January 7th, 2016

How to Play Outside Like a Pro: 4 Techniques That’ll Make the ‘Wrong’ Notes Sound Right

By Eric


You’ve heard solos with wrong notes…

Unfortunate note choices that make you cringe, questionable scales that clash with the chords, and licks that sound forced and unnatural.

But I’m guessing you’ve also heard players that can make any note sound good over any chord, as if they can simply improvise whatever they want.

Here’s the interesting thing…

Those notes that sound like mistakes in one player are often the same exact notes that another player will use to get cheers from an admiring audience.

So what’s the secret? Why do some soloists sound hip when they play outside while others are stuck landing on wrong notes?

The answer goes back to the way you approach these “outside” notes and the process is simpler than you might think. Let me explain…

It all starts with your definition of wrong…

What exactly is a wrong note?

Theory books and music instructors will tell you that there are certain notes to avoid or treat as passing tones if you want your solos to sound good…

The 4th on Major 7 chords, the #11, the b9, the Major 7 on V7 chords…

However, if you take a quick listen to some of the great compositions and improvisers of our time you’ll hear that these rules were broken over and over again.

For some musicians these wrong notes led to new harmonic possibilities that transformed their musical approach.

“They may be the wrong notes for her, but they are the right notes for me!” ~ Igor Stravinsky, responding to a neighbor’s complaint of wrong notes as he composed The Rite of Spring at the piano.

This is because the idea of a wrong note is relative. What you think is a ‘wrong note’ is not a wrong note for another person. It depends on your cultural background, your musical experience, and the sophistication of your ears.

Art Tatum

Instead of thinking of right and wrong notes or scales, masterful improvisers approach harmony like a painter would her palette.

Each chord is an opportunity to highlight a certain color or create a shade of harmonic dissonance depending on their mood at that moment.

And this is how you should approach harmony too…

After all, it would be a shame if you limited yourself to only major scales and modes for the rest of your musical life!

Change the way you hear, change the way you solo

The path to expanding your harmonic awareness and to improvising beyond the confines of the chord progression starts with your ears.

Just like the “inside notes” of a chord, you can’t utilize outside notes in your solos until you can hear them. And this begins with familiarizing yourself with the unique sound of these notes one at a time.

Each outside note from a b9 to the #11 to has a specific character and flavor. To see what I mean listen to the two examples below and notice how these note choices affect your ear:

Here’s an excerpt from a Miles Davis solo on Four:

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In this solo Miles aims for the #11 on the Major 7 chord, not as a passing note, but as a sound that he is trying to emphasize.

Now check out this clip of Freddie Hubbard soloing on his blues Birdlike:


Over the first four bars of this G blues, he is emphasizing and sustaining a note that is outside of the traditional harmony (b9, b13):

In the hands of Miles and Freddie, these notes aren’t wrong notes, but different harmonic color tones that add interest and tension to some very commonplace chords and progressions.

The reason these notes sound good wasn’t a lucky guess or a music theory calculation, in each case the soloist was hearing the specific color of these outside notes included them in a musical phrase.

Step one is ingraining the unique sound of these outside notes (b9, #9, #11, b13, etc.) in your ear.

Remember if you can’t hear these notes, you won’t be able to improvise with them. Start practicing these sounds by playing the chords and notes at the piano. We’d also highly recommend checking out the Ear Training Method.


In Volume 3 of the method we focus specifically on the upper structures and altered notes of Major, minor, half-diminished, and dominant chords. Here’s a short sample of the #11 on Dominant 7 chord to give you an idea:


Close your eyes and listen to that clip until the #11 is ingrained in your ear.

Next practice singing and playing these outside sounds on your instrument over various chords. You can even use an play-a-long track or loop a section in a recording in the practice room. For example try holding the #11 over each chord of the blues:


Now try to play the b9 over each V7 chord in the blues, or the #9, or b13…

Continue this exercise with various outside notes on Major, minor and dominant chords. These notes may sound wrong at first, but remember that the goal is to transform these notes from a dissonant sound or ‘wrong note’ in your ear to a familiar color that you’ll immediately recognize.

