On Outside Playing in Improvisation

There are no wrong notes. Only dissonant resolutions lacking conviction.

First, a bit of clarity on the subject of playing outside.
It’s not a simply throwing chaotic note choices into the mix of “inside” notes.

Playing “outside” refers to an improvisational (and compositional) concept most often used by jazz and jazz fusion musicians. (For the purpose of this article, we will stick with it’s use in improv).

The idea of playing outside simply put, involves moving away from the current melodic or harmonic environment into a series of notes that creates tension, momentarily, by using notes that are in dissonance with that current environment.

The key word in the last sentence is “momentarily”. Why? It’s use is most effectively employed when the improviser creates the tension, but then RESOLVES the tension by returning to the original, or expected harmonic or melodic context. Well, kind of.

You CAN utilize the concept of “resolving” to outside notes as well, which is the idea to which my opening statement refers. This requires that the “resolution” on an outside note be played with utter authority and total conviction, lest you sound lost or uncertain. Landing on intentional, tense resolutions CAN be really effective when used properly.

First……and most importantly, though:

To effectively employ outside concepts, one must first have a firm understanding of playing INSIDE. Be able to cover the harmonic environment within expected and consonant parameters. This is crucial to the effective use of dissonance.

What gives outside playing it’s power, often times, is the fact that the notes used are actually inside a melodic space that simply is not where the current harmony resides, thus creating tension for the listener. And that tension having an actual form, shape, or formula provides a clarity rather than simply imposing chaos with no underlying framework.

So be aware that merely haphazardly playing random note choices isn’t necessarily the most effective use of the outside concept. But rather, it is the careful and deliberate choice of notes, superimposed from an opposing construct.

Those deliberate note choices can be scales, triads, intervals, arpeggios that fall outside the the harmonic surroundings. Now, the cool thing is that those note combinations ARE derived from existing shapes, so they may actually contain notes that are common to the given key. Those common tones then provide a connection between the “inside” chord tones, scales, intervals, and the “outside” ones.

So, to reiterate, it’s vital that an improviser have a good grip on the concepts of INSIDE playing before just throwing a bunch of these concepts around.

However, for this article, I’ll assume that you DO understand and are comfortable with playing inside, covering chord changes, etc…and assuming that you’re ready, here are some ways to experiment with stretching the boundaries of creating tension and resolution in your solos:


One of my approaches to playing outside is greatly based on the use of chromaticism…which I define as half-step movement, applied to ANY musical concept, not JUST using the chromatic scale.

1. Chromaticism applied as approach notes to chord tones

Approaching chord tones from either a half step below or a half step above.

The chord Cmaj7 : C E G B
With approach below: (B) C (Eb) E (Gb) G (Bb) B
With approach above: (C#) C (F) E (G#) G (C) B

You can also approach from:

above/below/then chord tone A/B/CT
for example: if the note G were the chosen chord tone you get, G#, Gb, G

below/above/then chord tone B/A/CT
for example: G being the chosen chord tone you get, Gb, G#, G

other variations: CT/A/B/A/CT (G, G#, Gb, G#, G)

So, just outlining a Cmaj7 chord using this concept, with these variations (and others) allows for some very colorful tension and release as you approach the chord tones: C E G B.

2. Chromaticism applied as half step movement of “like” shapes to “like” shapes.

Take an Am triad A C E ( ascending or descending ), and look for when the shape appears throughout a chord scale and as it applies to Am as an upper extension, Amin9 (E G B).

In the key of C major:
A C E is an Amin triad in the key, but the SHAPE also appears as the upper extension E G B, of the A minor 9 chord: A C E G B.

Realizing this, you can move chromatically in half steps from the A C E up or down, using the same SHAPE, toward the E G B extension. It creates a chromatic descent (or ascent) of minor triads, until it reappears as the related extension.

A C E (Amin), Ab Cb Eb (Abmin), G Bb D (Gmin), Gb Bbb Db (Gbmin), F Ab C (Fmin), E G B (Amin9 extension)

This can be applied to any triadic shape in this fashion, as well as four note, tetra chord shapes or motivic cells based on those same triads.

E C B A (Amin-5 b3 2 R), Eb B Bb Ab (Abmin-5 b3 2 R),
D Bb A G (Gmin-5 b3 2 R), Db A Ab Gb (Gbmin-5 b3 2 R) etc…

Extrapolate this idea out to other “like” triads, arpeggios, motivic cells of similar shape or contour.

ALSO: merge the idea of approaching from above and below, using the entire triad.
Amin> Bbmin>Amin>Abmin…etc

3. Chromaticism as applied to intervals.

The same application works with intervals as it does with triads.

Look for “like” intervals with key and move between them chromatically with the same interval. Minor third to minor third. Major third to major third. Any interval.

Find where they appear and reappear and ascend or descend chromatically from and to.

Amin: the B to D is the 9 to 11. It’s an interval of a minor 3rd. The minor 3rd interval appears again as A to C, the R to b3.
Move it chromatically descending as B D>Bb Db>A C

As with any of these applications, extrapolate from them that you can apply them to any other combination within this concept. 2nds, 4ths, etc…

4. Chromaticism as it applies to passing tones within a scale, either standard diatonic modal, symmetrical scales, etc.

This is filling in the whole step gaps within a scale with passing tones.

