Getting "Out There" Part I: Scale Fragments

Typically, when rockers think about soloing or over chord progressions, they keep fairly well to the diatonic realm – staying tethered to a scale that "fits" the harmonic current of a given song. That's not a bad idea. Generally, playing the "right" notes that fit with the chords of a song will resonate with most people and sound "normal." But sometimes you need to get "out there." In this article, I'm going to discuss one "mindful" strategy for going outside the diatonic sphere in an effort to add color (or chaos) to your lead lines.

One way to get "out there" is by thinking in terms of, not a scale, but, structurally consistent scale fragments taken from multiple keys and threading them together into a chain. The resulting chain would be relatively independent of the underlying harmonic framework of the song. The purpose of this is to develop what I call the sound of "transgressive fluidity" characteristic of art if not commercial music. For more on this see my first Chops From Hell article titled "Disturbing Shred."

If you've spent time learning about tetra-chords, hybrid scales, or pitch axis theory, you know that you can play a lot of non-diatonic notes in your leads. And these approaches do lend themselves to very interesting sounds and are extremely useful. For example, hybrid scales are musical entities built out of different scale materials or unusual scales resulting from the mixing together of two completely different scales. An example of hybrids might be to fuse the Lydian mode (G A B C# D E F# G) with the fourth mode of the Melodic Minor scale, the Lydian Dominant (G A B C# D E F G). The result of this fusion would be a non-standard, eight note Bebop scale: (G A B C# D E F F#). But "pitch axis" theory and hybrid scales are relatively "unilinear" in that note functions are analyzed in relation to an axial pitch or a parent tonal center. This is not quite what I have in mind in this article. We are leaving behind the notion of an axial pitch altogether. The song goes one way and the solo goes another. You are walking without a net.

Scale fragments take you toward a "key of the moment" proposition or "Harmolodics" where independent melodies collide, diverge, or are woven together. Here a soloist can, if so desired, depart completely from the song's tonal center. I know this sounds a bit unconventional but we're going for absolute improvisational freedom here. The tyranny of the Id, if you will.

This was the basic approach in my "song" Jupiter Proximity.

Jupiter Proximity was going for an ambient, frenzied, chaotic feel like racing headlong through space toward some terrible disaster. Instead of just playing some lines from one scale or playing some arpeggios up and down, I aimed at a fluid, braided tapestry of sound by playing through many different scale fragments in different keys that ultimately "landed" or returned to the song's parent key (C minor). Check the notation for an approximation of what my thinking was in the first 26 seconds of Jupiter Proximity.

Here's the logic behind the Jupiter sound encapsulated in just a couple of measures: the first few notes, as I was thinking of them, are taken from the G major scale. The remainder of the first measure comes from the A major scale. I then shifted to notes taken from A major to B major and then on to F# major. So, one way to look at the run of notes is to see them as fragments progressing through time: (| G major, A major | | B major F# major |). Now, in the actual song, the first 26 seconds goes through G major, C major, A major, D major, B major, E major, F# major, and lands in C melodic minor before being followed by a mostly diatonic sequence derived from the C natural minor scale.

You can, however, profit by examining each set of fragments in relation to the underlying C minor tonality of the song if you so desired. Doing so will demonstrate that the approach is not arbitrary.

The shift from G major up a whole step to A major is a classic jazz move. If you examine your "circle of fifths" you'll notice that the distance between G and A, on the wheel, is fairly close…I think of them as related cousins that are basically identical except for two notes. And those differences in accidentals (C# and G# in the case of A major) impart a Lydian Dominant sound to the G which is a scale frequently used by jazz musicians. However, against the underlying C minor tonality of the song, the G and A scale fragments provide sounds from C major and C Lydian b9. Adding the major third interval imparts the sound of the Aeolian major scale (a natural minor scale with a raised third interval). The second measure takes us into the B major scale which imparts, perhaps the easiest way to analyze it, is a truly chromatic sound against C minor. B major played on top of C minor would result in the combination of C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F# and so on. You can carry out this analysis through all the various scale fragments to see how they relate to C minor.

The whole point of this approach to scale fragments is to achieve a very non-linear chromatic sound in a song or part of a solo. Of course you could just play from the C chromatic scale. However, the shift in mental perspective offered by scale fragments, the interval shifts, and the resulting technical angle (see the notation) can give you a sound that is totally chromatic yet does not sound as if you're just racing up and down the neck playing a scale.

The difference, essentially, is that playing from the perspective of the chromatic scale will sound linear. By playing as I did in Jupiter using scale fragments the sound is totally circular and non-linear. I guess it has it's time and place ;-)

Shredders have been long criticized that they just race up and down scales. Many do. However, by breaking musical elements down into smaller entities (fragments) like the first four notes of one scale, or however many different scales, you can avoid that trap. Regardless of whether you find it pleasing, the sound in Jupiter is not that of scales up and down the neck. Instead, as I hear it, it is a wall of structured sound that takes on visual shapes in the mind. Close your eyes and "look" for geometric shapes moving as you listen.

In my next installment I'll cover the idea of "interchanges" and how you can use them to get "out there."

As always, I hope you found this to be interesting and useful. Best of wishes.

Bofatron Sofasaurus plays in the hybrid rock band Tryptophane and is the inspiration for Shred Like Hell a site devoted to avant garde and experimental guitar.