The Third Rail

To go to Sugar Hill way up in Heaven…

Or the noble art of electrocuting yourself and living to laugh about it

Jazzers of a certain vintage used to refer to what we mostly now call “avoid notes” as “the third rail”.

It’s a train analogy. The third rail carries the current, so you really don’t want to step on it or you’ll be late for the gig, late for every other gig thereafter – in fact, you’ll just be late, period.

Now if you hold the avoid notes against a chord, they will sort of electrocute you – it will sound wrong. But actually, avoid notes are used in heads and solos all the time. The trick is that you don’t stand there frying on the third rail, you use it as a stepping stone, and that can actually electrify your playing.

It’s usually taught that it’s fine to play these deadly chord-killing notes as long as you don’t do it on strong beats. As with so much in teaching, that’s a simplification, but we’ll run with it for now.

Let’s look at a simple turnaround. We’ll take C A7 Dm7 G7.

The Dm7 doesn’t have an avoid note, but all the others do:
F on C
D on A7
C on G7

Let’s try something. Here’s your task – be as “wrong” as you can. Play a solo over this cycle, over and over again, and make it a point to deliberately land on the avoid notes on the downbeats of each new chord. Then resolve them up or down and carry on. Effectively, you’re making every downbeat a harmonic suspension. Skipping across the third rail.

Perhaps too much of this gives the impression that you’re constantly screwing things up and rescuing yourself. But a bit of this kind of practice can be really helpful. It exposes you to electricity so you learn to respect it and use it properly, and teaches you all kind of interesting strategies to rescue yourself when you accidentally misstep and send potentially lethal doses of current up your leg towards…

And this kind of “suspension from the downbeat” approach can actually sound very good indeed… It’s great to resolve on a chord tone and you should do it often, but working on suspensions like this can lead you onwards to beautiful ways of elongating your solo lines. Delaying the resolution.

So let’s go out and play on the railway tracks, kiddiewinks. Wear your rubber shoes, just in case…

PS If anyone’s seriously inclined to interpret this post as encouragement for children to walk across live lines I suggest you Take The Last Train to Metaphorville, and I’ll be waiting at the station.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, b) Harmony & Comping
3 comments on “The Third Rail
  1. Pete Cook says:

    I’m reminded of the drummer who, sick of being told he was dragging, decided to end it all. He drove onto a railway bridge and threw himself behind a train…. I’m here ’til Thursday folks…

  2. Adam Cole says:

    As always, you’ll only hear it here! Good stuff.

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