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• Understand how chromatics can make your lines more interesting.
• Learn the ins and outs of the “country chromatic scale.”
• Develop phrases that outline the chord changes.
Have you ever tasted red-hot, super-spicy buffalo wings that make your lips feel like they’re on fire? The chromatic licks in this month’s lesson are the guitar equivalent to those sweat-inducing bits of poultry. These are so hot your fingers will feel like they’re on fire when you play them. Listen to guys like Steve Morse, Brent Mason, and Albert Lee play over a super-fast, train-beat groove—it’s mind-blowing. They know how to use chromatic passing notes to fill in the gaps between scale tones to make licks sound like they just don’t end, and that’s what we’ll explore in this lesson.
But first, let’s back up a second. The chromatic scale is simple—it’s all 12 notes that we use in Western music. In our quest to outline the chords we’re playing over, we’ll fudge this chromatic scale a little. We’ll just outline the most important scale tones and leave a few passing tones out that don’t sound as good as the others.
This style is reminiscent of bebop and swing jazz in the sense that you are addressing each chord as it goes by, instead of playing one scale over the entire progression. That said, we need to choose the notes that best outline the chords and make sure these notes fall on important beats in the measure. The most important notes in a dominant 7 tonality are the root, 3, 5 and b7. As you’ll notice, these are all chord tones. In Fig. 1, you can see an example of what I’ll call the “country chromatic scale.” The formula for this scale is 1–2–b3–3–4–#4–5–6–b7.
The lick in Fig. 2 really outlines the 3 by including the chromatic note below it and above it in three octaves. This type of lick lies really well under your fingers, which makes it easier to play at quick tempos. It’s very important to have a handful of licks that can get you through in a pinch when the drummer kicks off a smokin’ fast train beat.
Sometimes it’s fun to take a simple lick and add to it. Fig. 3 is an extension of that lick with a few more chromatic passing tones that outline both the 3 and the 5. Treat all these licks as templates. The purpose here is to show you ways to incorporate chromaticism into your licks. Take these ideas and add to them or invert them. Or take part of the lick and go in a different direction.