Twang 101: Chromatic Country Runs
Understand everything you need to know about how to use the "country chromatic scale" and create some of the most finger-busting licks this side of Brent Mason.
• 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.
In Fig. 4, we start on the b7 and end on the root below it. Again, this lick is built for speed. The chromaticism leads from the 5 to b5 to 4, and then to the b3. This is very prevalent in blues licks. When the lick gets down to the low register, it slips back into a country sound with the b3-to-3 move. First play through it as written, then take it to the stratosphere.
This ascending lick (Fig. 5) starts out like an arpeggio and then incorporates some chromatic passing tones to spice it up a little. The chromaticism starts towards the back side of the lick, moving from the 2 up to the 4. Then it descends chromatically in thirds.
Here’s another idea (Fig. 6) that starts out like an arpeggio and blends in some cool chromaticism to really grab your attention. The chromatics occur halfway through the lick, starting on the 2 and going up to the 5 and b7. Next, we descend chromatically from the 5 to really let the listener know you are resolving it here. Then it skips the major 3 and comes from a half-step below up to the major 3 before resolving to the root.
Our next lick in Fig. 7 goes all chromatic at the top and keeps winding back through the same chromatic passing notes in different ways to bend your ears. That b3-to-3 move that resolves to the root at the end brings it all back home. This type of lick sounds like it could be played on a big ol’ flattop in a kick-ass bluegrass group blistering through a fiddle tune at breakneck tempos. That’s the great thing about this approach—chromatic licks translate so well to bluegrass. With all the chromaticism we are incorporating, you could easily play this in a jazz-fusion setting or even if you wanted to take a blues tune into a completely different direction. Imagine the savage power you will wield in a rock context playing a Les Paul through a dimed Marshall half stack. Hearing players like Steve Morse playing bluegrass through a cranked up overdriven amp is what turned me on to country guitar in the first place.
Now, let’s take a progression and weave some of these lines together so they outline the chords. Again, when you lead your lines into the next chord you can really hear the chord changes going by—even without having anyone play rhythm for you. Remember, the most important chord tones land on the first beat of the measure. You can keep either a straight-eighths or 16ths rhythm (depending on how fast your tempo is) and seamlessly weave through the chords. Always be thinking about the chord that is coming up and how you’re going to introduce it within your lines.
Here is an approach in Fig. 8 that you can try that outlines the I, IV, and V chords. This progression, or a few variations of it, is in literally thousands of songs. Learn the notes and fingerings at a slow tempo at first, then gradually speed it up and play it as fast as you can play it cleanly. Don’t try to go faster than you can play it without making mistakes or glitches.
Erik Halbig is currently touring with Thompson Square and has previously performed with Sara Evans, Blackhawk, Tanya Tucker, Wynonna, and many more. Halbig graduated from USC with a degree in Studio/Jazz Guitar and has taught clinics and seminars all over the country. He has had several books published by Alfred and Hal Leonard, and currently resides in Nashville.