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.
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.