Ask Damian Erskine: Target Notes

Q: Can you suggest any exercises to help me to internalize the notion of targets when playing over chord changes and work them into my playing ?

A: Definitely. Although I’ve never tried to develop an exercise to practice this concept, It’s something I’ve just always done when trying to solo… especially when I feel like I’m floundering a little bit! I’ll try and pick a solid note in a strong place to emphasize and re-orient myself harmonically.

It should be easy enough to invent some exercises, however!

Note: This is an extension of my previous post wherein I mention the idea of coming up with target notes when soloing. The idea of playing along in any way you would but picking specific spots or chord changes and pre-determining (in the moment, not before you play the tune or anything!) where you are going to land on a specific chord, etc…

The first thing we must have grasp of in order to realize this concept is what notes are in any given chord (as well as what non-chord tones could work!). In other words, without a decent grasp of harmony, chords, scales, etc… this idea just doesn’t work. The notes available to you must be available for immediate recall!

There really isn’t time to think too long about this stuff when you’re really playing.

So I’d suggest this as a first step if you’re a little shaky in any of these regards.

  • Pick a standard with some good harmonic movement
  • Try playing a solo only using 1 or 2 specific chord tones. ie: Try playing only the 3rd and 7th of each chord now play only the 3rd and 5th now try it with non-chord tones as well play only the 7th and 9th of each chord now try it with only the 3rd, 7th, and 6th of each chord.
  • Do it musically! Phrase the notes and try and make it sound like you’re really playing music, not an exercise!

Continue doing this in any combination of chord and non-chord tones! You can also take one chorus with just chord tones (1,3,5,7) and then take a 2nd chorus using only NON-chord tones (any appropriate 9, 11, 13s).

After doing this (a LOT) over many different tunes, you will start to become comfortable enough with the chord changes to see with some immediacy what notes are at your disposal (take that phrase with a grain of salt… ALL notes are at your disposal if you know how to use em’!).

Now play freely over a tune but every few bars simply look ahead at what’s coming and decide on exactly HOW you want to land on a certain chord. for example… I may be soloing and the 2nd A section is coming up… a few bars before hand I may think, “I’m going to land on the 9 of that first bar of the next A section and really lay into it”. So I’ll hold that note and give it life with rhythm, bending the note, etc… I’ll really work that 9 of that chord to give the solo a moment to breath, give myself a moment and try and hear where to go next!

How do I know what the 9 will sound like? Because I’ve spent all that other time playing the 9 (and the rest of them) specifically to:
a) know where it is on a given chord and
b) know what it will sound like!

Another thing you could try is to pick a different note to land on every 4 bars. For example…
Solo however you want to playing whatever you want to BUT decide to land on X-note every X-number of bars

ie: I’m going to solo like I solo and free associate… just play

BUT I’m going to:

  • Land on a different chord tone at the beginning of every 4 bar phrase!
  • Start the solo on the root.
  • Solo, solo, solo
  • Next 4 bar phrase, I’ll land on the 3rd
  • Solo, solo, solo
  • 3rd four bar phrase, land on the 5th
  • Solo, solo, solo
  • 4th four bar phrase, land on the 7th

Etc… The key is to restrict your soloing in some way as to get you to think hard about what you’re playing, where and why. That kind of work is VERY helpful!!

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Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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