For instance, a C major scale: C D E F G A B C

Simply filling in EVERY gap ends with a chromatic scale, which is NOT the strongest application, rather, fill in specific gaps, leaving a PART of the diatonic in tact, as such: C D D#E F G G# A B

This way, you don’t lose the strength of the sound of the scale with a blanket use of chromaticism.

You can extrapolate from this example that it can be applied in a similar fashion to all modes, symmetrical scales, other modal systems like melodic minor, etc.

5. Chromaticism as it applies to side stepping, or the half step raising or lowering of an entire modality, motif, cell, scale system, triad, interval, etc…within a single phrase.

This is used when, say you are improvising in A minor pentatonic and temporarily step up to Bb minor pentatonic and resolve back to A minor pentatonic.

Or step down to Ab minor pentatonic, and back up to A minor pentatonic.

You can launch a modal line beginning in D Dorian, step up to D# Dorian and back.

And so on…extrapolate from these examples, the application to other scales, modal systems, etc.


Superimposing tonalities:

For instance:
A minor vamp>>Eb major triad and supporting framework.
Bb major triad and supporting framework.

This imposes tension that brings color to the moment, not expected.

Experiment with a static root and playing different triads, not in the expected key or related framework to discover other interesting sounds.

Superimposing parallel modalities:

You’re in A minor with a Dorian modal context? Then shift between A Dorian, A Lydian, A Locrian, etc…..experiment with shifting back and forth like this with every kind of modal context and the original context, keeping the root the same.

Now for the opening statement…

As I stated previously: no wrong notes, only dissonant resolutions lacking conviction.

First, a short story.

Back in my younger years, I quit playing guitar for a year to immerse myself in studying orchestral composition. At some point, I realized that I wanted to return to guitar. I considered the likelihood that I would be rusty and may be hitting some “wrong notes”, because of lack of practice. That led me to an interesting process.


I proceeded to explore “wrong notes”. In every possible context, I intentionally landed on notes that would normally induce a sour face or grimace from myself, or the listener. (a b9 over a Maj7 chord, etc).

I then proceeded to look for “justifications” for any note over any harmonic environment. I looked for scales that COULD be launched from those “wrong notes”. I looked for chords I could justifiably super impose, using the “wrong notes” as springboards.

In this, I discovered a great many possibilities that I’d likely not have found, had I simply ALWAYS viewed those notes as sour ones, or mistakes. I began to then follow the path of seeking out intentionally resolving on “out” notes, leaving them as they were, landing on them with conviction, rather than as if I’d touched a hot stove.

With THAT approach, I left it up to the LISTENER to fill in the rest of what might have come after that note.

With the idea of hitting those notes with intensity, or conviction, I began to consider that ANY note, or series of notes, CAN work, if played with zero uncertainty, with complete assuredness.


As it sounds.

In a given harmonic context, tension can be effectively created by superimposing harmonic movement over the top of that environment.

For example, over an A minor chord, one can imply an altered V chord (E7alt) sound from a variety of angles. Depending on the altered context, you can draw from E half whole diminished; E Super Locrian, etc.

Another example is over a static vamp, to cycle through a chord cycle, implying a iii vi ii V; a chord cycle moving in 4ths or 5ths; cycle through dominant chords in minor thirds. Over a Dominant tonality, implying a iv min/maj7 chord has a great, colorful effect. Example: over A7, superimpose a D min/maj7 sound (D melodic minor).

Something else to consider. I often joke that if you venture out, if you end your phrase with a blues cliché, then that’s your way of asking forgiveness, and the listener will stay with you. LOL!

And seriously, if you treat EVERY NOTE as a part of a melody, if you phrase the notes as such, no matter how much you stretch the boundaries, it will have a more pleasing sound and will be more palatable.


Lots to digest, I know. However, it’s worth the effort to seek out more possibilities for expressing your own unique language in the art of improvisation.

Finally…all of this is about tension and resolution….you start somewhere familiar, stretch it out, and spring back into place.

In everything…play with CONVICTION….if you are taking chances that YOU don’t back up with authority, then the listener will think you are nuts, and tune you out….if you launch EVERY idea with an attitude of complete control, you will convince the listener as well as yourself.

Improvisers who mastered outside playing that you should listen to, obsessively:
John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth, Scott Henderson, David Liebman, Richie Beirach. All reputable jazz and fusion improvisers are well-versed in this concept, but those are a few who impacted MY approach, through the years.

If you think that I may be helpful to you through private instruction, feel free to contact me here. I teach via the web, locally, and can custom make video lessons as well.


If you have time, check out my latest efforts here:

I’ve gone back and re-tracked ALL of my guitar parts on several previously released compositions of mine with the fabulous Carvin HH2, Holdsworth model guitar.

Support by sharing the link everywhere with anyone who might enjoy it!

(Donations are gratefully accepted for the release, as well).



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