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Using Chromatics In Rock Guitar

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This post is part of a series called An In-depth Look at Playing Guitar (Premium).
Dorian Mode Workshop
A Beginner's Guide To The Minor Pentatonic

In this guitar tutorial I'm going to give you an insight into how you can incorporate the Chromatic scale into your playing. Using Chromatic sounding runs can really add interest and a bit of spice to you playing. We'll start by having a look at how the chromatic scale works and then look at the concept of passing notes. If your a fan of rock guitar then this tutorial should help you (ahem).. 'fill in some of the gaps' in your lead work!

The Chromatic Scale

The Chromatic scale contains all twelve notes. That's all the naturals and sharps and flats etc. You may associate the use of this scale with Jazz and Country styles, and even Classical (Flight Of The Bumble Bee being the most famous Chromatic composition) but there's no reason why it can't be use in rock styles too.

Players like Steve Morse (Ex-Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple) have been using Chromatics to great effect for years. In fact Steve Morse is a great player to check out for this kind of thing. The thing about using Chromatic notes is they break up the drudgery of just going up and down a diatonic scale which can get tonally really boring. Passing between notes helps you create more interesting contours and colors that can't be achieved otherwise.

The Chromatic Scale

There are quite a few ways to play the Chromatic scale on a guitar. It's classed along side the Whole Tone and Diminished scales as a symmetrical scale. This means no matter where you play it from the shape is always same.

As you go through the examples you'll notice that pretty much all the Chromatic runs are in Triplets, and there's a good reason for this. Because the Chromatic scale has 12 notes if we play it in 8th triplets (four groups of three = 12) it works out that the scale lasts exactly one bar, the octave landing on the downbeat of the next bar.

Below are two distinct fingerings. The first is the four finger per string shape. This is probably the most common shape and is the basis for the majority of the examples.

Four Fingers Per String

Now with the four finger shape you'll notice the triplet accent (>) in the picking happens on the 1st, 4th, 3rd and 2nd fingers within the bar. Really accenting these notes is very good for right/left hand coordination when it comes to timing. Timing is everything when it comes to this sort of playing!!

The four note per string Chromatic scale (ascending) Key of B

Descending the scale can be done in many ways, the important thing to understand is the shape is always the same, it just depends where you start it from. This shape will be used in some examples later.

Three Fingers Per String

The second approach is the three finger approach. I've included this as it's quite a good way of playing the scale and a great exercise as well. It also feels a lot more natural to accent the first finger in the left hand (every triplet starts with the first finger). Although it contains a lot more positional shifting which needs to be very accurate, it should actually feel easier to play, although it's demanding at higher tempos.

The 3 finger Chromatic approach (ascending) Key of B

When you descend this approach imagine reversing the shape from the high note. 3-2-1 3-2-1 etc.

The Weak Shall Inherit The Passing Tone

For the most part we use Chromatic style runs to pass between two intervals, they may be a tone apart they may be an octave apart, that's up to you. Chromatic passing tones can provide a lot of interest to the listener. They can also sound terrible if you don't get it right!!! The most important part of using the Chromatic scale in your ideas is the concept of Strong and Weak note values.

Let me explain. When using Chromatic passing notes as long as you hit a strong beat (the quarter note is the strongest (RED) as it's the pulse) with a note that is part of a) chord your playing over or b) a note that is part of the key your in you shouldn't have a problem. It's when you hit a strong beat with a weak note that your going to sound out of tune! Saying that, if you play a bad note just play it again but really look like you meant it!! Best advice I ever got!! :)

The Strong-Weak values of a 16th note passage. Red=Strong Yellow=Weak

The 8th note value is the next strongest (ORANGE) and sits some where in the middle. If your playing an 8th note passage it's going to be weak against the quarter note. A good example is a walking bass line. Check this out, a simple I-VI-II-V.

The 8th note value is 'outside' but is leading you, or passing into the note you expect to hear on the quarter note which is the root note for the chord. When you include 16th notes the 8th becomes stronger in value but doesn't mean it can't support outside notes.

The 16th note value is the weakest and is fair game for passing tones. You can use these values for approach notes either a half step below or above.

When all is said and done the most important note is the one you end up on!! The reason why passing tones can be dissonant is the listener is only bothered with the last note you played. The point being they don't get left with the bitter taste of the passing note, only the yummy taste of the in tune note you landed on!!

Example 1

This example demonstrates this concept quite well. I've colored the dots so you can see the Strong-Weak values or the notes. Now this example isn't fully Chromatic but it does the job.

All the 8th note values are scale tones of A Dorian. Each one of these notes for the most part is being approached (on the 16th note values, the weak Yellow ones) from above by a note outside of A Dorian. You'll notice as you listen that your ears really pick up on the notes that reside on the quarter note pulse, all the other notes are just leading you there. Because these notes are all in tune the descending run doesn't sound 'out of tune', sure it sounds kind of Chromatic but your always being rewarded with an inside note on the beat so it's OK.

Example 1

This is essentially what we're after when using Chromatic passing notes and runs. Let's have a look at another simple example.

Connecting The Dots

You can connect any Diatonic scale tones with Chromatic notes as long as you end up on the right one at the right time. In the next set of examples I'm going to link any two notes from an A Dorian scale that are a tone apart (2 Semitones) with a Chromatic passing tone that's outside the scale. When I get to a scale tone that doesn't have this interval between it I'll either start again on the note that I'm on or descend to the next available scale tone that does which will produce some longer Chromatic passages (marked with brackets). The following three example use the '3 Finger Approach' in the way they are played basically down to the three note rhythmic groupings.

