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Notes between notes

Ultimately, you want to feel totally free to do anything you want when you’re improvising. The old advice, “Learn your scales, then forget them”, implies that the scales, while important organizing structures, can become constraining if relied on too heavily.

So check out the notes between the notes in the scale. That’s where you’ll find the resources to control tension at a much higher level.

A sense of freedom starts developing when you realize that there are no mistakes that you can’t fix. This essentially means that there are no mistakes, just your story about what you’re playing. Those notes outside the scale aren’t mistakes, they’re opportunities.


“Mistakes” that concern note choice just means that you put your finger somewhere that you didn’t mean to, which feels like a mistake. Most people’s stories about mistakes is that they’re bad. This story can short circuit your ability to actually hear what you played, and instead of playing through that note to the next one, you fumble.  

And that’s the mistake.

Always keep playing, searching for the note (often a chord tone) that resolves the interesting tension you’ve unintentionally set up.

If you signal that you did something you didn’t want to do by making a face, or by some weird body language, then you transfer your story about screwing up to whoever is listening to you. That just makes them uncomfortable. And making a face is time you’ve wasted that you could have used to play something really interesting.

The fix

It’s easy to fix notes that you don’t like. If the note sounds really dissonant, it almost always means that it’s a half-step away from a chord tone. Just slide up or down a fret. In every case, you will have played a phrase you never would have thought to play. In many cases, it will be better than what you were thinking of playing. If you let the note you didn’t intend to play destroy your focus, you won’t see that. Don’t lose focus. Keep playing. Resolve the note.

This is not heart surgery. Nobody will get hurt. It’s your job to take chances, to risk looking stupid. Doing that makes it a lot more fun.

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