In this post I cover two mental models that will help you embrace “wrong” notes when you improvise or solo. These two models are borrowed from two fantastic musicians, bassist Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) and guitarist George Lynch (Dokken).
Imagine being on stage and playing an epic guitar solo. The audience is feeling it, all is going well. It’s time for your big finish. You play an ascending pattern and for your final note you play a note outside the key. A “wrong” note. The note will sound wrong and the audience will grimace thinking what did they just hear? Did the guitar player mess up? What happened?
Being concerned about playing a wrong note when improvising or soloing will hold you back as a player. As you focus on avoiding wrong notes, your playing becomes timid and uninspiring. Your blocked from experiencing the elation of playing freely. But what if you could incorporate these “wrong” notes in your soloing so that they sound “right”? Could you use these notes to help shape your distinct sound?
Victor Wooten’s mental model
Bassist Victor Wooten has a mental model for how to not be afraid of making a “mistake” when playing a “wrong” note. It starts with the foundation of music: 12 notes.
7 of the notes will be in the key we are in. These are the “right” notes. 5 notes will be outside the key, the “wrong” notes. For example in C major, the 7 right notes are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The 5 “wrong” notes are: C#, D#, F#, G#, A#. So even if you guess notes at random when improvising, you’ll land on a right note more than half the time!
Here are the notes laid out on the piano:
In C major, all of the black keys are the “wrong” notes and the white keys are the “right” notes. Furthermore, notice that every black key has a white key on either side.
This is Victor Wooten’s mental model: “You are never more than a half-step away from the `right` note…”.
So even if you do happen to land on one of these wrong notes, the right note is only a half-step away!
Victor’s suggestion is to practice the Chromatic scale when soloing. This will get you comfortable with hearing both the “wrong” and “right” notes and how you can incorporate them in your playing.
The goal here is to not be afraid of making a mistake by playing a wrong note. To not be timid in your playing due to the fear of a mistake.
Victor: “I made a mistake, but I wasn’t afraid of it because I know there is a right note on either side…”
George Lynch’s mental model
Guitarist George Lynch embraces wrong notes as a way to make himself standout from other guitar players.
George: “I start with a Blues or Pentatonic scale. I think how can I make it sound different from everyone else? How can I differentiate myself from the average player and create my own trademark…”
As an example let’s take a look at this George Lynch inspired A major pentatonic lick:
The “right” notes in A major pentatonic are: A, B, C#, E, F#. In this lick we play a D#, a “wrong” note. But the lick resolves to the C#, a “right” note, which to the listener will therefore make all the notes in the lick sound “right”.
George says, “It (the note) may not be musically correct, but it’s outside the box, it will add personality to your playing…”.
George Lynch’s mental model is to take a box shape for a scale (such as a Pentatonic or Blues Scale) and visualize the gray area in that shape. The gray area are the notes outside of the scale/shape, the “wrong” notes.
George: “I see the gray area in shapes and look for alternative places to go. I’ll do it in such a way with a recurring pattern and finish on a note that is in the key you are in. It will sound right…”
As an example here is a G minor Pentatonic scale in the traditional box shape:
The gray dots are the “wrong” notes that are not part of the G Minor Pentatonic scale.
When soloing, incorporate these gray notes into your phrases. Be sure to resolve your phrase on a note that is in the scale (a black dot). Also notice that if you play all the black and gray dots, you are playing the Chromatic scale, just like Victor Wooten suggested to practice.
With this approach your fear of bad notes should diminish. And maybe you’ll eventually be like George and conclude: “I find it difficult to play `bad` notes these days…”