Example 2

Here's the descending version. The notes are grouped in threes. They always start on a scale tone and more importantly, end on one! Wherever there's a set of descending Chromatic notes I've put a bracket round them. The run sounds like it's strangely falling but always resolves to an inside note. I've highlighted the actual 'scale tones' and how they relate to the Strong/Weak values.

Example 2a

Here's the ascending version. It's slightly different as in the last half of Bar 2 I start on an outside note for one of the groupings which just extends the Chromaticism. Basically it's the same idea as before but going up.

Example 2b

So let's see how we might use this in context. It uses the same concept as the previous ascending example just with loads of attitude! It has a slightly more outside feel at the start as the timing is offset (notice Bar 1 Beat 3 is an outside note) which gives it a nice climbing sensation! The last bar has a descending Chromatic scale from the Flat 7th to the Root note below! Nice!

Example 2b

Hopefully you can see how a simple diatonic scale can be extended and given a Chromatic feel.

Example 3

Here's another example where scale tones from A Dorian are linked together using Chromatic passing tones. In Bar 1 there are two descending phrases. The first goes from the Root to the Major 6th, the distance between these notes is a Minor 3rd interval (3 Semitones) hence I have a four note Chromatic run. The second goes from the Flat 7th to the Fifth (also an Minor 3rd interval). The last notes of these runs are my target notes (colored in green.)

Bar 2 takes this idea of linking target notes even further. You can see I have an 11 note Chromatic passage starting on F# (Major 6th). The green target notes inside this passage are the ones I'm trying to get to on the quarter note beat. These two notes are part of the A min triad (Min 3rd(G string), Fifth(B String)) so are harmonically very strong. The distance between these notes is a Major 3rd (4 semitones), this means using 16th notes it should take exactly one beat (that's four Chromatic notes) to reach the next target note on beat 3 and then back up another four notes to the next target note on beat 4 etc...

Example 3

The funny thing about the run in Bar 2 is that if you were to loop beats 2 and 3 you would get the start of Flight of the Bumble Bee. You can use this 16th note Chromatic pattern to go between any Major 3rd interval, say (in Dorian) the Major 6th and the 4th, or the Flat 7th and Major 9th.

Falling Lines

Chromatic phrases can also create some really cool falling effects. Here's a few examples.

Example 4

The beginning of this lick has a three note descending pattern at the start. The pattern repeats but moves down one fret at a time before finishing up on a basic kind of rock phrase.

Example 4

This creates a kind of dissonant falling sound that resolves nicely to a more inside lick. This kind of idea can be done descending or ascending and can make for some real tension when approaching a big resolve. You can try it in various places with different starting notes. You'll want to experiment so you can get the the approach vector right so you end up in the right place at the right time. You can also try alternating octaves for a more interesting sound!

Example 5

This lick is a play on the last example. Instead of descending the three notes in a row they are instead trilled to produce a more twirling out of control kind of sound. The lick uses Hammer Ons and Pull Offs to get the fluid sound.

Example 5

Again try this idea ascending as well. Pay attention to the picking. Once your used to it you can use this rhythmic phrase with any three note grouping.

Chromatic Runs

So now let's have a look at some phrases that contain some full Chromatic passages.

Example 6

The thing that you should notice about this phrase is that bars 3 and 4 are very similar to bars 1 and 2 both melodically and rhythmically. Bars 1 and 3 are actually the same but an octave apart. I got to the lower octave by using a full Chromatic run in the last half of bar 2. It starts on the root note (A) and uses 16th note triplets (four groups of three = 12) to get a whole octave run in that ends on the root note an octave below at the start of bar 3.

The Chromatic run adds a bit of spice and interest to the proceedings.

Example 6

It all rounds off in bar 4 by using the same starting phrase of bar two and the same motif as the end of bars 1 and 3. Reusing these ideas gives it a cohesive sound that has musical structure instead of just sounding like a bunch of random licks thrown together. You should try and approach all your improvisations with this in mind. Find a simple idea and see what you can do with it.

Example 7

This example starts off with six descending Chromatic notes from E to B (5th to 9th). The first four are slurred with pull offs before descending down A Dorian. The last half of bar two on the chart is based around a D7 arpeggio which is a very strong chord inside A Dorian.

Bar 3 starts by ascending a blues scale and then into a full octave descending 16th note triplet Chromatic scale in the second half of the bar which provides a bit of drama and excitement to the phrase.

Example 7


Example 8

This example is probably the hardest of the lot as it requires some pretty accurate picking technique. It's so tricky it actually took me about 20 minutes to get it sounding totally clean!!

If your look at the dots you'll see the that the descending chromatic runs are grouped in nine note passages, with each group of nine starting on an 'A min' Pentatonic scale tone. The hard part is accenting the first note in the group, this really helps the run as it really hits on the 'inside' notes.

In the first half of the last bar the run contains some tricky shifts as your forced to play five notes per string. The last half of the bar then enters some strange rhythmic groupings which can be hard to get your head around.

Example 8

This is a pretty extreme example of what can be done with chromatics and would definitely work inside a metal context. Maybe something John Petrucci might do?

The most important thing to understand is to start slow and build up the speed. Really concentrate on the dynamic accents as it will help you with the timing. I was sweating doing the example I can tell you! Full on shred!!! :)


I hope you've enjoyed this little journey into the Chromatic scale. It is obviously just the tip of the iceberg but I hope it gives you some ideas of what you can do with it and hopefully you can come up with loads of ideas of your own.

Don't forget you can do these Chromatic ideas with any scale/mode you like, Major or Minor, Pentatonic or Exotic!

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