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!



EXERCISE ONE: TRIADIC IDEAS
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.

EXERCISE TWO: INTERVALIC IDEAS
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.

EXERCISE THREE: SUPERIMPOSING CHORD CHANGES
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.

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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.

3 comments:

  1. Hey Sean, thanks for laying that out so succinctly.
    I've got an ox nardo here too but I won't let him play outside until he can count to three-thirty.
    In all fairness to bison, dude you're killing.

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  2. love it forths and fiths sounds great,any chance of some directional tab so as to get going with this stuff.what scale taken from ? other choices,i guess pentatonic is a good place to start,and oh yeh backing track would be great thanks.by the way your site is top notch.
    regards lenny from london.

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  3. Hey Lenny,
    Glad you like that 4ths and 5ths stuff-- me too.

    Pentatonic is a great place to start with this because that scale on guitar stacks very nicely into 4ths and 5ths in a visual way which makes starting with it pretty easy. However, I'm not thinking scale here at all, I'm just thinking in intervallic shapes and letting my ear and eye guide me to where I want things to resolve.

    In a week or so I'll post some lines here in tab and standard notation and get the backing track up also.

    Thanks for checking out the site.

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