Adding Color & Motion With Chromaticism
June 3, 2021

Written by Doug Perkins

I remember a number of years ago being in a since defunct guitar store in the valley of LA called “Guitar, Guitar” trying out a guitar synthesizer playing over a standard or a blues, and when I stopped playing for a second a guy that was standing there watching me asked what he thought was going to be an important question: “What scales are you playing?” I answered him very honestly, but he must have thought that I was being evasive at least at first, when I said “mostly major.”

What I told him after that was that I was just taking the mostly major scales that went over the chords – and yes, I’m sure I was playing a fair amount of Melodic Minor, but that’s just a major scale with a flatted 3rd, and a sprinkling of a few others – but that really what he was hearing was chromatic “non-diatonic” (or: out of the scale) notes added for flavor and to add motion to the scales that he probably already knew.

I’m not going to try to do a whole lesson on this subject in a blog, but here’s the broad overview of what that entails:

The chromatic notes that are notes that are not within the scale – or “non-diatonic” notes – that can be added judiciously to the scale that you are playing within. But what do I mean by “judiciously”? Let’s refer to the great guitar sage Howard Roberts – or “HR” to almost everyone that knew him – when he said “there are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions”.

What he meant is that you can literally play any note provided you resolve it correctly – meaning move it up or down usually a half step to the ear’s expected direction or resolution of dissonance. Sometimes that dissonant note could resolve well in either direction, but most of the time it’s just one way. How do you know which way to go other than your ear telling you?

One pretty much hard and fast rule – and I say that tentatively because especially in music, rules are meant to be stretched or broken, but usually when you are well away of why you are doing it- is that any note a half step above a chord tone is a dissonance that will want to resolve down a half step. You can test this easily by playing the note “F” over a C major chord and experience the tension created within you until you finally resolve it down a half step to E.

But, music with no tension is BORING, and in my opinion, there should be a sort of “bellows like motion” between tension and release constantly to keep things interesting. So here’s some things to try to get into using chromaticism in your soloing:

Think of a chord tone note (a note in the chord you are playing on) as a destination,  and use a chromatic note above or below it to “delay resolution” to that note. There’s no wrong or right way to do it, it’s all preferences, so just give it a try.

Now try this: do the same thing and play the scale tone (the note that’s in the scale) above it, followed by the chromatic note below it (which could also be a scale tone) and then resolve to the chord tone destination. Now maybe try two or more chromatic notes resolving downward to the chord tone destination.

By now, you should be getting what the possibilities are, and are coming up with things you do and don’t like to put into your “bag of licks” for later. Try this as well: after you do a pattern with one chord tone, try the same pattern on the next chord tone up – or even the next scale tone up, repeating up the scale until you decide to resolve it or go to another idea.

So that’s of course a bit overly simplistic and you should definitely look for more instruction on the subject to really get what you’re looking for out of the concepts, but it’s really not mystical or anything that you can’t do with some work.

For more on this subject, check out these great masterclasses:





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