Playing outside: using the wrong notes in the right way

Once you have the sounds of these notes in your ears it’s time to begin applying them to your solos.

And this is where things get interesting…

More important than the notes themselves is the way the soloist approaches each note. Improvising outside of the chord progression has to be approached musically just like any other notes that you play.

The players that sound like they’re hitting wrong notes are landing on these notes by mistake, thinking about scales and theory instead of a musical statement that they’re hearing in their heads.

With this approach, even the ‘inside notes’ of a chord will sound forced and artificial…

For the best improvisers, these outside harmonies are used as a way to create tension and excitement in their established musical approach.

Listen to how Cannonball Adderley begins his solo on The Other Side:

Below we’ll explore 4 musical techniques that you can use to improvise outside of the chord progression like a pro…

1) Develop a Motif

The first way that many improvisers utilize dissonant notes or outside playing is part of a motif – a musical statement or phrase that they develop and vary throughout a solo.

Check out the opening to Kenny Garrett’s solo on Computer G from the album Black Hope:


Over a standard D blues, he develops a five note motif that introduces notes outside of the traditional harmony:

Because we’ve heard the 5 note theme our ear accepts the emphasis of the tritone on the D7 chord. Try starting your next solo with a short motif and develop it by adding notes outside of the harmony.

II) Utilize patterns and shapes

The trumpeter Woody Shaw is often looked to as an example of melodic inventiveness and harmonic freedom. One way he implemented his advanced harmonic knowledge into his solos is through the use of shapes and patterns.

Oftentimes he used intervallic or pentatonic structures that weaved in and out of the chord progression. Listen to the example below from his solo on The Blues Walk:


Over the Bb7 chord he plays a pattern of descending minor 3rds that move up in whole steps:

You hear the ascending structure of the pattern which make those outside notes over a Bb7 (Major 7th, b9, #11, #9) make sense.

Here’s another example of this technique used by Michael Brecker in his solo on Blue Bossa. Notice how he uses the shape of a Major arpeggio to go outside the harmony:


Practice different intervallic patterns and melodic shapes around move them around by half steps. Start with major or minor triads or pentatonic patterns or even scale fragments and apply these to various chords.

III) Make a Melodic statement

The key to sounding great as an improviser is making solid musical statements.

And this is another way that many improvisers are able to introduce outside notes. Take a musical phrase that you’re hearing and play it a major 3rd or even a tritone away from the original key.

Check out how Freddie Hubbard makes a melodic statement in the key of B Major over the first four bars of a blues in G:


These outside notes work because he makes a solid melodic statement with rhythmic confidence. As a result these highly dissonant note choices work within the larger phrase.

IV) Use Chromatic structures

Finally, you can create without adhereing to the harmonic structure of the tune by playing lines constructed with chromaticism.

To see what I mean, check out the lines that Miles plays in the clip below that use close chromatic movement:


The motion and shape of the line is more important than fitting notes into the established harmony…

Take a listen to this chorus of Bb blues from Freddie Hubbard’s solo on Hubtones (Double Take album):


In the practice room, work out lines (ascending and descending) that utilize these close chromatic structures.

Simple techniques lead to complex musical lines

Outside lines and harmonies often sound incredibly complex.

However, the truth is that these lines are developed from simple concepts and a melodic approach that makes any line sound good.

No matter what notes you choose to play in your solos, you must approach them with musicality – Time, rhythm, sound, language and musical phrasing. It’s these aspects that will justify any note that you play in your solo.

An understanding of theory will not make these outside notes sound good – it’s your ears. Start by ingraining the sound of these extended harmonies in your ear through practice or a program like the Ear Training Method.

As you begin to apply these sounds in your solos use the following techniques to make these notes work in a musical context:

  • Motivic development
  • A sequence of patterns and shapes
  • Melodic statements and musical phrasing
  • Close chromatic structures

If you look at how many great improvisers play outside you’ll find that they are starting with these simple ideas and concepts and applying them in musically creative ways.

Now it’s your turn to take these concepts into the practice room. Start with one simple concept and see how far you can take it out!

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