Chromatic Passing Tones

Audio Examples


All Exercises:
Power Tab version
PDF version

Power Tab transcriptions generously provided by Chris Johnstone.

Note: The fingerings at the top of the transcriptions are for the fretting hand. Those at the bottom are for the picking hand: up- and down-strokes (U, D) for the plectrum, and 2, 3 and 4 for the middle, ring and little fingers.

Chromatic Passing Tones [Issue 47]

My style of playing revolves around relative pitch, which is to say I listen to what I'm playing in relation to the music I'm playing along with. In the very early days, I'd be hitting some 'wrong' notes, which really just meant they weren't the ones I intended to hit. But after some experimentation, I realised I was only one fret away from the 'right' note, so I'd simply either slide up or down a half-step. I started to really get into this and soon realised that it was a common technique for jazz and country.

I'd like to present some ideas here to get you started with this approach, as it not only sounds interesting but also allows you to be more fearless while improvising, as not only can you correct 'mistakes', you can capitalise on them.

This technique is sometimes referred to as 'playing outside', which is to say that some of the notes are outside the diatonic scale. These notes are also called 'chromatic passing tones', as they're meant to resolve to a diatonic note, but you may end up hanging on the outside notes more once your ears get tuned in to them. I've included both slow and fast audio versions, as these ideas sound a little less 'out' when played at a quicker tempo. Also, I've included my regular fingerings for the fretting and picking hand, but by all means experiment with your own approach.

Exercise 1 is played over and A7 chord. The opening lick has a ♭3 (minor third) to a major third, which is normal for a blues, but follows that up with a major seven to a ♭7 (minor seven), which really tweaks the ears.

Exercise 1
Exercise One Notation

Exercise 2 is also for an A7 chord and has a couple of ♭5 notes, which, again, is normal for blues lines, but the inclusion of some chromatic slurs (sliding a half-step) gives it a slightly more jazzy sound.

Exercise 2
Exercise Two Notation

Exercise 3 is probably more suited to an Am7 chord but would also work over an A7, as it's common in blues to use minor thirds over major chords. The fact that I never resolve to a major third in this lick makes it more suited to a minor sound.

Exercise 3
Exercise Three Notation

Exercise 4 is really 'out' and, again, is more suited to a minor sound, seeing as no major thirds are ever hit. The opening note is a ♭2, which is about as 'wrong' as you can get, as it's a half-step above the tonic, but it certainly grabs people's attention!

Exercise 4
Exercise Four Notation

Exercise 5 has quite a bit of chromatic playing, which is to say I have three or four half-steps happening consecutively, and it's played over a D7 chord.

Exercise 5
Exercise Five Notation

You'll hear how different the ideas sound when played at different tempos, so I really urge you to experiment with this. If your musical ideas can work both at high and low speeds, you'll have twice as many ideas. Try 'filling in the blanks' between diatonic notes and see which passing tones appeal to your musical sense. In the world of music, you hve the freedom to play whatever you want, so exercise it!