The Chromatic Scale On Guitar

A Scale Composed Of 12 Tones

What if I tell you that there exists a scale formed by all the 12 notes in the octave?

Introducing the Chromatic Scale!

Here's an example:

Play the E open low string, and then play one fret at a time up the fretboard. When you reach the 12th fret, you have just executed the E chromatic scale.

E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D# E

12 notes all one half-step apart.

Interactive Fretboard - Chromatic Scale Patterns

The tool below shows you some different ways to finger the chromatic across the entire neck:

Chromatic Scale Fretboard Patterns

This is the C Chromatic scale fretted on one single string, to help you understand its structure.

Chromatic scale on one string

With this pattern, we play 4 frets per string, moving down one fret at each string crossing. Notice that this shifting is not required while crossing the G and B strings, due to the way guitar is tuned.

Chromatic scale four frets guitar pattern

Here we play 5 notes per string. This fingering requires a little shifting of the left hand to reach the 5th note on each string.

Chromatic scale five frets guitar pattern

This pattern was one of the trademarks of Django Reinhardt. It is easier to play because uses open strings, requiring then less fretting.

Chromatic scale open strings guitar pattern

This is an experimental pattern that can be useful in some situations: 3 notes per string. You can avoid using the pinkie but the left hand must shift 2 frets for each string crossing.

Chromatic scale three notes per string guitar pattern

How To Use The Chromatic Scale

It's likely you'll rarely use the whole Chromatic Scale octave to octave, anyway, chromaticism is a powerful tool in improvisation that can add tension and color to your solos.

This allows you using notes that are not part of the diatonic scale associated with the chord you are playing over.

Here are some tips on how to use chromaticism in your solos:

  • Approach Notes: Chromaticism often involves using "approach notes" to target chord tones. These are notes that are a half-step away from a chord tone and are used to create tension and resolve it to the target note. For instance, if you're targeting the 3rd (E) of a C7 chord, you can approach it from either D# or F.
  • Enclosures: Enclosures involve surrounding a target note with chromatic or diatonic notes. For example, if you want to emphasize the 5th (G) of a C7 chord, you can play a G# and an F# before resolving to G, creating tension and release.
  • Passing Tones: Use chromatic passing tones to connect chord tones smoothly. For example, if you're moving from the 3rd (E) to the 5th (G) in a C7 chord, you can insert an F# as a passing tone between E and G.
  • Side-Stepping: Side-stepping is a technique where you momentarily step out of the diatonic scale to add chromaticism. This can be used to create surprise and unpredictability in your solos. For example, you can briefly insert a note that's a half-step above or below a target note.

Popular Songs Using The Chromatic Scale

The most famous tunes that are based on the Chromatic Scale are the Flight of the Bumblebee (here's a cool version by Europe) and La Habanera, from the opera composed by Georges Bizet.

"Flight of the Bumblebee" is known for its rapid, virtuosic passages and use of chromatic scales to depict the furious flight of a bumblebee.

The chromaticism is used to convey the sense of buzzing and rapid motion, making it a technically demanding and exciting piece for solo instruments, particularly the violin.

In "La Habanera" the chromatic scale is used to evoke a sense of sensuality and exoticism.

The chromaticism in the aria contributes to the exotic and alluring atmosphere of the piece, as Carmen, the main character, sings of the unpredictability of love.

An impressive chromatic scale run, octave-to-octave up and down, can be also found in the Capriccio n. 5 by Niccolo Paganini (check this video at 1:02).

The Chromatic Scale - Conclusion

As we have just seen, this scale is quite physically demanding and requires a good technique.

Anyway, it's a great way to improve your speed and agility. For example, the popular 1-2-3-4 exercise is based on this scale.

Make space for these patterns in your daily routine!

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