Improvising With Notes Outside The Key

Improvising With Notes Outside The Key

 

When we first learn how to play guitar solos, we’re generally taught to stick to the confines of a specific scale shape. As we progress, we learn how to break out of that initial scale shape and into other shapes all across the fretboard. Yet, no matter how many different places across the guitar we learn to play in the key of A-minor, there is still this somewhat unquestioned conviction that we should never stray from the safety of the key. The notes that are outside of the key and don’t fit into any of the patterns we learned are regarded as forbidden. 

While it remains unclear what exactly happens if we play these forbidden notes, the results are sure to be calamities of horrible dissonance with catastrophic consequences for those guitarists careless enough to play a note not included in our nice, safe scale shapes. Or at least that’s how it really feels sometimes. As guitarists, we spend so much time memorizing patterns devoted to teaching us what notes we can play that the thought of venturing into the notes outside of those patterns can never occur to many players. Yet, soloists of all instruments, including guitar, play notes outside of the given key quite often. Because (and here’s the big secret) when you’re improvising, no notes are off-limits

Sure some notes will blend more smoothly into your lines and any accompaniments than others, but there’s a value to those jarring, dissonant note choices that shouldn’t be dismissed. When you’re improvising, all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are viable options to you. It’s just that some of those options are safer choices than others. To be clear, I’m not trying to say something along the lines of, “There are no rules, so go pick up your guitar, step on all of your distortion pedals, and go bananas!”,  which honestly sounds a little overwhelming. The scale shapes you have put hard work into learning have value, but the notes within them are not the only ones available to you. In this article, we’re going to go over some great ways to get started venturing outside of the scale shapes you know and love. 

Let’s start by reviewing the A-minor scale shape that begins on the 5th fret of the 6th string. This scale shape will be our frame of reference for the concepts discussed moving forward. While the concepts discussed here are applicable (with some needed adjustments) to just about any scale, I prefer starting off with a minor scale. This is partially because the notes we will add to the minor scale be relatively easier on your fingers than most other common scale shapes. However, the primary reason is minor tonalities, which are already a bit darker and more dissonant than their major counterparts, tend to easier to have notes from outside the key blend smoothly. 

If you are unsure how the A-minor scale goes off the top of your head, it is written out below. 



The A-Minor Scale

 

Now, keeping that scale shape, we are going to add some of the most common out-of-key notes for a soloist to play. The first note we’re going to add is a flat-fifth, a note you may recognize from the blues scale. In relation to the root note, the flat-fifth creates an extremely dissonant interval called a tritone. The tritone is the interval at the heart of dominant chords, diminished chords, blues music, heavy metal, and much more of the grimier side of music. In the key of A-minor, the flat-fifth is going to be an Eb, a note which will occur twice within the octave of this scale. Below is tablature of the above A-minor scale, except with the flat fifth added. The result is a scale similar to the previously mentioned blues scale, but containing some notes omitted from a typical blues scale. 

The A-Minor Scale with an added flat-five



Try jamming on the above scale shape. It’s almost like your typical minor scale shape, but the added flat-fifth packs a very distinctive punch, which is what makes it probably the most common non-diatonic (meaning out of the key) note for soloists to use. Once you feel comfortable incorporating the flat-fifth in your playing, try adding the sharp-seventh. The sharp-seventh is a typically major scale degree, but it works well in minor tonalities and is used in the harmonic and melodic minor scales (you can see more about those scales HERE. In the key of A-minor, the sharp-seventh is going to a G#, and, like the Eb, there are going to be two convenient spots to add the G# to our above scale shape. You can see the new addition of the sharp-seven reflected in the tablature below. 


The A-Common Chromatic Minor Scale

 

Now try jamming using the new scale shape above. There isn’t a formal name for this scale since it’s of my own invention, but I like to refer to it as the “common chromatic minor scale”. The common chromatic minor scale contains all of the options of the natural minor scale, but also the flat-fifth of the blues scale and the sharp-seventh of the harmonic minor scale. Because of this, it lets you incorporate the essential notes of the two most common non-diatonic scales into otherwise diatonic solos. The shape above it totally movable, and can be applied to any minor key. Once you feel like you’ve got a hand of the common chromatic minor scale, there is one more non-diatonic note I’d like you to try experimenting with. 

The final note we’re going to add is called a flat-second. The flat-second is only one fret up from the root note, and when compared to the root it creates an interval called a minor second. The minor second is the most jarring, dissonant interval to be found in tonal music. While the flat-second is not used as widely as any of the notes found in the common chromatic minor scale, when used well it makes such a bold statement that it can’t be ignored. In the key of A-minor, the flat-second is a Bb. 

Below is the tab of a scale with the flat-second added onto the common chromatic minor scale (I have yet to come up with a satisfactory name for this one). 


The A-Common Chromatic Minor Scale with an added flat-nine

 

I hope you learned something from this article! If you have any questions, comments, corrections (I have been known to commit the more than occasional type or notation mistake), or requests for future articles like this one, please feel free to reach out to me at benfittsguitar@gmail.com

Ben Fitts is a musician, writer, and instructor at New York City Guitar School. He is the guitarist of the indie rock band War Honey, the author of numerous works including the short story collection My Birth And Other Regrets, and a former NYC Guitar School student himself.

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