Playing Outside: Lydian Dominant Scale

A common topic among improvising musicians is "outside" or "chromatic" playing and how to develop these skills. This will be the topic of discussion today. Disclaimer: this Tuesday Tip is aimed at more advanced players. We'll cover some advanced ideas, so hang on.

The first place most methods will suggest that you add chromaticism is over the V chord in a ii V I progression by utilizing the altered scale from the root of the V chord.

Here's the breakdown: the altered scale is the 7th mode of the melodic minor scale. This scale gives you the following chord tones: R b9 #9 3 b5 #5 b7

Let's look at an example. How about a ii V I in C...

Dm7 (D dorian) // G7 (G altered) // Cmaj7 (C major)

That's all well and good. However, I've always had a hard time visualizing and thus utilizing the altered scale. Perhaps it's the lack of a perfect 5th from the root. Or maybe I just need to practice it more...

At any rate, I've found a much easier way to get the same outside sound with a much simpler thought/visualization process. We've finally arrived at the heart of this lesson. Here's the hack:

Play a lydian dominant scale a 1/2 step above the resolution chord.

First, we'll need to define the lydian dominant scale. It's the 4th mode of the melodic minor scale. Formula: R 2 3 #4 5 6 b7

It's basically a cross between a lydian scale and a mixolydian scale, with both a #4 (lydian note) and b7 (mixolydian note). Simple!

Let's go back to our example progression.

Dm7 (D dorian) // G7 (Db lydian dominant) // Cmaj7 (C major)

This is a perfect example of a tritone substitution since we're thinking from Db over the G7 chord.

Here's the beautiful part. Notice the root movement of our 3 scales...D Db C. We're simply walking down chromatically. What could be easier to visualize on guitar?!

For the over-achievers, let's take it a step further.

You can apply this same principle in any harmonic scenario, not just over a dominant - tonic movement. In these other cases, you're implying the altered dominant to tonic relationship. A couple examples:

Over a static chord groove: perhaps 8 bars of Am. Mix your usual Am ideas with Bb lydian dominant.

Over any other progression: approach each new chord from the lydian dominant a 1/2 step up. Cmaj7 (C major, B lydian dominant) // Bbmaj7 (Bb lydian, Ab lydian dominant) // Gm9 (G dorian, Eb lydian dominant) // Dm11 (D dorian)

Yes, that last example will sound more like an exercise than actual music. That's ok for now. In fact, you want to create exercises like this so you can really get a grip on this technique and get the sound in your ears.

This Tuesday Tip was a bit more advanced than usual, so let me know if you have any questions or comments.

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