 bars inside. The idea is to create tension with your out lines and then to resolve that tension with inside lines. Again, this develops your ear and your phrasing, both of which separate good players from great players.

Let's get to the video!

The first example is playing outside lines based on triads. For this exercise I chose the triads a major third above and below the home key of C-- Ab and E major.

Not only is this a good way to practice soloing with triadic ideas, but specifically these triads are great if you're just getting your ear acclimated to outside sounds. That's because those two triads share common tones with C major. Check it out:

C major = C E G
Ab major = Ab C Eb
E major = E G# B

A side note: if you stack all those notes together you have the really interesting and beautiful augmented scale. But that's another lesson.

So, the C major triad has the notes C and E in common with with the Ab and E major triads. Additionally, the B in the E major triad is the major 7 in a Cmajor7 chord so there's another inside note. How about the outside notes? Ab and G# are the same pitch and function as a #5 over a C major triad (making the triad augmented) and the Eb of the Ab major triad functions as a minor third or #9 over the C major triad.

If you've ever played any altered Dominant chords, these notes are right out of that sound so your ear probably won't perceive them as mind-bendingly dissonant. But if they do sound that way, congratulations on stretching your ear.

The second exercise breaks out of utilizing traditional harmonic sounds and instead employs intervals as improvisational material. For this particular example, I chose 4ths and 5ths. This is somewhat arbitrary, I could have demonstrated ideas based on 7ths, or 6ths or any combination of intervals, but I wanted to utilize a set of intervals that were relatively easy for most musicians to quickly get under their fingers and secondly sound good in many different contexts.

If you're just starting playing out, ideas like playing lines based on intervals instead of specific scales is a great way to start. 4ths and 5ths are great because you can employ variations on the Pentatonic scale which you probably already know and is absolutely full of these easy to grab intervals, and secondly, the sound of these intervals is "open." You're not declaring one key or another with them for the most part.

McCoy Tyner
When doing this exercise, you're not only practicing playing out, but it's an opportunity to work on your fluidity with playing intervallic lines as well as moving the Pentatonic scale around.

Yet another side note -- the classical composers Hindemith, Stravinsky, Copland among others worked a lot with basing pieces on intervals, 4ths and 5ths especially, as a way to generate new sounds not based on traditional harmony. Coltrane's pianist and monster musician in his own right McCoy Tyner pioneered playing lines and voicings based on 4ths derived from the Pentatonic scale, so you're in good company here.

In this third exercise, I superimpose the chord changes to "Giant Steps" over the C ostinato.

Again, this is somewhat arbitrary. You could superimpose the chord changes to "Fly Me to the Moon" or "Angel Eyes" or whatever over that ostinato. I just chose "Giant Steps" as it's a tune I've been working on for a bit and I believe in combining my goals. I can practice playing outside lines while playing inside those chord changes at the same time. Pretty cool.

This is probably the hardest of the three exercises but here's a number of benefits to it.

It's a great way to focus your mind as you have to keep track of the chord changes to the song you're superimposing with no help, cues or reassurance from the accompaniment, it's all up to you to keep things together.

You also have to look for islands of consonance wherever they appear -- in this case when you hit the ii-V-I in the key of G -- and make the most of them as they're fleeting. These are your moments for resolution of that tension.

And finally, this is a great exercise because you ARE playing chord changes, so your lines have shape and moments of tension and release within them, it just so happens your playing the "wrong" chord changes. But doing so gives your lines their own internal logic. The listener might not recognize that you're playing the chord changes to "Giant Steps" over that C ostinato, but they will recognize that for some reason, your lines have an ebb and flow to them and some shape, they're not just a bunch of random pitches.

I could practice this stuff for hours, and in fact I had to edit the video down as I played each example for a couple minutes each and the length was getting out of hand. I hope you got something out of this and have a chance to practice it. It's a lot of fun.

I owe a debt of gratitude to three masterful teachers and musicians, Hal Crook, George Garzone and Dave Liebman, all of whom I've ripped off to one degree or another in these exercises. Please check them out if you haven't.

Thor VonClemson Shows You How

I give up.

Modal harmony? Pentatonics? Polyharmonic fusion hybrids? Alternate picking licks? Sweep arpeggios? This guy has it all.

Weep at his power.

Happy New Year and looking forward to more in 2010. Best to all of you.